The Power of Translation: the Fox and the Grapes

After a bit of a love-in over the Language Lovers competition last time out (don’t forget to vote!), today’s post takes a look at a specific translation example in order to analyse the translator’s role in creating meaning and the potential impact that our decisions can have.

As the title suggests, the text chosen for analysis in this post is the famous fable of ‘The Fox and the Grapes’. First written (or more likely spoken) by Aesop in the 6th Century B.C., the fable has gone on to hold an important place in literary culture across the globe.

The definitive version of the fable as we know it here in England, translated by V.S. Vernon Jones in 1912,  goes like this:

A hungry Fox saw some fine bunches of Grapes hanging from a vine that was trained along a high trellis, and did his best to reach them by jumping as high as he could into the air. But it was all in vain, for they were just out of reach: so he gave up trying, and walked away with an air of dignity and unconcern, remarking, “I thought those Grapes were ripe, but I see now they are quite sour.”

The moral that is most frequently taken from the story these days is that it is easy to take a dislike to something that you cannot have, and we do this in order to rationalise the fact that we do not have it whether or not that feeling is genuine.

Indeed, this moral is made explicit in many of the translations of the text, where authors have added a final remark outlining the fox’s real mental workings. French poet Isaac de Benserade, for example, adopts a thoughtful, moralising tone in his concise version and includes a final quatrain in which the fox admits that the grapes really were ripe but ‘what cannot be had, you speak of badly.’

So dominant is this interpretation of the fable that it is widely held that the English expression ‘sour grapes’ subsequently developed in relation to the usage in this tale. In contemporary English the phrase is used exactly as it is in the fable, referring to the act of pretending not to care for something you want but do not or cannot have.

What interests us from the context of translation, however, is the way in which a specific linguistic choice in the 1912 Vernon Jones translation has gone on to shape our understanding of the fable. As seen above, the grapes are described as ‘sour’ in the final line, yet research into earlier versions suggests that the Greek word employed in the original fables (‘ὄμφαξ’/’omphakes’) actually means ‘unripe’ grapes.

This interpretation is also alluded to in the Roman fabulist Phaedrus’ Latin version of the tale which pronounces: ‘nondum matura es’ [‘you are not ripe yet’], echoing the Greek original.

While initially appearing to be a minor change, upon closer inspection the use of the word ‘sour’ in fact alters the entire complexion of the story. In moving from ‘unripe’ (and therefore bad tasting as a result of this lack of maturity) to simply ‘sour’, we pass from a potential hint at patience and understanding on the part of the fox – he would perhaps return later at a more opportune moment when the grapes are ripe – to the disdainful, envious connotations that we have come to associate with the fable.

However, rather than being a mere slip on the part of the translator, this move represents a calculated choice that was designed to reflect the needs and the dominant ideology of the society into which the text was being translated. Beyond the aesthetic appeal that ‘sour grapes’ holds over the more clumsy ‘unripe grapes’, the term ‘unripe’ would have also contained the sexual connotation of an as-yet unripe woman, something that the author clearly sought to avoid in making his interpretation acceptable to the ultra-prudish audience of an approximately Victorian-era England.

The Greek phrasing not only contains this ambiguity – with the phrase having both the literal meaning of an unripe grape and the metaphorical usage of a girl not yet ripe for marriage – but is likely to have contained these sexual undertones as a fully intentional strand of meaning, with the original text existing in an age where advice against such actions would have perhaps had more pertinence. Given this centrality, the English author’s choice represents a clear attempt to sidestep what he deemed as an inappropriate interpretation.

In the canonical French translation of the fable by Jean de La Fontaine, meanwhile, which predates the English version by a considerable margin (it was first published in 1668) and was thus produced for both a different era and culture having its own different social standards and taboos, the rendering remains closer to the original version than the English does and leaves a greater amount of interpretive potential intact.

In rendering sour/unripe, La Fontaine used the phrase ‘ils sont trop verts’ [lit: ‘they are too green’ – ‘unripe’], and left ample room for interpretation.

Ultimately, in this specific context the example serves to demonstrate the power that translation wields in shaping meaning and exposes the way in which language use can be exploited to fulfil our own ideological wishes. More worryingly, perhaps, it demonstrates the extent to which we are often completely powerless to detect these changes: if we do not understand the language of the original then we are left at the mercy of the translator and take their rendering as the authoritative version.

Despite its continued relevance, the Vernon Jones version undeniably closes off several passages of meaning contained within the original while simultaneously opening up other channels which, while misrepresenting the source text, have nevertheless gone on to deeply ingrain themselves within English language and culture.

The power that the translator holds here is extraordinary: books, songs and films have subsequently emerged based on interpretations that developed from one man’s personal, culturally-bound take on an ancient text and the selection of one little word – ‘sour’.

When a third language complicates the translation process: A look at L3 from Tolstoy to trays.

Translation is considered as the transferral of meaning from one language to another, and the entire foundation of translation theory revolves around binary oppositions e.g. free vs literal translation, dynamic vs formal equivalence, source text and target text.

And yet there are many situations (primarily in literary and audiovisual translation) that see the introduction of a third language, which serves to complicate the translation process. Many modern French novels, for example, are rife with English words, and these are not decisions made on a whim but rather conscious decisions taken by the author to produce a specific effect, and therefore the manner in which they are translated must be considered at length.

David Bellos calls this phenomenon L3 (with the other two languages representing L1 and L2) and, while a similar process in linguistics is often called code-switching, I like L3 as code-switching tends to be a more general term which can even refer to changes in register within one language. This is an area I touched upon in a previous post (How to solve a problem like Peter) and an interesting subject that I want to further elaborate with a few examples.

One commonly cited example in the discussion of L3 (including in Bellos’ book Is that a fish in your ear?) is that of Tolstoy’s War and Peace – a literary buff’s favourite – commenting upon the use of French in the Russian original. It is estimated that 2 percent of the entire book is in French, and it is used in order to reflect the character’s personalities, as Russian aristocrats at the time would speak French at social occasions as a class marker.

In order for this act of characterisation to be recognised, however, the author is relying upon the audience’s appreciation of this cultural trait and ideally an understanding of the French language, and the fact that Tolstoy himself toyed with various methods – producing Russian translations of all French in footnotes in some versions while removing the French completely in others – is indicative of the difficulty of including another language in a text without even considering the challenges posed when translating.

The task of the French translator of this work is both impossible and easy in that there is very little they can do: translating the French sections back into Russian, for example, would be completely counter-productive and as such they must resign themselves to the bizarre reality of losing a significant element of meaning while keeping the original perfectly intact.

The English translator, on the other hand, has a little more space to work with as several courses of action are available. The familiarity of high-brow English readers with the French language, and the similar usage of French by the British aristocracy as a class marker, allows the possibility of retaining the French and, while most translators still cut the French from the English version to allow an easier read, Pevear and Volokhonsky did indeed choose to retain the French (with translations in footnotes) and their bold decision results in a stronger translation.

The next example highlighting this phenomenon is in quite stark contrast to the one above, coming from a classic British comedy which has managed to cross European borders and one that exploits the use of L3 as a source of great humour.

The series in question is ‘Fawlty Towers’ (or ‘L’Hôtel en folie’ [The Crazy Hotel] to French viewers), and the relationship between it’s owner Basil and Spanish waiter Manuel is the point of interest, with linguistic puns and misunderstandings – all built around traditional stereotypes – presenting an extremely difficult challenge for the translator.

The video above comes from the very first episode of the series and epitomises this type of humour. The confusion caused by combining Basil’s broken Spanish and Manuel’s virtually non-existent English is as funny as it is hard to translate – with the confusion between ‘on those trays’ and ‘uno, dos, tres’ providing the most obvious challenge.

The French subtitles to this scene succeed in retaining some of the misunderstanding between the characters but fail to reproduce the original joke (which would be some feat). Basil states ‘il y a trop de beurre. Ils sont à l’étroit.’ (there is too much butter. They [the trays] are cramped), Manuel then mishears this second sentence and repeats it as ‘ils sont là, les trois.’ (they are there, the three) – with the two sentences sounding similar in French – and proceeds to count them in Spanish. A decent attempt, yet one which misses the mark slightly for me. (Saying that, I can’t think of anything better… Anyone?)

It is also very interesting to note how the character of Manuel was transformed in versions across Europe in order to adhere to national stereotypes. He couldn’t very well still be Spanish in the Spanish version of the show given how poorly he is treated and as such he became the Italian Paolo (or Manuela in Basque regions) while in France and Catalonia – where the national stereotype of Spanish workers does not match the English portrayal given here – he becomes a Mexican Manuel.

So there you have it: it is hard enough to negotiate a transfer of meaning between two languages and, as these two examples show, when there is an L3 (or worse still, an L4, 5, or 6) to contend with, it complicates matters even further. Until next time.

The Magic of Translation

After recently posting on issues that don’t relate directly to translation in the traditional sense, I wanted to try to write something firmly on topic while still being accessible and targeting popular culture.The area of discussion in this post is literary translation which, while evading the majority of professional freelance translators, is still a huge part of the profession.

While much of the current focus in Translation Studies hinges on the acceptability of the prevailing strategy when working with literary texts which, due to a prioritisation of commercial interests, is to ‘domesticate’ the foreign text – to make the text read fluently so as not to pose difficulties to the reader and, ultimately, to give the impression that what you are reading is not a translation (one great metaphor I’ve come across likens translation to contraception in the way that the less it is noticed, the better it seems!) – I wanted to look at a quick example to try and simply demonstrate the extent of creative re-writing involved in literary translation in order to offer a small indication of the challenges posed by attempts to transfer meaning.

And what better example to use than the biggest of the big bestsellers: the Harry Potter series.

This series of books poses a huge range of translational obstacles and the overall aim of the translations is to try to reach the foreign audience with as much as possible of the many levels of meaning still in tact.

Features of the original such as the creation of new words, the repeated use of rhymes, anagrams, acronyms and cleverly formed names are just a few examples of such challenges and, by taking a few examples of wordplay and showing how they were dealt with, hopefully the strength of the translations – which ensured that the series became a global bestseller – will be clear.

As briefly mentioned above, names in the book often contain small plays on words and descriptions of the very character they name, with the example of Mad-Eye Moody being one prominent case in point. The French translation as Fol-Oeil Maugrey (with ‘maugréer’ meaning to grumble) manages to replicate much of the sound of the original while also maintaining this semi-hidden characterisation. Similarly, Madame Pomfrey (sounding like ‘frais’ meaning ‘fresh’) is neatly translated as Pomfresh in the French. Further still, the Sorting Hat of the original is cleverly renamed as La Choixpeau Magique (cleverly linking ‘chapeau’ (hat) and ‘choix (de) peau’ (choice of skin) to produce a magic skin choosing hat!)

One final, excellent example of the creativity in the translation lies in the key anagram of Tom Marvolo Riddle and ‘I Am Lord Voldemort’: the French translation of his name as Tom Elvis Jedusor initially seems rather strange, until you realise that this is an anagram of ‘Je suis Voldemort’. Then, when you add in the fact that Jedusor sounds like ‘jeux du sort’, meaning ‘games of chance’ and paralleling the English surname Riddle, you have an extremely clever translation.

Of course, certain languages have been left with versions that are less successful (the Italian ‘Cappello Parlante’ (‘talking hat’ for Sorting Hat) is much less effective, and Madame Poppy Chips (for Pomfrey) is simply bizarre) and I can’t come close to even scratching the surface of the vast range of interventions that have been made throughout the entire series, but hopefully with these few examples I have managed to hint at the amount of linguistic gymnastics involved in transferring even small aspects of meaning that we take for granted from one language to another.