Thursday, 29 November 2012

Every Translation is Terrible

In the afterthought to the previous post, I had wondered what Google Translate would make of those first six lines of Dante's Inferno, and was impressed.  Imperfect, to be sure, but pretty sound for a freakin' machine.

So I wondered, what would it make of some equally famous lines of poetry, but lines written in a more difficult language, and of a certain inherent difficulty?  The poem that sprang to mind was Rilke's first Duino Elegy, simply because I have been grappling with Rilke, on and off, over the past couple of years.  Here are the first seven lines:
Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel
Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme
einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem
stärkeren Dasein. Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.
Again, an awful lot of people have attempted a translation of these words or, more often, a "version" i.e. a poetic rendering of a literal translation by a German speaker.  Here is my effort at a literal translation:

Who, then, if I were to cry out, would hear me from among the Orders of Angels?  And, even assuming one of them were suddenly to take me to its heart: I would die by its stronger being.  For Beauty is nothing other than the beginning of a terror which we can only just bear, and we admire it so, because it calmly disdains to destroy us.  Each and every angel is terrible.

Here is Google Translate's first attempt:
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
Orders? and self-imposed, it would take
a me suddenly against his heart: I would be his
stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
the beginning of terror we can just barely endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
Again, not bad, but it misses some important points of sense: for example, "gesetzt selbst" (something like "even assuming") becomes "self imposed"*, and  "I would die by/of" is crucially misunderstood as "I would be"**.  It also comes up with the comic "take a me" by mistakenly associating "einer" ("one of them") with "mich" ("me").

It seemed some of this might be to do with the disruption of word order by poetic line breaks, so I fed it a concatenated version without breaks. Curiously the only differences this made was to change "Orders" into "hierarchies" (good), and to change "I would be his stronger existence" into "I would of his stronger existence" (weird):
Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies? and self-imposed, it would take a me suddenly against his heart: I would of his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror we can just barely endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
But definitely a 7 out of 10 for Google Translate, with a red "see me" against lines 2 and 3.

Pre-Raphaelite psycho-angel
(seen yesterday in the V & A Museum)

*A question for native German-speakers out there:  what exactly do you make of "und gesetzt selbst"?  It strikes me as the most difficult bit of the extract to translate, often passed over by translators as simply "even".

** Another: what is the difference, if any, between "vor  etwas vergehen" (the normal, expected preposition), and "von etwas vergehen"?


Unknown said...

Can't help you with the translation, but I love that picture.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Unknown, I was pleased with it when I saw it -- I didn't quite get the "zombie eyes" lined up right in the gloom, but it still works.

I've actually used it again in the next post, too...


Carsten S said...

Hello Mike,

we Germans like to call ourselves the „Land der Dichter und Denker“, but it seems to me that the English speaking world loves their poets much more, at least in terms of actually reading them.

I had read the footnote before the text itself and my first reaction was that „von“ is simply wrong. After reading the poem I have to say that the construction makes sense there, even though it seems strange and I wondered if I understood it correctly. I cannot say how a reader a hundred years ago would have felt about it. What I took it to mean agrees with your translation

The expression „vor etwas vergehen“ is known to me only in cases where the something is some strong feeling of the person, not something exterior. I would think that the most common example is „ich vergehe vor Sehnsucht“. This is quite different from the use in the poem.

I think you get the „gesetzt selbst“ completely right. I am not sure if “suppose” would work better than “assuming̦”. I do not know if this use of „gesetzt“ was common, I only know it in the expression „gesetzt den Fall, dass“.

I am so pleased that I had something to contribute.



Mike C. said...

Many thanks, Carsten, that's exactly what I wanted to hear. It's difficult for a non-native speaker to pick up that sort of nuance -- I can see it's there, but not why or what it's doing there, if you know what I mean.

Poetry is full of this sort of twist on familiar expressions, of course. It's one reason I'm amazed to see Google do it so well! Next stop, Paul Celan, I think... That should put a spanner in the works...

Thanks again,