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

From: E. Shaun Russell (
Date: Fri Jan 05 2001 - 13:02:34 MST

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

It should also be noted that a good (but not great) movie about Onegin came
out a year or so ago, with typically splendid acting from Ralph Fiennes
(perhaps my favorite actor). As per this discussion, I will definitely
have to pick up the Hofstadter translation 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.

Though I have not read it yet (it is on my "to-read" bookshelf...),
Hofstadter's _Le Ton Beau de Marot_ is about interpretation and
translation, revolving primarily around little-known French poet Clement
Marot. I remember Damien Broderick writing an excellent semi-review of it
on this list a couple of years ago. Do you still have that, Damien? Time
to check those archives...

>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",

Just look at the Bible. The amount of interpretations and translations
which have been derived from that book boggle the mind. Regardless of any
list- member's individual views on Christian religion, it has to be
admitted that some (and perhaps all) of the interpretations and
translations have to be plain wrong. If not, then it indicates the
acceptance of contradictions in the minds of the religious. Not to dwell
on the subject, but one can take a look at the famous passage from
Corinthians; in the King James Bible, the key triad is ", hope and
charity [...] and the greatest of these is charity." Yet when one looks at
the New International version, it is "faith, hope and love." Charity and
love are two entirely different concepts, and whether or not the original
interpretation meant one or the other, it is obvious that there are some
serious flaws in the translation process... intentional or not.

>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

Music is perhaps the only art in which emulation/interpretation can be as
creative as new compositions. Though I generally prefer newer music on the
avant-garde, I have heard some wonderful renditions of old classics which
are both creative and still retain the essence of the original (a great
example of this is George Winston's 5 & 1/2 minute rendition of Pachabel's
Canon in D).

>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.

It is interesting that the sonnet form caught on so quickly after Thomas
Wyatt brought it back from Italy (originally devised by an Italian named
Petrarch). Wyatt's most famous poem is both a combination of translation
(most of it), as well as a mirror of his own situation (it refers to his
mistress, Anne Boelin):


Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind
But as for me, helas! I may no more.
The vain travail hath wearied me so sore,
I am of them that furthest come behind.
Yet may I, by no means, my wearied mind
Draw from the deer; but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow. I leave off therefore,
Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.
Who list her hunt, I put him out of doubt,
As well as I, may spend his time in vain;
And graven with diamonds in letters plain
There is written, her fair neck round about,
"Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am,
And wild for to hold, though I seem tame"

-Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)

It is interesting to note that the English language is (in the early 16th
century) quite legible and understandable by today's standards, yet when
one reads Chaucer's _Canterbury Tales_ from ~130 years earlier, its
language is quite hard to understand. That epic poem is another good
example of how interpretations, while necessary, can detract from the
intended meanings put forth by the author. The Nevill Coghill translation
is the easiest to read, but is arguably "lighter" than the original.

>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.

There's no question that Hofstadter would be the best kind of person to do
translations. If only he would take a stab at Dostoyevsky...

E. Shaun Russell Operations Officer, Extropy Institute
     ~K i n e t i c i z e Y o u r P o t e n t i a l~

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