Books: Le Ton Beau de Marot
Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, by Douglas Hofstadter, is one of my favorite books of all time. Like many of my favorite books, it's hard to pin down exactly what it's about.
Its Library of Congress Subject Heading is "Translating and interpreting" which seems like a reasonable place to start. More generally, it's about why and how translators — especially poetry translators — make the choices they do.
Robert Frost once said "Poetry is what gets lost in translation." Hofstadter's book might well be considered a tome-length refutation of that statement. Of course you can't convey the exact same sentiments in the exact same way, but isn't making an attempt better than leaving us ignorant of the world's poetry because we lack a native comprehension of all languages? And given the three main aspects of poetry — literal meaning, figurative connotation, and poetic meter — how best to balance them to convey as much of the original as possible?
As a sample text, Hofstadter takes the poem "A une damoyselle malade," by Clément Marot and challenges various people to translate it into English. (This is the same Marot who's mentioned in the title which means, roughly, "The beautiful tone of Marot.") It's a very simple poem, written to a friend's sick daughter to say he hopes she feels better soon. However, it has a very tight rhyming structure and each line is only three syllables long, so it's a challenge to produce any poem under those constraints, let alone one which is a good translation of Marot's original.
The translations that Hofstadter presents play with aspects of this poem in different ways. Some preserve the form perfectly, while changing the meaning quite a bit. Some preserve the meaning of the poem, while loosening up the structure quite a bit. One poet even changes the structure and genre entirely, keeping nothing but the general intent.
Hofstadter also examines other highly structured literary classics, such as Dante's Divine Comedy, and Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (a novel composed entirely in sonnets). There are also some lighthearted moments where Hofstadter wonders why it is that the Germans in American WWII movies speak to each other in English with a German accent. Wouldn't they speak to each other in (accentless) German? So why not have them speak in perfect English? Or in German, with subtitles? He also has some funny stories to tell about arguing with the translators of an earlier book of his, the Pullizer-prize winning Gödel, Escher, Bach. (He's always encouraging the translators to use local, natural-sounding phrases, while they insist on preserving the American English idioms of the original.)
In addition to the linguistic juggling, both serious and lighthearted, there is an undercurrent of profound grief which runs through this book. Hofstadter's wife, Carol, died suddenly of a brain tumor between the first and final drafts. As one reads the book, she flits back and forth between life and death, alive on one page as she contributes her own translation of "A une damoyselle malade," then dead on the next one as Hofstadter muses on their shared life and love of language at her funeral. It's no exaggeration to say that this book made me cry.