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Translation diary: 7 - Try, try again

  • By Daniel Hahn
  • 10th December 2013
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Daniel Hahn is translating a novel, and blogging about it for us along the way. This week, he zooms in on one simple sentence, and pulls apart all the different choices up for grabs.

If you've missed Danny's blog up till now, you can catch the first installment here, and the whole series to date here.

Sorry for the brief hiatus between posts. I’m writing this from Qatar, where we’re running some workshops in which groups of translators get together to examine a text and wrangle for hours over every possible detail – arguing every syllable and comma – of every sentence. So in that spirit…

The letter of January 21st concludes with these sentences, as A.’s lover leaves her.

Eu não disse nada, não chorei, não pedi explicações, não te implorei para ficar. Eu apenas permaneci ali, imóvel, muda, deitada na cama, enquanto você se vestia, pegava a mochila e ia embora.

A rough translation might be

I didn’t say anything, I didn’t cry, I didn’t ask for explanations, I didn’t implore you to stay. I merely stayed there, immobile, mute, lying on the bed, while you dressed, took your rucksack and went away.

A few individual words to tidy up, first:

“Implore” is too much, isn’t it? “Beg” would do. And “immobile”, similarly – I prefer just “still”, or “unmoving”. In both cases my first quick version just spat out words that stayed close to the Portuguese (implore for implorei, immobile for imóvel) but we need to detach a little further in order to arrive somewhere more normally English. I think “merely” is a bit too poised for A.’s voice here, too, by the way.

There are an awful lot of I’s in that first line, aren’t there? In Portuguese there’s an “Eu” at the beginning of the first sentence (I didn’t say anything etc.…) and then an “Eu” at the beginning of the second (I merely stayed where I was), so the sentences are perfectly balanced – no more than that. In Portuguese there’s no need to use the “eu” recurring for each of those verbs in the first sentence, not like I’ve done it in English; there is an echoing word providing a beat in the Portuguese but the word that echoes is “não”, which is the “not” part of the sentence. (Word for word, the Portuguese says: I not said nothing, not cried, not asked for explanations, not you begged to stay.)

What else? Well, thinking back to my earlier posts for a moment… we have a “rucksack” here which should probably be a “backpack”, to minimize how conspicuously UK-ish it sounds to US readers; and we have the fact that those Portuguese words for “mute” and “lying” both tell you the gender of the speaker where the English doesn’t – though in this case I feel we’ve established this sufficiently clearly before now and I can take for granted that this won’t be unnecessarily ambiguous to my readers, so I’ll decide to ignore that.

Here’s version two, then:

I didn’t say anything, I didn’t cry, didn’t ask for explanations, didn’t beg you to stay. I just stayed there, unmoving, mute, lying on the bed, as you got dressed, took your backpack and went away.

As you can see, I’ve removed a pair of I’s. (That might have set up a pun on “seeing” and “eyes” which would be a pain for someone to translate, by the way.) But why didn’t I remove the other one, the one before “didn’t cry”? Hmm, it’s actually rather hard to explain…

Read this:

I didn’t say anything, didn’t cry, didn’t ask for explanations, didn’t beg you to stay.

and now this:

I didn’t say anything, I didn’t cry, didn’t ask for explanations, didn’t beg you to stay.

Actually, if you’re not in a public place, read them aloud. (Or if you are in a public place but don’t mind being pointed at, obviously.)

Apart from the slightly improved clarity you get from having a third “I” (there’s that joke again), its presence also does something subtle to the rhythm – just that one extra syllable sounds better to me, and somehow sets the rest of that sentence rolling on – … I didn’t this, didn’t this, didn’t that… But note, of course, that I said it sounds better to me – that’s the only way I can measure things; to other ears it might be different. That’s always important to remember.

Now, that first line finally comes to rest quite firmly on the one-syllable word “stay” – which would be fine… Except that given how much we’re drawing attention to it, a reader might notice that we’re about to use it again, two words later – “I just stayed there…” Hmm, so now I’ve got to change that, too…

One option, then, is “I didn’t beg you not to go”, which puts a slightly different slant on it – not least because we imagine her entreating with these actual words “please don’t go!”, rather than “please stay!”, which isn’t quite the same.

Or we change the second “stayed” to “remained” (the Portuguese, too, is a bigger word the second time around). “I just remained there”? Or possibly something like “I was just left behind”? Though that does emphasize the abandonment, not the stasis. Usually I’d write “I just lay there”, but we’re about to say she’s “lying on the bed”, so that’s out.

Talking about rhythm, I’ve got to decide if he’s dressing, or getting dressed, or getting himself dressed, and my decision will be as much about the rhythm of the sentence as anything else, how many beats the line seems to need. And then – also on similar matters rhythmic – I don’t like the ending of the letter – “went away” is very flimsy, I think. (Likewise I’m bothered by those two sentences uneasily rhyming – “stay” and “away”.) I’d rather end solidly on one word – just left. Ending on that stressed syllable is different from the Portuguese, but I think it works. Or it will if I help the rhythm to keep shape by adding a comma. (Don’t worry, you’ll see what I mean in a moment.)

Right. So – we’re done now, surely?

Um, no…

I’d prefer “picked up your backpack” to just “took your backpack” – I think the latter might sounds as though he’s taking it from her?

And I’m not sure about “mute”, either. Reading that line aloud, I want something of more than one syllable in that gap – just a one-syllable word between those commas pulls you up as you read. I think “silent” would do. Yes, I realise that there’s a difference of meaning, that “mute” specifically means silent-of-speech rather than making no kind of sound at all, but I think it’s a reasonable assumption that a reader will take the meaning correctly and understand (as is explicit in the Portuguese) that it’s meant to convey “she just lies there and doesn’t respond with words / cries”, rather than that “she just lies there and doesn’t respond by noisily breaking a window / loudly popping bubble-wrap / playing a sousaphone”. (We do have to make such assumptions about our readers all the time.)

So how about this, then?

I didn’t say anything, I didn’t cry, didn’t ask for explanations, didn’t beg you to not to go. I just stayed there, unmoving, silent, lying on the bed, while you got dressed, picked up your backpack, and left.

And so the letter ends. Better?

(PS That “letter” and “better” are annoying next to each other, aren’t they? No? It’s just me?)

Read Danny's next post here.

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