What the questionnaires told me about William Ashton Ellis’ translation.


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!

German terms in the texts


Now  and again I stumble across something that surprises me, even at this relatively late stage in my research.

Today I was comparing my use of German terms embedded in the translation with the ones that William Ashton Ellis retains. I’d expected a lot of overlap, but surprisingly only 3 overlap:  Werdens, Stabreim and unbestimmt bestimmende.

Obviously, the big question is, “Why the difference?”I think it arises from our different strategies. Ellis seeks to produce something close to a word-for word translation. He therefore feels the need to elucidate on any terms that he can’t find an exact English equivalent for, such as compound nouns and abstract nouns. He also seems to insert the German word if he is unsure of a translation. Thanks to technology, it is easier for me to search around for difficult words. There are extensive online dictionaries and corpora and I can easily compare translations of a term and decide on the most suitable. Additionally, I have a lot more Wagner scholarship to draw on than Ellis!

My strategy differs from Ellis in that I am seeking to produce a more accessible, fluent translation. I am less interested in translating word for word and more interested in translating the sense of a clause. Also, I am writing primarily for an audience of musicians – students, performers and connoisseurs! They are most likely to be interested in Wagnerian terms to do with his musical theories, so these are what I have included.

Take a look at the table below (TT1 = Ellis, TT2 = me) – it’s quite interesting:

Source Text terms retained in Target Texts

TT1

 

TT2

 

einig (footnote) single Versmelodie verse-melody
gefühlsnothwendige emotional  significance Ahnung presentiment
reale physical Gedanke concept
künstlerisch Auszuführendes something to be thought or worked out by the artist Erinnerung reminiscence
Vorzuführendes to be carried on Erscheinung appearance, phenomenon
ein Seiendes a Being Absicht intent
  dichterische Absicht Poetic Intent
Werdens Becoming, organic growth Werdens Becoming [or the creation]
an ihrer gedachten Dichtung its thinking work of composition Sprachgedankens spoken thought
Äusserung exterior Sprachverse spoken verse
Lebenslagen predicaments Empfindungsmomentes emotional moment
die unbestimmt bestimmende the indefinitely determining language unbestimmt bestimmende indeterminate determiner
Inhalt Content Tonsprache tone-speech
Kundgebung emanation Wortsprache language, word-speech
uneiniger discordant bereits tönenden Wortsprache already resonant spoken language
Gefühlswegweisern guides-to-Feeling Wortsprachdichter poet
vielgewundenen labyrinthine Worttonsprache fusion of melody and verse
Zusammenhang co-ordination Tonsprachorgan tone-speech
Stabreim

Stabreim form of alliteration (footnote)
  Worttonsprachausdruck melodic/poetic expression
in Nichts setzen to set it at naught Einheit des Inhaltes unity of content
  Wortphrase intoned speech
Das in Zeit und Raum nothwendig Getrennte (footnote) the severed by the necessity of Space and Time Raum und Zeit place and time (+ footnote)
Einheitsstücken “Unity-Pieces”

Looking closely at the Source Text.


The Source Text (ST) is what translators call the text they are working from, which will be translated into the Target Text (TT). One of the things a translator needs to determine is, which features can be transferred from the ST to the TT. In doing this, they need to look at the “Receiver’s Profile” of both ST and TT and see where they differ.
In the case of Wagner’s text, the ST and TT audiences are clearly separated by a long period of time – 1852 to the present day. This means the TT reader may not necessarily be so familiar with the cultural background to the book, for instance 19th century philosophy and metaphors that were widely used in the writing of the time. These are factors that I may need to consider and compensate for in my translation.
I also need to consider who is reading the text and why. Wagner was aiming at a generally well-read reader who was interested in philosophy of the arts. My target reader is most likely someone who is studying music academically or who has a strong personal interest in Wagner and his music. They may not necessarily be so well-read in the arts as a whole.

My research shows that quite a lot of my readership have a working knowledge of German and so may welcome seeing some of Wagner’s key terms in the original language.
Whilst the modern reader may be more disconnected from 19th century thought, Wagner is now, obviously, an established musical figure. There is no dispute over the fact that he was immensely important in music history. However, we need to remember that at the time he was writing “Oper und Drama”, he was still fighting to establish himself and to make himself understood. This may have a bearing on how the translator balances stylistic and informational aspects of the text.
Another time I’ll expand on the main difficulties for me in translating the text.

Translating Chapter VI Part iii


Opera and Drama, written in 1852,  plays a key role in understanding The Ring as it is here that Wagner lays out his theories for what he terms die einheitliche künstlerische Form (unified artistic form). I have chosen to translate Chapter VI in Part III. One of the reasons for this is that here Wagner explains how music and drama combine to give unity of expression, conveying the emotion of the dichterische Absicht (Poetic Intent) as well as its content. This is pretty much the crux of his argument. He also outlines the role of the orchestra in supporting and clarifying the action on stage through its use of motives that both recall [Erinnerung] and foreshadow [Ahnung] the dramatic action.

You’ll have noticed my inclusion of the German terms! This gives a clue to why I chose this chapter from a translator’s perspective. Wagner’s terms are just one of the linguistic challenges I’m facing. More on this another day.