The fact that Ellis’ translation (TT1) is close in style to the source text (ST), emphasises the literary aspect of the text above the informative. However, if the goal is a modern accessible translation, then TT1 is inadequate in terms of readability and clarity, as evidenced in questionnaire responses: “I’d submit that in 99% of cases, as here, the loss (in vivid communication of ideas) is decisively greater than the forensic gain.”
Questionnaire respondents commented that they often needed to re-read the text and that even this did not help their comprehension. They also mentioned idiosyncrasies, such as “manifestment” [Kundgebung] and that the text was “long-winded”. Ellis’ tendency to translate the component parts of Wagner’s neologisms literally without explanatory notes rendered them “unfathomable” according to one respondent. “Word-Tone-speech” [Worttonsprache] is one such example.
Oper und Drama is a serious theoretical/philosophical work, yet some questionnaire respondents found Ellis’ style almost comical: “the effect is a mixture of confusion, unintended humour and distraction.” Newman, too, noticed that “unfortunately the peculiar kind of English he employs in his versions of the prose works and some of the letters gives a touch of the ridiculous to them that is not in the original” (Cormack, 1993, p.9). Clearly this is a distraction from the purpose of the text.
Several questionnaire respondents found TT1 awkward and unnatural. Respondents commented on the use of “unnecessarily obscure words”. Cormack (1993, p.7) also speaks about “pedantry of punctuation, stiffness of style, those archaisms, and that unexpectedly quaint turn of phrase”. All respondents commented on sentence length and there was no discernible difference between those who spoke German and those who did not.
It is, however, interesting to note that when asked about naturalness, fluent German speakers rated TT1 as more natural than those who spoke little or no German, and found the text on the whole less difficult to understand. This may point to the fact that TT1 adheres more closely to German syntax.
One respondent commented that “there are those who would consider that this [syntax] sheds relevant light on the writer’s thinking” but another felt that “the effect is not so much to convey a sense of the feel of the original, as to give the impression of its having been translated word-for-word.”
It was suspected that, because German marks for gender, Ellis’ literal translation of pronouns by “it”, further compounded by his use of dummy “it” would lead to confusion in retrieving pronoun reference. However, there was no clear pattern of agreement on this amongst questionnaire respondents. In any case, some pronouns are specified by nouns in TT1. Another feature drawn from German is the use of capitalisation for nouns which were felt to be intrusive without serving any real purpose.
Cormack (1993, p.8) comments that the strangeness of TT1 shows “conceptual and receptive differences” between Ellis’ audience and the contemporary reader. It is possible that the modern reader is less willing to invest time and effort in understanding the text. One questionnaire respondent felt that “it costs too much energy to read and make sense of text A.” Others mentioned that they found the style “alienating” and the chair of one Wagner Society doubted that many of their members had engaged with the prose works in the Ellis translation.
Ellis, however, does still have his supporters. Several respondents agreed that TT1 conveyed some of the historical aura of the original: “Text A does illuminate more of how the German original works syntactically, and to that extent takes us closer to the writer’s own mind in a forensic sense.”
Another day I’ll tell you what the questionnaires said about my translation!