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In-between Translation and Art: Challenges of Translating Prose Poetry in Three Slovak Translations of Gibran’s “Prophet”

Tabačková Z.

Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra (Slovakia)

Most discussions on the translation of poetry focus on the binary oppositions rooted in the confrontation of two contrasting notions of untranslatability and translatability. Numerous translators, translation scholars or poets themselves have argued for the former, claiming that because the form and the meaning are closely interlinked within a single poetic text, poetry is what “gets lost in translation” (Frost) [Quoted in Gentzler 2001: 27]; it is impossible to translate because, as Shelly [2002 : online] said, “it is as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its color and odor, as to seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of the poet. ” Yet, despite all the better or less known opinions giving their decisive NO to the translation of poetry, poetic texts have always been translated and read in different languages. As Mann [Quoted in Wechsler 1998: 55] puts it, “I do not know a word in Russian, and the German translations in which as a young man I read the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century were very feeble. Nevertheless, I consider this reading among my greatest cultural experiences. ” Thereby, poetry has gradually been given a special place within the scope of literary translation, a place on the border between translation and art. This position became a starting point of further discussions as for who should perform the process of poetic translation – a language expert (translator ipso facto) or a poet (i. e. an artist)?

One of the crucial works on the translator of poetry in Slovakia, Bude r o preklade (Let’s talk about translation), was written by Ľubomír Feldek [Feldek 1977]. Since in it, he outlined the basic dichotomy between the translator as a language expert and the translator as a poet, which is explored in the present paper, we will briefly discuss it here. Feldek’s work is not a scholarly analysis; it is more of a critical remark on the state-of-the-art in literary translation, particularly in the translation of poetry and poetic prose. Feldek directly appeals to the existent publishing houses in the country insisting that they not ask non-poets to translate poetry because non-poets tend to take the word as the crucial unit of translation while, as Feldek argues, it is not the word but an expression, sentence, and association which should be taken into account.

Feldek’s dichotomy between the translator as a language expert and the translator as a poet could be extended with one more translating option – the combination of the two. History gives us multiple examples of poetic translations made by language pairs – a language expert (or translator proper) and a poet. The task of the former is to prepare a word-for-word translation of a specific poetic text and to supplement it with detailed commentaries which he then hands to the poet who transforms the word-for-word translation into what we may call poetry.

The main objective of the present paper is to discuss the translation of the texts which are on the border between prose and poetry through the comparison of the existent Slovak translations of Gibran’s most famous work – The Prophet. The first part of the paper introduces the language of the source text (ST). The second part summarizes the main approaches to translation used by the three translators: one a professional translator and a writer, the second a publisher and the third a poet.

The Prophet, first published in 1920 by Alfred Knopf, is indisputably the best-known work of an American writer of Lebanese origin, Khalil Gibran. The author was working on it throughout his whole life. According to his biographer Najjar [2008: 42], in 1902, having returned to the States from his studies in Lebanon, Gibran asked his mother for advice on a book that he had written. Its name was So That the Universe Might Be Good. Upon reading it, Gibran’s mother asked her son to “give it time to ferment”. Gibran followed her advice and took the following 18 years to rewrite and rehearse it over and over again, sometimes on his own, sometimes with the assistance of his lifelong friend Mary Haskell, eventually publishing the book in 1920.

The Prophet is often compared to The Book of Job. Its poetic, mythical language echoes both William Blake and American transcendentalism, especially “in the treatment of global questions relating to the existence of man and exalting him as the centre of the creation” [Imangulieva 2009: 79]. Gibran’s Prophet Almustafa (which in Arabic translates as the “chosen one”) is a reflection of Gibran himself since Almustafa has spent twelve years in a distant town of Orphalese (Boston, New York) and now is about to come back to his home country (Lebanon). Before his departure, a crowd gathers around him asking him to speak about various topics which are concrete and abstract, specific and general, and often metaphysical in their character: love, children, work, clothes, buying and selling, pain, reason and passion, self-knowledge, time, religion, death. In a very specific form which stands between prose and poetry, Almustafa gives 27 poetic sermons on the topics that his listeners required.

From formal perspective, we can find several similarities between The Prophet and the Biblical Book of Job. The prologue and the epilogue are epic and narrative in both works. Other parts of the books are lyrical, accompanied with a didactic tone. The two works carry similarities not only in their structure but also in their rhythmical quality, figurativeness and diction. Habel [1985: 46] argues that one of the frequent structuring devices employed in The Book of Job is the “inclusion or envelope construction, in which a key term, form of speech, image, or motif given at the beginning of a unit is repeated or complemented as a signal of closure at the end of that unit. ” Furthermore, in the book, we cannot talk about stanzas or other symmetrical units because the material of the text dictates the structure. Similarly, in The Prophet, the page layout of the text does not remind the reader of poetry. However, within the text, certain segments create closer units as intensified by the use of parallelism, antithesis or alliteration. Jayyusi [1977: 99] refers to the author’s style as the “Gibranian style” which is directed “by his desire to preach and by his Romanticism. ” While the desire to preach is demonstrated by the resemblance to the Bible (the use of interrogatives, vocatives, parallelism); Gibran’s Romanticism is guided by the “freedom which appears so natural in his prose style. ” This specific, “intoxicant” rhythm which drives the reader into a trance, is created by: magical repetitions of specific words or whole phrases, parallelisms and antitheses, alliterations, rhetorical questions and convocations as well as capital letters and inversions, e. g.:

When love beckons to you, follow him, Though his ways are hard and steep.

And when his wings enfold you yield to him,

Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you. And when he speaks to you believe in him,

Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden [Gibran 2009 : 13].

In addition to the specific rhythm, Gibran’s diction, created mainly by archaisms, poetic and value words, is to be taken into account in translation. Almustafa’s archaic and poetic diction can be seen on various levels. Gibran uses:

1) archaic exclamations and conjunctions which create a rhetorical character of the speech, e. g.: nay [3], naught [14], aught [22], lest [37], aye [38], wherefore [73], etc.;

2) archaic full-meaning and poetic words, e. g.: alms [30], selfsame [32], imaginings [34], bower [34], ere [34], verily [36], raiment [38], fetter [39], toiler [40], midst [40], bountiful [41], perilous [71], fain would have you [100];

3) value words which, according to Foakes, refer to the expressions representing concepts “universally regarded as valuable” [Jayyusi 1977 : 102], e. g. love, justice, beauty, death.

Furthermore, Gibran’s language has a specific metaphorical quality. Indirect comparisons are often linked to the above mentioned value words. Love is compared to a harvester who like sheaves of corn “gathers you unto himself” [13]; pain is equaled with “the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding” [58]; a friend is “your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving” [64], etc.

Should we describe Gibran’s “little black book” in one single word, it would be unity. Gibran’s message is that of unification of East and West, Islam and Christianity, word and painting (Gibran illustrated most of his works himself), and prose and poetry. The text has a prosaic, sentence-like form but its metaphorical quality, repetitions, alliterations and parallelisms give it a poetic “spark”. Despite the fact that his text might on a surface level seem simple, in Gibran’s case, every word has its own well-defined place. The text is so simple and elaborate at the same time that it creates a song-like rhythm whereby every word has its proper place and once taken from it, the overall musical quality is at stake.

The oldest Slovak translation of Gibran’s masterpiece was made by Tvarožek in 1971. Gibran’s illustrations were replaced with pictures made by a Slovak illustrator in this edition. In 1992 a re-edition of this translation was made. Some parts which had been omitted in the older version were added to the text, especially the ones referring to religion. The second translation was published in 1993 by Dujnič (the owner of the publishing house Gardénia which published the book) and it preserved the author’s original illustrations. The latest translation was published in 2008 as Prorok a umenie pokoja (Prophet and the Art of Peace); apart from The Prophet, it also contained Slovak translations of some other works by Gibran (The Garden of the Prophet, Madman, Sand and Foam, Wanderer). This translation was made by a Slovak poet Milan Richter who was awarded the most prestigious prize for the translation of poetry in Slovakia for his work (Cena Hollého za preklad poézie/The Prize of Hollý for the Translation of Poetry).

Each of the three translators of the book represents a different approach to translation. While Tvarožek was both a writer and a translator, Dujnič is a publisher and Richter a poet who often translates from English. Thereby, each of the three translators created a different prophet. We will look at them by comparing the crucial features of Gibran’s text as discussed in the previous subchapter. First, we will summarize the diction used by the three translators, then their approach to translating the metaphorical language of the original and finally, we will focus on the question of word-for-word versus free translation.

1 Prophet’s Words: Gibran’s Diction in Translation

As we have mentioned in the previous subchapter, Gibran tended to use stylistically colored vocabulary, mainly archaic and poetic words. Levý [1983 : 136–144] argues that from the point of view of stylistics, there can be identified three cases of stylistic weakening in translation regarding vocabulary. First, the translator favors a general word instead of a specific one; second, the translator uses a stylistically neutral word as opposed to stylistically marked vocabulary; and third, the translator does not use synonyms and repeats the same word over and over again. In the three translations of The Prophet, the second case was the most frequent one. Each translator had a tendency to use one or two of the following approaches:

a. the use of a poetic word or a stylistically strengthening expression (Richter);

b. replacing an archaic word with more modern or colloquial expressions (Dujnič); c. the use of archaic words (Tvarožek);

d. omitting certain words/expressions from the text (Dujnič); e. adding new words to the translation (Richter, Dujnič).

Expressive strengthening in Richter’s translation is achieved either through the use of poetic words, e. g. dať sa spútať kadlúbkou zeme [28], lež [39], ba [73], vinovatý [74], žalárnu bránu [80], ustatí [125], or by the use of the diminutives where Tvarožek and Dujnič use neutral vocabulary, e. g.: na cestičke do nekonečna [43], krtie chodbičky [73], v chrámovom hájiku [83], ostrovčekmi [113], vtáčika-speváčika [129]. As the other translators used stylistically neutral vocabulary in these examples, the overall effect of the use of diminutives in the latest translation is that Richter’s prophet seems more of a friend than a didactic teacher; he is more of a poet than a preacher.

In Dujnič’s translation, two ambiguous tendencies can be identified. The translator tends to use modern and colloquial vocabulary but at the same time often replaces a stylistically neutral word with an archaic one, as can be seen in the following examples: ST [71]: while your tongue staggers without purpose/ Dujnič [76]: a váš jazyk neúčelne tára/Tvarožek [54]: zatiaľ čo váš jazyk bezúčelne jachce/Richter [114]: a jazyk sa vám pletie. Some other examples: ST [73]: the houseless/Dujnič [77]: bezdomovca/Tvarožek [55]: človeka bez prístrešia/Richter [115]: toho, kto nemá kde bývať; ST [80]: confused sounds/Dujnič [82]: chaotické zvuky/ Tvarožek [60]: zmätené zvuky/Richter [123]: zmätené pazvuky; ST[97]: to receive wages/Dujnič [99]: aby som bral peniaze/Tvarožek [71]: aby som prijímal mzdu/Richter [142]: aby som bral mzdu.

In Tvarožek’s translation, we can identify the biggest number of lexical items which are deemed obsolete or archaic today, which is quite logical since his translation is more than forty years old, e. g.: vinepress [26]/ vínny pr [27], thread [38]/ priadza [33], offender [46]/priestupníka [38], the fruitful and the fruitless [46]/ plodné i jalové [38], for God [84]/pre Hospodina [63], etc.

In Dujnič’s translation, there have been identified many, often unexplainable omissions, the translator often omitted single words or whole phrases despite the fact that they could have been translated, as can be seen in the following examples: must you knock and wait unheeded at the gate of the blessed [42]/musíte klopať a chvíľu čakať, kým vám otvoria bránu Vyvoleného [47]; without knowledge or forethought [66–67]/ nevedom-ky [70]; you do but store the desire in the recesses of your being [79]/ len ukladáte túžbu po nej do seba [82]; If in the twilight of memory [104]/Ak sa v pamäti [104]; may wander aimlessly [70–71] /môže brázdiť more medzi nebezpečnými útesmi [75]. In all these examples, the underlined expressions were ignored in the translation.

Last, in the second and the third translation, new words were often added to the translated text, e. g. ST [79]: But tell me, who is he that can offend the spirit? Shall the nightingale offend the stillness of the night, or the firefly the stars?/ Dujnič [81–82]: Ale povedzte mi, možno vari uraziť ducha? Kto z vás to vie? Či slávik uráža ticho noci a svätojánska muška hviezdy?As we can see, the translator added an extra sentence to the text (= Which of you knows it?). Similarly, in Richter’s translation, the expression touch with your fingers [60] was translated as končekmi prstov dotknúť [95] (by adding the word končekmitips). Tvarožek had the smallest tendency to add extra words to the text and on the line between word-for-word and free translation, his translation was to the closest to the word-for-word approach.

2 Strengthening and Weakening Metaphorical Expressions in the Text

The translation of metaphorical expressions was another significant problem. Műglová [2009] suggests seven strategies of translating metaphorical expressions, including direct (word-for-word) translation, weak-ening or strengthening the figurative quality of the metaphor, compressing (or shortening) the expression, explication of the metaphor, its description or substitution. Having analyzed the three translations, we found out that each translator showed a specific tendency:

a. direct, word-for-word translation of a given metaphorical expression (Tvarožek), e. g.:

ST [38]: Would that you could meet the sun and the wind with more of your skin and less of your raiment. /Tvarožek [33]: Keď sa stretávate so slnkom a vetrom, kiež by ste im mohli vystaviť viac svojej pokožky a menej šiat.; ST [39]: And when his work was done he laughed in the forest. (he = the north wind)/Tvarožek [33]: A keď skončil svoju prácu, smial sa v lese.;

ST [40]: and you shall not want if you but know how to fill your hands… /Tvarožek [34]: a nebudete trpieť nedostatok, ak len viete, ako si naplniť ruky;

b. weakening the metaphorical quality of the expression, its compression or complete omission from the text (Dujnič), e. g.:

ST [43]: And of the man in you would now I speak. For it is he not your god-self nor the pigmy in the mist that knows crime and the punishment of crime. /Dujnič [48]: Chcel by som rozprávať o človeku vo vás. Lebo on je ten, kto pozná hriech a pyká, nie božskosť.

ST [67]: In the bosom of such as these the spirit dwells in rhythmic silence. /Dujnič [70]: V ich hrudi prebýva tvorivý duch v tichu.

The underlined expressions were completely omitted in the Slovak translation.

c. strengthening the metaphorical quality in translation (Richter), especially by using a poetic word or by inserting a new word (or words) into the expression, e. g.:

ST [13]: he gathers you unto himself /Richter [35]: Ako snopy obilia vás pozbiera a pritisne k hrudi;

ST [12]: Even as he is for your growth so he is for your pruning. /Richter [35]: Tak ako vám pomáha rásť, tak vám raz prereže hustú korunu.

ST [13]: He kneads you until you are pliant. /Richter [35]: Vyhnetie vás, budete poddajní a vláčni.

ST[15]: To be wounded by your own understanding of love. /Richter [37]: Poraniť sa čepeľou toho, ako chápete lásku…

ST [39]: what were modesty but a fetter and a fouling of the mind? /Richter [67]: čím iným by bola potom han-blivosť než spútanou mysľou, čo obrastá machom?

The underlined expressions were added to the Slovak text by the translator. The translator preserved the meaning but his translations are not word-for-word renderings of the source text, they reflect the specific poetic idiolect of the translator.

d. substitution of one metaphorical expression with another (Dujnič, Richter), e. g.:

ST [47]: And that the corner-stone of the temple is not higher than the lowest stone of its foundation /Dujnič [52]: a že ani veža chrámu nie je vyššia ako najnižší kameň v jeho základoch;

ST [61]: neither does it grow like a reed /Dujnič [64]: ani nerastie rovno ako papyrus;

ST [79]: Think you the spirit is a still pool which you can trouble with a staff? /Richter [82]: tichou hladinou močiara.

In the first two examples, there is a shift in meaning as the corner stone is not, in fact, najnižší kameň and the reed does not stand for papyrus. Richter’s substitution does not result in the shift in meaning, he just uses a more specific equivalent instead of the more general one.

Since Gibran’s texts are prose poems, as their name suggests, they stand on the border between prose and poetry. Should we take a well-known definition of the two into account – that “poetry is the beautiful dumb blonde, all words” while prose is “the smart brunette with glasses, all ideas” [Le Guinn 1997: 109], then Richter’s translation would be closest to the blonde beauty while Dujnič’s text would favor the brunette. Especially in case of metaphorical expressions, the two poets-translators were more poetic than the publisher who simplified or completely omitted certain phrases from the metaphorical expressions.

Conclusion: in-between Prose and Poetry: One Language, Three Translators, Three Prophets

As was already suggested in the previous subchapters, the two older translations have a tendency to follow the morphological and syntactic structure of the original; Richter’s translation, on the other hand, reflects the translator’s specific poetic idiolect and interpretation. To demonstrate these tendencies, we will discuss the prose poem On Talking [Gibran 2009: 66–67]:

You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts;

And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime.

And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.

For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.

As we can see, the language is relatively simple; yet, in every line, we can identify a metaphorical image, the whole text is thus a chain of figurative images which give a poetic character to the seemingly prosaic text. The translational comparison of the three translations shows a word-for-word approach in the first two versions and a different approach in the last version:

[Tvarožek 1971: 52]

Hovoríte, keď vo vašich myšlienkach zavládol nepokoj; a keď nemôžete zostať v samote svojho srdca, ožijú vaše pery a hlas je vám rozptýlením a kratochvíľou. A v mnohom z toho, čo poviete je, je myšlienka napoly mŕtva. Lebo myšlienka je vtáča, čo voľne lieta priestorom a čo v klietke slov môže roztiahnuť krídla, ale nemôže lietať.

[Dujnič 2007: 69–70]

Hovoríte, keď vo vašej mysli zavládne chaos.

Keď nemôžete zotrvať v samote svojho srdca, ožívajú vaše pery a hlas je vám rozptýlením a zábavou. A v mnohom z toho, čo poviete, je myšlienka pri zrode mŕtva.

Lebo myšlienka je ako vtáča, čo lieta vzdušným oceánom a čo v klietke slov môže síce rozprestrieť krídla, ale nemôže lietať.

These two translations are almost identical, they have the same grammatical and sentence structure, they only differ in the use of a few functional equivalents, such as nepokoj/chaos, kratochvíľou/zábavou, priestorom/vzdušným oceánom. In the second translation, there is a shift in meaning since the source text expression in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered, was translated as pri zrode mŕtva (= is dead once it is born).

[Richter 2008: 105–106]

Rozprávate vtedy, keď sa prestanete znášať so svojimi myšlienkami. Keď nevládzete zotrvať v samote svojho srdca,

ožijú vaše pery a hlas sa stane rozptýlením aj zábavou.

A v značnej časti vášho rozprávania je rozmýšľanie takmer mŕtve.

Lebo myšlienka je vták voľných obzorov, ktorý vie síce v klietke slov rozprestrieť krídla, no lietať nedokáže.

Richter’s translations are the least literal, he does not follow the source text structure. The expressions like keď sa prestanete znášať so svojimi myšlienkam (=when you cease to bear up against your thoughts) or vták voľných obzorov (=a bird of open horizons) are a reflection of the individual idiolect of the translator.

The three translations show that prose poetry might be a “hard translation nut to crack. ” The very name of prose poetry suggests the combination of two specific literary kinds: poetry (that nice dumb blonde) and prose (that intelligent brunette). As Mitsusani [1999 : 200–201] suggests, the translator of prose poetry needs to be careful not to focus too much on the seemingly simple prosaic form but to identify the aesthetics of the expression used in the text as well as its rhythmical quality. What brings prose poetry closer to prose is the prosaic sentence-like structure; what makes it closer to poetry are the metaphorical expressions and the specific rhythm of the text. The translator might in the process of translation move either to the prosaic or to the poetic side depending on what approach he or she takes. Each of the three translators of Gibran’s masterpiece created a different prophet. Tvarožek’s prophet is a realistic teacher who does not omit anything what his “English language original” said; on the border between prose and poetry, he stands somewhere in-between. Dujnič’s prophet is a strict preacher; due to the fact that the second translator often omitted or simplified metaphorical expressions in translation, his prophet prefers the prosaic side of the poetry versus prose dichotomy. Richter’s prophet is a loving poet. Because of the extensive use of diminutives, his tone is gentle and loving. Due to strengthening of the source text metaphorical expressions (which are very often the result of the individual idiolect of the translator), Richter’s text moves closer to poetry on the prose-poetry spectrum.

The challenge of translating prose poetry refers to its ambiguous position between two distinct literary kinds: poetry and prose. Legend has it that in the time of Greek gods, poetry resided on Mount Parnassus [Miko 1970] and prose lived closer to human beings. In other words, while these two “literary siblings” used to have clearly defined borders in the past; today they are getting more and more blurred; poetry seems to be getting more and more prosaic and prose poetic. Translating prose poetry is a combination of an interlingual transfer and art. It requires the faithfulness to the original and the creativity of the translator, the knowledge and the skills of a language expert with a talent of a poet. As Horváthová [2009] points out, this creativity, however, must not be arbitrary; it should exist within the limits dictated by the source text. Expressed metaphorically, the translator can either make his product “more blonde” or “more brunette” but its overall shape should mirror the image given by the source text.


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Для цитирования:

Reid E. In-between Translation and Art: Challenges of Translating Prose Poetry in Three Slovak Translations of Gibran’s “Prophet” // Перевод в меняющемся мире: Материалы Международной научно-практической конференции. – М.: Издательский центр «Азбуковник», 2015. – С. 171-179.


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  • Машинный перевод: взаимодействие переводчика и ЭВМ, качество перевода
  • Медийная составляющая переводческой компетентности
  • Место лексикографии среди лингвистических дисциплин
  • Метонимическая замена как один из видов переводческих трансформаций
  • Немотивированные трансформации
  • Нормативные аспекты перевода
  • Нормативные требования к переводу
  • О позитивных эквивалентах в диалоге с американцами
  • О прикладных аспектах перевода
  • Особенности номинации аббревиатур в общественно-политическом тексте
  • Особенности перевода английских аббревиатур и сокращений
  • Особенности перевода страноведческих реалий и терминов
  • Особенности стилистических приемов перевода
  • Перевод английского каламбура: пути поиска соответствий
  • Переводимость культурно–обусловленных языковых явлений
  • Перевод и понимание
  • Перевод как вербальная реальность сознания
  • Перевод неологизмов
  • Перевод образной фразеологии
  • Перевод специальных текстов
  • Перевод текстов «потока сознания»
  • Перевод текстов страноведческого содержания
  • Переводческие аспекты психологической терминосистемы
  • Переводческие параметры текстов СМИ
  • Переводческие трансформации и мотивы их применения
  • Положение языковой единицы в системе языка
  • Понятие эквивалентности перевода и ее типы
  • Прагматическая адаптация
  • Прагматическая адаптация переводимого материала
  • Прием компенсации как способ передачи английского каламбура
  • Приемы перевода эллиптических конструкций
  • Причины использования переводческих трансформаций
  • Реалия как объект перевода
  • Различие синтаксиса в русском и английском языках
  • Роль модели перевода в процессе передачи иноязычного текста
  • Роль памяти при устном переводе
  • Синтаксические трансформации
  • Специфика английской общественно-политической терминологии и газетных заголовков
  • Специфика языка СМИ и перевода информационного материала
  • Способы передачи иноязычных имен собственных
  • Средства выражения экспрессии при переводе
  • Страноведческая терминология: возможные переводческие трансформации
  • Сущность понятия «доминанта перевода»
  • Схема переводческого анализа текста с переводом на английский язык
  • Тезаурус языковой личности переводчика в аспекте межкультурной коммуникации
  • Типы словарей
  • Трансформации при переводе
  • Фактор цели и адресата в переводе
  • Философские основы перевода
  • Художественный фильм как объект перевода
  • Эквивалентность на уровне речи
  • Экстралингвистические аспекты перевода
  • Языковые реалии

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