Monthly Archives: May 2013

Voice, dialect, and the difference seven centuries make

As I thought more about J.M. Synge’s translation of Petrarca’s Sonnet 300 last week, a few things occurred to me that are relevant to an analysis of the translation, but might also be useful to someone presenting this pair of texts to an audience of translation students.

Many translation scholars have observed that our current cultural framework for analyzing translations in the U.S. (and perhaps North American and Western Europe in general) is extremely reductive. Two main priorities seem to stand out: that the text sound “natural” (see Lawrence Venuti on domestication) and that it be “faithful,” a term that has been deconstructed in many ways, from the problematic nature of “meaning” (see W.V.O. Quine) to, for example, feminist readings (see Lori Chamberlain). In teaching translation theory, I’ve found that one of the persistent problems is getting students to expand their definitions of translation and allow for both motivations and strategies that do not lead to readily recognizable forms of either “naturalness” or “faithfulness.”

The translation of Sonnet 300 by Synge is one of the many types of translation that students are often uncomfortable with from both perspectives. The target text is close enough to their own English that they can obviously recognize it as a form of English, but perceive it as non-standard. By contrast, Petrarca’s Italian is not dialectical in the same way; it certainly deviates from modern standard Italian, but the deviation is recognizable mainly as due to the almost seven centuries of linguistic history that have intervened between Petrarca’s writing and our reading. It is thus possible to read Synge’s text as introducing new meanings through the use of non-standard English and thus changing the “meaning” of the source text.

I’d like to offer here a few ways to approach this question.

The first is fundamentally a challenge: why would this not be a translation? and what is so terrible about it anyway? The translation course I teach begins with a destabilization of the notion of language and translation, and includes a number of texts and translations much more radical than this. But many students, although they are willing to accept that the line between translation and adaptation is fuzzy at best are still most comfortable following the dual path of fidelity/fluency in their analysis.

One way to disrupt this sense for them is to draw on the notion of subject positions from social justice movements and the history of the Irish Literary Revival. From our subject position in a classroom in a U.S. university, we have a very different relationship to Hiberno-English from Synge, and it would be remiss of us to ignore that distinction. This is not, of course, to say that we are somehow less legitimate an audience than a turn-of-the-century Irish reader but merely that our reading should be infomed by an awareness of our relative affiliations. The relevant questions then become not why Synge strayed from transparent language, but for whom his language might have been transparent (if we believe that such was his intent) and, perhaps more importantly, why he might have written for both this audience and for an audience for whom the language was not transparent. (Cue discussion of the history of Ireland and the politics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.)

But this raises another problem. Even if we agree that the content of the poem (the semantic meaning of the text) is adequately transferred from Italian into English in Synge’s text, his choice of non-standard English introduces a “new” meaning. Even if students have never considered language choice or dialect or idiolect as affecting meaning before, or as containing their own meanings, and perhaps because they have not done so, many have an instinctive reaction against changing from what they perceive as standard to non-standard or the reverse. Indeed, in some ways it feels more pernicious than simple “errors” in the translation of words. Many of my students are more comfortable dealing with “mistranslation,” whether deliberate or not, because they have the sense that they can trace the words back to the signified objects, and a translational betrayal will be revealed as such in the comparison of objects. A betrayal of tone or of voice is by contrast more insidious in part because it seems less obviously linked to object-based meaning. (I would suggest that this is in part because many students lack the vocabulary to discuss tone or voice in literature in any profound way. One of the benefits of discussing translation is that it provides such vocabulary along with case studies.) Synge’s poem is problematic because it appears to change the tone of the poem, and this change is perceived in the fact that the poem feels very Irish, which students rightly sense is unlikely to have derived from the fourteenth-century Italian source text.

In his article “The Translator’s Voice in Translated Narrative,” Theo Hermans discusses some of the moments when the translator’s voice is distinguishable from that of the author, which is precisely what is happening in Synge’s poem. Hermans discusses some content-based moments of discrepancy (e.g. how one translates a sentence that speaks of its own linguistic characteristics- “This sentence is in English”) as well as discrepancy that arises from text that is so culturally bound that the translation is obviously a translation and the voice clearly the translator’s. Synge’s Irish-inflected English, recognizable through vocabulary, syntax, and grammar, is clearly not that of Petrarca and disrupts the sense of transparency that Venuti rightly criticizes as the unfortunate expectation of contemporary Anglo-American audiences.

This conversation can therefore lead in several directions. Following Venuti, we might explore why audiences expect what they expect of translations and why we are disturbed by deviations. Following Hermans, a discussion of precisely what moments in Synge’s text contribute to the identification of Synge’s voice in contrast to that of Petrarca.

Moving even further back in history, however, we might take issue with the statement that Synge’s translation moves from standard to non-standard language. Returning to the question of subject positions, it is worth noting that at the moment, Italian is a recognized national language with a standard form and dialectical and regional variants, as is English at a different level of magnitude. Petrarca’s Italian is part of the literary heritage of modern standard Italian, and easily recognizable as such. It is tempting to conclude, then, that Petrarca’s use of Italian in the fourteenth century would have the same cultural meaning as the use of modern standard Italian or English today. And yet, even the title of the sonnet cycle belies such a notion. I wrote in my last post that the cycle is usually referred to as the Canzoniere, but that this was not Petrarca’s title for it. Rather, Petrarca referred to it as the Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta, the fragments of things in the vernacular, which is to say Italian. (None of this is news to Italianists, of course).

The significance of this title should not be overlooked. In what context does it make sense to include the information that the pieces of text in a collection are in a particular language? Largely in the cases in which the use of that language was unusual or at least not to be taken for granted. If we keep in mind that such was the context of the writing of Sonnet 300–a literary moment in which writing in Italian was something to be noted as differing from the norm or as a distinct choice–then the shift from Italian to Synge’s English is not so drastic. Indeed, with such a linguistic history in mind, Synge’s choice makes almost more sense than would standard English as the target language.


{Works Cited}

Chamberlain, Lori. 2004. “Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation.” In The Translation Studies Reader. 2nd Ed. Ed. Lawrence Venuti. New York and London: Routledge. 306-21.

Hermans, Theo. 1996. “The Translator’s Voice in Translated Narrative.” Target: International Journal of Translation Studies. 8 (1): 23-48.

Quine, Willard V. O. 1959. “Meaning and Translation”. On Translation. Ed. Reuben A. Brower. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 148-72.

Venuti, Lawrence. 2004. The Translation Studies Reader. 2nd edition. London: Routledge.

Hearing voices

It’s been a ridiculously long time since my last post, with no excuses.

I just had a conversation with a friend about language use and it made me think about how people use language in such particular ways that even if you don’t think of someone as having a strange or specific way of speaking, you can often hear their voice in what they write.

Which in turn made me think about a poem that I’ve recently rediscovered, where admittedly the voice is not necessarily so much personal as cultural and regional. Actually, it’s two poems: Sonnet 300 by Francesco Petrarca and a translation by the Irish writer J.M. Synge.

Petrarca is best known now for his sonnet sequence that is in retrospect referred to as the Canzoniere but which he called the Rerum Vulgarium Fragmenta (literally: Fragments of Vernacular Things). There’s some interesting evidence about how Petrarca conceived of his work, and the trouble that he went to in order to construct it in particular ways, including both rewriting the poems and reordering them (see for example Wayne Storey’s chapter on erasures in one particular manuscript of the text, included in the volume Petrarch and the Textual Origins of Interpretation, edited by Storey and Teodolinda Barolini). At a textual level, the narrative of Petrarca’s Canzoniere focuses on Petrarca’s love for Laura, with poems written both before and after her death (there are many sources that discuss who Laura actually might have been, or whether she was instead a symbol of something else, fame for instance). At the risk of being reductive as well as of providing unnecessary information, I’ll also mention that one of the literary tropes associated with Petrarca is the use of contrasting physical or emotional concepts when discussing love (fire and ice, pleasure and pain).

Sonnet 300 is one of those that speaks of his love after her death, addressing the earth, Heaven, the souls of the dead with whom her soul now lives, and Death. The poet laments his loss, describing his love converted into envy of the ways in which those four entities or groups are able to be close to the woman he loved, while he is not.

J.M. Synge (1871-1909) was one of the writers of the Irish Literary Revival. I actually can’t remember how I came across this particular translation of his; my studies in Irish literature focus on the Middle Ages and I have only a passing familiarity with more modern Irish literature. This poem struck me, though. I imagine I can hear Synge speaking, although I don’t know what he would have sounded like, and I’d guess that this is relatively standard Hiberno-English, and not particularly idiosyncratic.

Here are the two poems: Petrarca’s Italian (with my own rough translation) and Synge’s English.


Sonnet 300

Quanta invidia io ti porto, avara terra,
ch’abbracci quella cui veder m’è tolto
et mi contendi l’aria del bel volto
dove pace trovai d’ogni mia guerra!
Quanta ne porto al ciel, che chiude et serra
et sí cupidamente à in sé raccolto
lo spirto da le belle membra sciolto,
et per altrui sí rado si diserra!
Quanta invidia a quell’anime che ‘n sorte
ànno or sua santa et dolce compagnia
la qual io cercai sempre con tal brama!
Quant’a la dispietata et dura Morte,
ch’avendo spento in lei la vita mia
stassi ne’ suoi begli occhi, et me non chiama!

[How much envy I bear you, greedy earth,
who embrace her whose sight has been taken from me
and who refuse me the look of that lovely face
where I found peace from every struggle of mine!
How much I bear Heaven, which closes and shuts
and so covetously has gathered to itself
the spirit separated from those beautiful limbs,
and who opens so rarely to others!
How much envy of those souls who by fortune
have now her saintly and sweet company,
which I always sought with such desire!
How much of pitiless and harsh Death,
which having extinguished in her my own life
stays in her beautiful eyes and does not call me!]


J.M. Synge
He is jealous of the heavens and the earth

What a grudge I am bearing the earth that has its arms about her, and is holding that face away from me, where I was finding peace from great sadness.
What a grudge I am bearing the Heavens that are after taking her, and shutting her in with greediness, the Heavens that do push their bolt against so many.
What a grudge I am bearing the blessed saints that have got her sweet company, that I am always seeking; and what a grudge I am bearing against Death, that is standing in her two eyes, and will not call me with a word.

(source: J.M. Synge. Poems and Translations. Dublin: Maunsel & Company, 1911, page 34)