- Posted by Stephen Whiteley
- On 20/08/2008
One interesting way to consider the art of the translator is to compare it to that of a poet. Both attempt to express ideas in writing within some very specific constraints. The poet constrains his own work by setting rules such as metre and rhyme within which to work. Translators work within the overriding constraint of faithfulness to the original text, but this may be expressed in terms of literal accuracy, style, register, appropriateness for a particular audience, conversion for a particular target culture, and occasionally additional constraints such as sentence or document length.
Some writers of prose set themselves demanding constraints too. In 1969 French writer Georges Perec wrote the novel La Disparition, without warning readers that what was missing was any use of the letter e, the most common letter in the French language. The idea was copied by Earnest Vincent Wright in a story called Gadsby.
Lucie Aiken (1781-1864), writing as Mary Godolphin, thought it would be fun to rewrite Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe using only words of one syllable. This exercise can almost be considered to be a translation, from the original English into a specially constrained new sort. I find it amazing how well it reads. English is possibly the only European language which would allow this to be done. It has a huge number of synonyms, especially older words of Germanic origin and, crucially, it has virtually no inflectional endings for either verbs or nouns.
Chinese (in its various forms) is often believed to be exclusively “monosyllabic”, but this is not really true. All morphemes are monosyllabic, but there is a large number of bi-syllabic words, as there needs to be in a language which boasts a little over 400 syllables (admittedly with 4 available tones) compared with over 8000 for English.
Here is the opening of Godolphins’s Crusoe:
In Words of one Syllable.
I was born at York on the first of March in the sixth year of the reign of King Charles the First. Form the time when I was quite a young child, I had felt a great wish to spend my life at sea, and as I grew, so did this taste grow more and more strong; till at last I broke loose from my school and home, and found my way on foot to Hull, where I soon got a place on board a ship.
When we had set sail but a few days, a squall of wind came on, and on the fifth night we sprang a leak. All hands were sent to the pumps, but we felt the ship groan in all her planks, and her beams quake from stem to stern; so that it was soon quite clear there was no hope for her, and that all we could do was to save our lives.
The first thing was to fire off guns, to show that we were in need of help, and at length a ship, which lay not far from us, sent a boat to our aid. But the sea was too rough for it to lie near our ship’s side, so we threw out a rope, which the men in the boat caught, and made fast, and by this means we all got in. Still in so wild a sea it was in vain to try to get on board the ship which had sent out the men, or to use our oars in the boat, and all we could do was to let it drive to shore.
In the space of half an hour our own ship struck on to a rock and went down, and we saw her no more. We made but slow way to the land, which we caught sight of now and then when the boat rose to the top of some high wave, and there we saw men who ran in crowds, to and fro, all bent on one thing, and that was to save us.