A Question of Translation …

In the splendid Travels with a Tangerine, Tim MacKintosh-Smith touches briefly on a translation problem that has always preoccupied me: aesthetic vs literal.

In this case, he was looking at various translations for the title of Ibn Battutah’s accounts of his 14th century voyage to China and back. One literal translation is The Precious Gift of Lookers into the Marvels of Cities and the Wonders of Travel. However, MacKintosh-Smith prefers an aesthetic translation that maintains the rhythm and poetry of Arabic – the so-called ‘cooing of doves’ of the language. He suggests: An Armchair Traveller’s Treasure: the Mirabilia of Metropolises and the Wonders of Wandering.

Personally, I’ve always used a pop culture reference to describe the gulf between literal and aesthetic translation. In North America, there is a beloved animated character named ‘Dora the Explorer’ who travels the world, teaching kids about culture, geography, and self-sufficiency. In France, they have chosen a literal translation, ‘Dora l’exploratrice’, losing the charming rhyme. I would have preferred an aesthetic translation here, and named the character ‘Beatrice l’exploratrice’ in France.

So, what do you think? ‘Dora l’exporatrice’ or ‘Beatrice l’exploratrice’ ?

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About Jeremy Mercer

Jeremy Mercer is an author and translator who lives in in the Luberon with his fiancée, two children, five cats, two chickens, ten fish, and one pregnant dog. He is currently on the market for a cheap horse. More at http://www.jeremymercer.net
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2 Responses to A Question of Translation …

  1. AH says:

    This is a bullshit vote. Obviously ‘Beatrice l’Exploratrice’ beats ‘Dora l’Exploratrice’ – although it should be noted that ‘Dora the Explorer’ is a good two or three times better than either – but ‘An Armchair Traveller’s Treasure: the Mirabilia of Metropolises and the Wonders of Wandering’ is totally disgusting and much worse than ‘The Precious Gift of Lookers into the Marvels of Cities and the Wonders of Travel’. Moreover, Dora is for kids, which considerably boosts the importance of the rhyme element, and diminishes the reader’s capacity to appreciate the awkwardnesses of translation. Dora aside, here is a general rule for translation aesthetics: if the translator is a worse poet than the original author (as is overwhelmingly the case), then they should keep to the literal. There is something both conceited and barbarous about turning fine writing into a poetaster’s slurry of duds and boobs.

    • Jeremy Mercer says:

      Hey, listen, the key to translation isn’t making what you think is great poetry, it is being loyal to the writer’s intent. And, apparently, in 13th century Islamic circles, purple prose and cheesy rhymes were all the rage. In fact, there were freelance ‘enhancers’ hired to make manuscripts more melodramatic. So, even if MacKintosh-Smith’s translation might sound foul to your ear, it could well be a truer translation than the literal one …

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