While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Translation - April Experiment #1

As I alluded to in my wrap up of my March Experiment, I was thinking of doing something with translation next.

What brought this on was a short story I wrote with a Spanish main character. I showed it to some writer friends and a few questioned the language. They wanted the English of the 3rd person narrator simplified, so there was less of a gulf between narrator and main character. I didn’t really agree with their reasoning, but figured it was worth trying the story with a Beginner’s English narration.

To do this, I tried the expedient of translation the first paragraph into Spanish using an online translator, then translating the Spanish back to English. The result was clunky, as expected. Lots of extra bits—the, of, he, in, at—appeared, but surprisingly, the internet could manage “stalk” (cazar al acecho) and “so-and-so” (fulano).

Anyway, I gave up on the idea of translating my whole story into Spanish and back, since it would mostly add a lot of articles and prepositions, and I’d end up going back to my original word choices. But I could see some utility in this technique.

The key, I think, is to start with someone else’s words.

Today I heard Jorge Calderón’s version of Keep Me In Your Heart (written by Warren Zevon and Jorge Calderón; originally performed by Zevon on The Wind) as I walked home from work. This was the final track on Zevon’s final album. You can press play and listen while you read the rest of this post if you'd like to:

This line really got to me:

Sometimes when you're doing simple things around the house
Maybe you'll think of me and smile

When I got home (after checking my email, reading some blogs, and setting my fantasy basketball lineups), I read over the lyrics, and cut and paste the lines above, and two more couplets into my online translator. These other lines were:

If I leave you it doesn't mean I love you any less
Keep me in your heart for awhile

There's a train leaving nightly called when all is said and done
Keep me in your heart for awhile

I then translated these six lines into Spanish then back to English then into French then into English then into German then into English then into Italian then into English then into Dutch then into English then into Portuguese then into English then into Russian then into English. I would have gone further if my online translator had more languages.

The final version was a bit of a garble:

When I it negligence, that I they, that want, do not wish to tell for end outside, that me tratterrebbe in their one heart

From time during the correct moment then they simple things where also probably it has made houses, tornou-se-me and its smile hung up

It leads to a train which it has told good-bye rather nocha which I have, I am appointed, when all have told and become - directly in its heart small me deteve

It was a bit strange that some words could be translated into Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, but not back into English, but that's machines for you.

The tone was really set by the first translation (French), so I tried starting with Russian and it went somewhere slightly different...

After a few more iterations, I had a stockpile of 1,200 words of translations of the three original couplets. The clunkiness of the translator cursed any couplet from being completely comprehensible, but also blessed me with some interesting phrases which seemed in the spirit of the original text (and song), but unique in their own right. I then copied and pasted every interesting phrase into a new document, culled and crimped, until I ended up with a poem.

A poem? I don’t know what I thought I was doing this whole time, but I didn’t begin with the intention of writing a 44 word poem (small mercy: this swollen blog entry counts towards my word count).

But that’s what happened.

Here it is:

After Warren Zevon

when all I said becomes a small
I am named


the simple things within the house
that you make of me:

the dependable action in this heart


I am appointed

when all have told and become
is hung to a smile

What do you think? I like it. But then I tend to like poems tinged with death (see Tuesday’s post). Good thing I’m not a full-time poet—there might be some slit wrists in the cheap seats.

1 comment:

Rachael King said...

I think Jonathan Safran Foer did something like this in Everything is Illuminated? The narrator was someone whose English was a second language and I think he used a lot of literal translations.