If you have ever tried to learn another language you already know that, even for beginners, translation is never simply a matter of looking the “foreign” words up in a dictionary and writing them down. The result is gibberish, because no two languages work in exactly the same way at the level of grammar (what the rules are) and syntax (how the sentence puts them to work). But more than that, and even once you’ve taken those differences into account, it’s hard to get a satisfactory result—satisfactory to yourself as a translator learning the craft of a different language, never mind to anyone else.
Languages don’t just differ at a nuts-and-bolts level; they’re unlike each other in how they represent the world, how they convey the experience of being a speaker (which is to say, a person) within a culture. In what way, and to what kind of observer, does the sea in Homer “resemble wine” to the eye (its standard epithet, just as Achilles is routinely “swift-footed”)? Homer’s colour palette seems not just very limited, but also basically unlike ours, so the conventional rendering “wine-dark” is really just a guess—or a fudge, to cover up that we are just groping in the dark when we try to guess at what he might be trying to get across.
Conversely, if I wanted to translate “I love you” into Homer’s ancient Greek (or Cicero’s Latin), I would have to think twice about what word or words to use because our word “love” has so much baggage attached. I love my wife, my parents, my dog, a glass of wine—but not, thankfully, all in the same way. “Love” tells us that words are sticky; they pick up layers of meaning from new contexts (religion, chivalry, pop…) and it’s difficult ever to call time on their evolution (sex, family…what next?).
Things get harder still when the text we are translating won’t play fair—refuses to do a straightforward job of conveying meaning. When is a door not a door? When it’s a jar. Think for a moment on what a job you’d have putting that into French, German, whatever. And what if (even worse) the destination language expressed the world-view and experience of a culture that didn’t use doors; that was aware of jars (if at all) as a historical curiosity? No wonder translations of satirical and humorous writers so frequently need updating or replacing. Among ancient authors for modern readers and audiences, Aristophanes is a classic crux. His humour is topical—do you swap out the references for rough modern equivalents, or render them literally? It mostly depends who you decide you are translating for, which determines what kind of version you need to deliver. A crib for language learners? A set text for ancient history students? Or a script for a contemporary stage?
Whatever way you slant it, something must be lost. Swap Cleon for Trump? You’ve muddied the sense of Aristophanes’ original! Leave Cleon as Cleon? Now no one is laughing!—and that, for a comedy meant for a mass audience, is its own and perhaps inexcusable kind of infidelity. We always translate for particular audiences, in the first instance and perhaps always foremost ourselves (or else, why bother?), but we can never control which audiences will actually pick our version up and either castigate it or, sometimes worse, make it their own.
As with colours (Homer’s sea), so with sexual innuendos and outright accusations/bragging—again, the ancient world (through its languages) simply breaks up human experience into different chunks, processes, and categorises it differently. In a post-Foucauldian scholarly world, it’s common knowledge that “homosexuality” only came into being (initially through medicalisation) at the tail end of the nineteenth century—and “heterosexuality” shortly thereafter; but that isn’t the half of it. To translate (as I have, and do) the first-century AD satirical epigrammatist Martial, who is perhaps the muckiest of ancient authors, is always to harbour the suspicion that—through profound cultural difference, expressed through language that is at the same time humorous, and colloquial, and obscene—we are being laughed at.
Will we ever get every last nugget of nasty innuendo out of his text? Perhaps we should be glad not to—but changing times bring new possibilities for Martial’s readers in English. For instance, in 10.68 Martial complains that a Roman girl of good conservative stock is making herself ridiculous by affecting the speech (“ah m’sieu!”) and mannerisms of a Greek courtesan. He even imagines her going so far as to wiggle and twitch her hips in a sexually suggestive manner: numquid, cum crisas, blandior esse potes? We have a word for it now. Criso, crisas, crisat: I twerk, you twerk, he, she, or it twerks; all this time, Martial’s Latin was waiting for us to catch up.
Featured image credit: “Home, Old, Door” by derRenner, CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.