Interpreting dead people's creative works (was: Riddles ...)

From: Amara Graps (
Date: Fri Jan 05 2001 - 08:57:21 MST

Regarding my question of Hofstadter's translation of Pushkin's
_Evgenij Onegin_.

>From:, Wed, 3 Jan 2001
[good list of Pushkin references]

Thank you very much, Natasha, for all of that information regarding

The Web, for me, is both a curse and a blessing. A curse because I
usually don't have the time, typing hands, or money to spend time on
the Internet and I tend to postpone searches on authors' works until
I have trips, a few times per year, to bookstores/libraries in an
English-speaking country. It's a blessing because I know that the
information is on the Web, if I get desparate.

Thank you Chris, Barbara, Eugene (offline) and especially to Kat
(offline) for the information regarding Hofstadter's version of
_Evgenij Onegin_.

I am skeptical of Hofstadter being a poet, that's why I wanted to
get my hands on the book to see for myself. The original is generally
considered, by the Russian-speaking folks I know, to be
untranslate-able, and the translator would have to be a poet
him/herself, and understand the style, emotions, etc. of Pushkin to do
justice to the original.

However, I think that Hofstadter showed a lot of courage to tackle
this work, and I understand that he was not Russian-fluent before he
started the project, and used the project to become more proficient
in the language. Therefore, I would probably buy the book because I'm
impressed that he undertook (and probably succeeded) at this effort.

I was thinking a lot during the last days of what it means to
interpret or translate another person's creative work. The first
question to ask of the translator is probably "is he/she true to the
original?" If the originator is *dead*, then one either must spend
years in studying effects from that person, as well as studying the
necessary medium (e.g. language) to express the work close to the
original, or else NOT... and then the viewer/reader/listener/etc.
must accept that the translated/interpretted work is "derivative",

Observing interpretations of creative work over time can be
interesting, anyway, for learning some things of society in
historical contexts.

In the music world, musicians and conductors have to face this
situation every day when interpreting works from long-dead
composers. For example, I would prefer (the contemporary musician)
Nigel Kennedy's renditions of works of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky,
Vivaldi, Sibelius (Violin Concerto in D minor never fails to bring
tears to my eyes) over any other classical musician at any other
time. I wasn't alive at the time of these composers, but I'm
reasonably sure, from what I know of N.K., that Kennedy was not true
to the originals.

Poetry can be alot more complicated to translate and interpret. It
seems to me that it is tied much deeper to the language and to the
culture and other social contexts than music. Form, rhythm, rhyme,
and embedded meanings within meanings would need to be translated.


For example, here is the form of the Shakespearean sonnet (which is
different from the earlier-introduced Italian sonnet):

The lyric poem is divided in 4 ways, three quatrains (4-line verse),
each with a rhyme scheme of its own, usually alternating lines, and
a concluding "couplet" at the end that rhymes. The typical
Shakespearean sonnet rhyme scheme is "abab cdcd efef gg." The couplet
at the end is often a commentary on the preceding quatrains.

Take a look:

(William Shakespeare, 1564-1616, from _Sonnets_, Sonnet 18)

a Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
b Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
a Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
b And summer's lease hath all too short a date.

c Sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines,
d And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
c And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
d By chance or nature's changing course untrimmed;

e By thy eternal summer shall not fade,
f Nor lose possession of that fair thou os'st;
e Nor shall death brag thou wander'st in his shade,
f When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st:

g So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
g So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

[Question to the non-native English speakers here: have you seen a
translation of this sonnet, and if so, how far does it succeed in
keeping true to the original?]

Some metaphors and images in Shakespeare's 18th sonnet.

eye of heaven --> the Sun
fair from fair sometimes declines --> everything has its own time
beauty of women <--> beauty of nature
unchanging, immortal

The following is another example, this one with a hugely-varying
rhyme scheme. Note that poets, using various rhyming schemes, can
almost create musical effects on the ear of the reader.

Check this out:

(Edmund Spenser, 1552-1599, from _Epithalamion_, lines 167-184)

a Tell me ye merchants daughters did ye see
b So fayre a creature in your towne before,
a So sweet, so lovely, and so mild as she,
b Adornd with beautyes grace and vertues store,
c Her goodly eyes lyke Saphyres shining bright,
c Her forehead yvory white,
d Her cheekes lyke apples which the sun hath rudded,
c Her lips lyke cherryes charming men to byte,
d Her brest like to a bowle of creame uncrudded,
d Her paps lyke lyllies budded,
f Her snowie necke lyke to a marble towre,
g And all her body lyke a pallace fayre,
g Ascending uppe with many a stately stayre,
f To honors seat and chastites sweet bowre,
h Why stand ye still ye virgins in amaze,
h Upon her so to gaze,
i Whiles ye forget your former lay to sing,
i To which the woods did answer and your eccho ring.

[Now, doesn't that put a smile on your face??]

Therefore, a translator, to be true to the originals, would not only
need to keep the form of the poem, but would also need to keep the
images, metaphors, mood, and perhaps the context of the time (in these
examples: to 16th century Britain.

OK, A little Friday-afternoon rambling....


Amara Graps email:
Computational Physics vita: finger
Multiplex Answers URL:
"Sometimes I think I understand everything. Then I regain
consciousness." --Ashleigh Brilliant

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