View Full Version : Is this good English? (not mine!)

07-30-2004, 05:38 PM
Hi guys,

I got into a bit of a discussion on a different forum (a professional translators' forum) over a poem translated into English. The original poem is Russian from the first half of 19th century (just after Byron's times), so you can imagine the style: quite old-fashioned. The translator is Russian, too -- not a native English speaker. His translation just doesn't ring true to me, but maybe I'm simply clueless about old poetry styles? I look at this translation and somehow it just doesn't sound right. Am I right or wrong? What do you think?

(Here I need to let you know that the original poem is considered one of the greatest works of poetry ever written in the Russian language, so imagine the responsibility translating something like this into English!)

The Sail
(Originally by Mikhail Lermontov)

The sail so white appears alone,
In hazy blueness of the sea!..
What in his country has he thrown?
And what, so distant, does he seek?..

Waves play and dance, the wind is crabby,
The mast, so tired, creaks and sways...
No! Neither wants he to be happy,
Nor from good luck runs he away!

A sky-blue stream flows him under,
And over – golden beam there is...
To find a storm, he, restless, wanders,
As if in storms one can find peace!

07-30-2004, 06:56 PM
I think the English is tolerable except perhaps "A sky-blue stream flows him under" which suggest the man is being 'flowed' by the stream.

The punctuation seems pretty awful with marks appearing after a question mark.

But I am no expert...

07-30-2004, 08:18 PM
i see several errors in the translation, which tells me the translator isn't comfortable or very skilled in writing english... that's the hardest thing about translating poetry... in prose the goofs and differences aren't so glaring... the translator needs to be as fluent in the original language as in the language it's being translated into...

a dear friend and very gifted mentee of mine in peru, started a website for spreading my philosophical work throughout latin american countries and has translated some of my essays and poetry into spanish... as good as he is in english, it's been very difficult for him... he has to ask me what many idioms that we use with ease mean, as they mean nada to him... right now, he's translating a longish piece he wrote about me and my work into english using babelfish, and he still must have someone who's better with english refine it, before he puts it up on the site...

some of what is very important to the poems will be lost in translation... the sound, cadence, rhymes' impact will be forfeited... and some of the meaning can't possibly be exactly translated... but the general import of the work will survive, and that's the best i can hope for... anyone who wants to see what happens, can go to rolando's site and if they can read spanish can compare my originals to the translations...

you'll find one translation-in-progress here:
babelfish.altavista.com/babelfish/trurl_pagecontent?lp=es_en&url=http%3a%2f%2froland175.tripod.com%2fid8.html (http://babelfish.altavista.com/babelfish/trurl_pagecontent?lp=es_en&url=http%3a%2f%2froland175.tripod.com%2fid8.html)

note the literal translation from english to spanish and back to english produces some 'interesting' confusions!...to see the original version of this poem, go to my website and you'll find it in the 'writings' poetry section...

hugs, maia

ps: i see that rolando's site is still down, being worked on... if anyone is interested, you can email me and i'll let you know when it's back up again...m

07-31-2004, 03:19 AM
Oh mammamaia, this is an absolutely wonderful site. I loved both the original poems and the "Spanified" version. I really love Spanish, and your site reminded me why I love it. Is there any other place on the Net I can read your works? I didn't see your philosophical works on the site, maybe I wasn't looking hard enough, but I'm very curious now. I had no idea you were working on these things.

Coming back to the translation, it pssed me off so much that I spent the entire day working on my own version, just for the kicks of it. I tried to follow the 1830s poetic style.. dunno if I've done it right, what d'you think?

The Sail

A lone sail marks the hazy distance:
Amidst the blue, a speck of white.
What seeks it in the alien province?
Back home what has it left behind?

The waves would swash, the wind, importune;
Its mast would bend and groan with glee;
Alas! it searches not for fortune
Nor from its fortune does it flee.

Below, the clearest azure rests it;
O'erhead, a golden sunray beams;
But mutinous, it seeks out tempests,
As if in tempests man finds peace!

07-31-2004, 07:30 AM
I agree with maia about a translator of poetry needing to be very fluent in both languages. I have a friend whose mother tongue is French, but she has lived in English Canada and spoken English almost exclusively for most of her adult life, and although she understands English very well, some of the figures of speech that native speakers take for granted are misunderstood by her.

Even if one is very fluent in both languages, translation of poetry is difficult because any play on words, any use of words for sound as opposed to meaning, any use of rhyme -- all of these might end up to be almost impossible to translate effectively.

As for the poem under discussion, Fresie, I have to say your translation is much the better one. You've done a masterful job!

07-31-2004, 08:42 PM
i'm so glad you enjoyed that, fresie!...

as for my other stuff, you'll find all on my own website [see link below], under 'writings' and the sub-heads, 'essays'; 'poetry'; 'other works'... rolando is still working on his site, so the rest isn't up at the moment... it may be a while before he gets it all going again... he's a very gifted short story writer and i've helped him with his own translations, fixing major gaffes, while retaining all of his own lyrical latin 'voice'...

in re your translation, i can't tell if it's close to the poet's vision, not knowing it in russian... we'd all do it differently, no doubt... it's a shame the poet himself couldn't guide us!

love and hugs, maia

08-01-2004, 02:15 AM
Oh, thank you, guys, for your wonderful feedback. :) No one can really do the original justice -- it's a bit like drawing by numbers a fine Japanese vase. If I haven't made any glaring mistakes and made it sort of flow, I'm already happy. :D

Maia, I keep reading your poems and being a singer, can't help thinking how readily they offer themselves to music. You need to think about it!

Thanks a lots, maia, Yeshanu, veingloree! :thumbs

08-01-2004, 08:47 PM
and i have thought about it... but i don't compose music and don't write anything to 'sell' any more...

if you hear music in your head when you read any of my stuff, feel free to noodle about with it... go to the 'women can save the world' section in 'other works' and you'll find a lyric there that's crying for notes, called, 'my sister's keeper'...

i wrote lyrics in my old life, belonged to the sga [songwriters guild]... i've only got a few left of the b'way musical type ones i did back then... never did get any music for 'em... one's even bewailing that lack... here it is... see whatcha can do with it, if you're musically inclined:

Any Kind Of Music At All

I need to find me a music man…
I mean a fast man with a song.
I need a man who surely can
Put notes where they belong.

Just give me a tune someone can hum,
one that lingers in your mind.
Play me some jazz or razzamatazz…
or music of any kind...
music . . . music . . .
any kind of music at all.

I’m great with all these words that rhyme...
they just pour out of me.
But find me one with soul sublime,
to write the harmony.
What good are just my words alone,
of love and everything?
Without a tune they’re
‘for the birds’...
and even the birds can sing...
music . . .
music . . .
any kind of music at all.&nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp

For toe-tappin’ shoes,&nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp
or way-down-there blues,&nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp
for people in love or in pain,&nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp
Give me a round of rock ‘n roll sound,&nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp
a chorus, reprise or refrain.
Music . . .
music . . .&nbsp &nbsp &nbsp &nbsp
Just any kind of music at all.

If you should be a good music man,
a really fast man with a song,
you might be the one to take my words an’
put notes where they belong.
Give me that tune people will hum,
one that's ling’rin’ in your mind.
Play me some jazz or razzamatazz,
or music of any kind...
music . . .
music . . .

With my words and your music...
we’ll have us a ball...
we’ll play Carnegie Hall . . .
with any kind of music...
any kind of music at all.

[apologies to all if i've hijacked this thread!:o ]

hugs, maia

08-02-2004, 06:12 AM

This is from a book I have called, "An Age Ago - A Selection of Nineteenth Century Russian Poetry". Translations are by Alan Myers. I don't speak Russian, so I have no idea how well this translation preserves the sound and content of the original.

The Sail

A white sail gleams alone out yonder
Amid the ocean's pale-blue haze...
What quest has driven him to wander?
Why has he left his native bays?

The waves crest as the fresh wind rises,
The mainmast bending in the breeze...
It is not happiness he prizes,
Nor is it happiness he flees!

Beneath, the azure current flowing;
Above, the golden sunlight glows...
Perverse, he seeks the storm winds blowing,
As if in storms to find repose.

08-02-2004, 08:17 PM

I've seen at least four or five good professional translations of The Sail while working on mine, but this one beats them all! It's arguably as good as the original -- and that's bloody unsurpassable. You have called the book so -- does it mean you are Alan Myers? Or the editor, or a reader? Well, let me tell you I'm a native Russian speaker and writer, and I'm just amazed how well this translation delivers the aura of the original. Wow, and wow again! :clap

Well, the fact that the foreword to the book was written by Joseph Brodsky ("O-o-oh," sighed Fresie religiously) says a thing or two about its quality! Thanks a lot, now I absolutely need to study more translations by Alan Myers.

To Maia: these are excellent lyrics! Me and my hubby are pulling together some material for a couple of albums now that we've finally got a home studio sorted out. With your permission, I'd love to play around with this piece as it just begs to be sung. Can't promise it'll get much anywhere, but we'll do our best and I'll keep you informed -- fingers crossed! Excellent lyrics, just excellent -- and very classy, quite literary, too.

Thanks again, guys; good luck to you all!

08-02-2004, 11:48 PM
... play with it all you want... for more, email me 'at home'...

love and hugs, maia
maia3maia@hotmail.com (maia3maia@hotmail.com)

08-03-2004, 12:50 AM

No, I'm just a reader. I should have said I own a book that is titled, "An Age Ago..." It does have a nice forward by Joseph Brodsky but no biographical information about Alan Myers or a list of other books he has written/translated.

It's nice to hear from someone who can read the original that the translation is good. I can somewhat read German (I'm just rusty), and it can be difficult to find translations of German poetry that keep the style/tone of the original.


08-03-2004, 01:40 PM
Great, Amie, thanks a lot! I will definitely get this book. But I'm surprised about German. I would think, it being a Germanic language too, it could be an easier task...

Cheers guys!