The Center for Hellenic Studies

Lying or Blaspheming? Problems in the Translation of Oral Epics

Karl Reichl
who translates literally is a liar,
one who embellishes is a blasphemer.
Talmud (Kiddushim 49a/b)
The learned rabbi to whom this saying in the Talmud is due was no doubt thinking of the Bible and not of the Homeric epics or any other epic poem. But what he says is also true of the translation of secular works. If one translates literally one misses to convey the style of a literary composition, but if one tries to capture the style there is the temptation (or necessity) to move away from a strict adherence to the original. Translators might be neither liars nor blasphemers, but they are nevertheless in a predicament, especially when translating poetry and literary texts. The Italian jingle Traduttore, traditore succinctly formulates this predicament: change an i for a u and you become a traitor rather than a translator. Although the Talmudist is right in voicing his concern about the correct translation of the Bible, Biblical scholars are in the fortunate position of being able to look back on a long line of distinguished translators, from St. Jerome to the translators of the King James Bible, from Martin Luther to Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Not all works have fared so well and been given so much attention from translators and textual critics.
William Calin, in an attack on the oral-formulaic theory at a meeting of the Société Rencevals, expressed his belief that most of the members of the society would rather read the Bible or Virgil or even Chrétien de Troyes than The Wedding of Smailagić Meho (1981:227). Should the members of the Société Rencevals read the Bible and Virgil in translation – we assume that they will read Chrétien in Old French – they will not only for the Bible but also for Virgil find numerous translations to choose from. As R. D. Williams and T. S. Pattie, in a book on Virgil’s poetry through the ages, remind us, “by 1553, when the first English translation was printed, over forty partial or complete translations had already been made into other European languages” (1982:109). Since then translators have not been idle. Virgil as well as other Greek and Roman classics have been continuously translated over the ages, recast in the language of every new generation by both translators and poets. Furthermore, a long tradition of how to translate the classical languages, in particular Latin, into the vernacular has developed since the Middle Ages. In a number of European grammar schools with extensive Latin classes (such as the German ‘Humanistisches Gymnasium’) exercises de style used to be part of the curriculum well into the second half of the 20th century and are perhaps still carried out in some remote outposts of classical secondary education. [1]
When Wolfgang Schadewaldt published his German prose translation of Homer’s Odyssey in 1958, he justified this deviation from standard translation practice – by choosing prose rather than poetry – by pointing to the overwhelming authority of Johann Heinrich Voß’ verse translation of 1781: despite refinements in the poetic translation of Homer since Voß’ days, “by translating into hexameters, it was not possible neither to clearly distance oneself from the style Voß had initiated nor to give it a new direction towards the real Homer.” [2] New German translations have appeared since Schadewaldt’s prose rendering of the Odyssey. The situation is similar in other languages. A particularly distinguished tradition of translating Homer is the English one, from the Elizabethan period with George Chapman’s translations, perhaps best known today as the subject of Keat’s sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” to the present day, with the widely acclaimed translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey by Robert Fagles in the 1990s.
Alas, not so with The Wedding of Smailagić Meho. To my knowledge there is only one translation, by Albert Lord, into prose, with particularly full, list-like passages in smaller print (1974). If The Wedding of Smailagiić Meho were the Iliad, this would mean that we only have a prose translation of the Homeric epic, with the Catalogue of Ships (and perhaps some other passages) in small print. However faithful Lord’s translation, in order to appreciate the poetry of this oral epic, one has to read it in the original. Some of the earlier South Slavic heroic songs collected by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (1787-1864) have fared better. One of the best-known Croatian and Serbian junačka pjesma, “The Wife of Hasan Aga” (Hasanaginica) was first published and translated into Italian in 1774 by the Abbé Alberto Fortis in his Viaggio in Dalmazia, which and published the following year in a German translation. [3] Soon after Abbé Fortis’ publication, a German translation of the Hasanaginica was included, in Goethe’s translation, in Johann Gottfried Herder’s Stimmen der Völker in Liedern of 1778, a collection of poems that exerted a profound influence on the Romantics’ interest in folk and popular poetry (Herder 1975:158-161). English translations of some of Vuk’s heroic songs appeared as early as 1827, in the polyglot diplomat John Bowring’s Servian Popular Poetry, appropriately dedicated to Vuk with a poem beginning: “My friend! it is thou, it is thou/ Who hast usher’d these gems into day...” These gems have also found other English translators, among them of more recent date Peter Levi, Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford from 1984-1989 (Pennington and Levi 1984).
Other oral epic traditions have not been so fortunate as that of the South Slavs, either because their epics have never been translated or because translations are scarce, possibly inaccessible, at least to Western readers, and perhaps also of poor quality when it comes to conveying an idea of their poetic texture. The vast world of Turkic oral epics is well represented by translations, but by translations into Russian, a fact that doubtless reduces their Western readership. The most active collector of Turkic oral poetry, Wilhelm Radloff, a native of Berlin, who later settled in Russia, where he was known as Vassiliy Vassilievich Radlov, published ten volumes of texts (1866-1907). The first seven volumes of his Proben der Volkslitteratur der türkischen Stämme (1866-1896) were collected by Radloff himself; volumes 1 to 6 comprise two parts each, one containing the texts, the other German translations. Volume 7 (Turkic languages of the Crimea) and 10 (Ottoman Turkish) have texts only; for volumes 8 (Gagauz) and 9 (Uryankhay, Abakan, Karagas), edited and translated by N. Th. Katanov and V. Moshkov, respectively, the translations are into Russian.
Radloff was not the first to translate Turkic oral epics into German. The Finnish philologist and ethnologist M. Alexander Castrén (1813-1852), whose interest was focused on the Uralic languages, studied also Turcic languages during his travels in Siberia in the 1840s and collected a number of oral epics from the Koibal (speaking a dialect of Khakas) and Karagas (whose language is today better known as Tofalar) at the foot of the Sayan mountain range in Central Asia. After Castrén’s death Anton Schiefner (1817-1879), published both his travel books and his “Essay of Koibal and Karagas Grammar.” In this grammar (Schiefner 1857), some epic songs together with their German translations are found in the appendix. As an example I will give the first ten lines of the Koibal oral poem Ai Mirgän and Aidôlei, in Castrén’s system of transcription and translation (Schiefner 1857:169):
Buluŋ điren đirlen ŧåder,
buluŋ sun iŧin ŧåder,
ak taskèlneŋ altènda,
ak talaineŋ kâzènda;
5ip sal-ŧåder
Ag oi at Altèn Kan
Altèn Ârèg îneilyx.
Bârennaŋ sèkkan balaze đôgol;
đâze toldera mâllex,
10ülgüzüđok đonôk.
Das Eckenland bewohnt er,
das Eckenwasser trinkt er
unter der weissen Bergkoppe,
an dem weissen Meere
5er errichtet seine Jurte
Alten Kan mit weissblauem Rosse
mit der Gattin Alten Âreg.
Ein aus ihrer Leber hervorgegangenes Kind ist nicht da;
die Steppe ist voll von Vieh,
10ohne Zahl (eig. ohne Sohle) auch das Volk.
(He lives in the corner land,/ he drinks corner water/ under the white mountain top,/ on the shore of the white sea/ he puts up his yurt/ (namely) Alten Kan with the white-blue horse/ with his wife Alten Âreg./ There is no child that has come out from her liver;/ the steppe is full of herds,/ without number (lit. without sole) is also the people.)
This translation is fairly literal. Line 8, translated as “Ein aus ihrer Leber hervorgegangenes Kind ist nicht da” (there is no child that has come out from her liver), is literally correct; only a linguist could translate it with even closer attention to the original: “from-her-liver come-out her-child is-not.” When Schiefner later published only the German translation of this and other oral epic poems of Castrén’s collection in his Heldensagen der Minussinschen Tataren he added the subtitle “rhythmisch bearbeitet” (rhythmically adapted) to his book. Accordingly he signalled the poetic character of the originals by using regularly stressed lines of four trochees and smoothed the translation of possibly odd-sounding expressions. Line 8 reads here: “Ohne Kind blieb ihre Ehe” (their marriage was without child) (Schiefner 1859:1). This is clearly the meaning of the line, but should the liver really be sacrificed for the sake of easy reading?
The expression that literally translates as “there are no children come from his/her liver” is still found in Khakas (paarïnan sïxxan palalarï čoġïl), glossed in V. Ya. Butanaev’s historical-ethnographic Khakas-Russian dictionary as u nego net rodnykh detey (he has no children of his own) (1999:80). In Kirghiz boorum (my liver) means “my brother” and qara boor (black liver) designates a person without blood-relatives. Similar meanings are found in other Turkic languages, including Old Turkic. [4] Clearly, in the conceptual world of these Turkic-speaking peoples the liver plays a specific role which includes that of the physical locus of blood-relationship. This reminds us of the meaning of Old Greek ἧπαρ (hēpar), which means not only liver, but also “seat of the emotions and of life,” “heart.” Castrén’s more literal translation “from her liver” is awkward, Schiefner’s freer translation is correct in meaning, but somewhat colourless: the particular ethnic flavour of the poem is lost, while its poetic character is at least partially captured by “rhythmic lines.” [5]
In the translation of Turkic oral epics three basic positions have been taken: literal translation into prose, literal “rhythmic” translation (as in Schiefner 1859), and “poetic” translation. The first type was advocated by Arthur Hatto. In his re-edition of Radloff’s edition of the Kirghiz Manas epic, he clearly states the goals of this type of translation (1990:xii):
The translations opposite the text have no pretensions either as literary creations or as ‘exact’ renderings of the remote Kirghiz such as would please a grammarian. They are made i) in order to show those familiar with Kirghiz or at least a not too distant Turkic language, how the writer understands the text; ii) to serve as a first commentary on the original, to be completed by reference to the Commentary proper; iii) to enable those who have to rely on a translation, safely to assimilate the narrative content for their own scholarly purposes or pleasures.
As Hatto points out, literal translation can be of different degrees: literal in the sense of a linguistic gloss (of the kind illustrated above by “from-her-liver come-out her-child is-not”) or literal in the sense of adhering to the sense of the original as much as possible and yet producing an idiomatic and grammatically correct text in the translation language. Of course, the problem lies in the qualification “as much as possible.” It is on this point that a voluminous scholarly literature on the principles and methodology of translation, both from a linguistic and a literary point of view, has developed over the last half century, with venerable antecedents such as Matthew Arnold’s essay “On Translating Homer”, first published in 1861, and Francis W. Newman’s lengthy and learned reply. [6]
In the field of medieval literature, there has been an explosion of Beowulf translations in recent times, and debate on methods of translation and the qualities of various translations has been fuelled by nobel-prize winner Seamus Heaney’s famous translation (1999). Hugh Magennis recently published a monograph on modern versions of the Old English epic in verse (2011), in which he compares different translations and discusses their aims and qualities. Magennis quotes Lawrence Venuti’s opposition between “domesticating” and “foreignizing” translations, a distinction which, Magennis shows, goes back to ideas formulated by Friedrich Schleiermacher in his famous speech of 1813 “Über die verschiedenen Methoden des Übersetzens” (Magennis 2010:7-13). Schleiermacher argued for a translation that enters into the meaning, spirit and form of the original and endeavors to express all these in translation. He insisted that the metre and the music of the original have to be done justice to in the translated work and for this reason he preferred poetic translations such as Voß’ rendering of the Homeric epics in “German hexameters” to a prose translation, voicing his doubts that “a prose translation of Homer could be of any profit for the formation of genuine taste and art appreciation.” [7]
Problems of the translation of medieval or modern oral epics have also been discussed in other literary cultures than English or German. In Russian there is a long tradition of literary or poetic translation (variously called literaturny perevod, khudozhestvenny perevod, and poèticheskiy perevod), and some of the masterworks of Turkic oral epic poetry have been translated into Russian verse by such talented and polyglot translators as Lev Pen’kovskiy (1894-1971), who translated the Uzbek epic Alpamysh (1949), the poet Arseniy Tarkovskiy (1907-1989), who translated the Karakalpak epic Qyrq Qyz (The Forty Maidens) (1951), and Semyon Lipkin (1911-2003), who together with Lev Pen’kovskiy and the poet Mark Tarlovskiy (1902-1952) translated sizable portions of the Kirghiz epic Manas (1946). Any reader of these translations will be impressed by their great poetic quality. I have no doubt that Professor Calin and the members of the Société Rencevals, if they read Russian, could be persuaded to lay Virgil and Chrétien aside for a while and let themselves be introduced into the poetic world of Central Asian oral epics without experiencing tedium or disgust.
Highly accomplished poetic translations have enabled readers to appreciate the poetry composed in languages unknown to them. Scholars, able to read the poems in the original, have, however, often expressed their doubts about the accuracy and fidelity of poetic translations; this applies also to translations of oral epics into Russian. As V. M. Gatsak notes (1977), translations of oral poetry tend to move further and further away from the original the more they focus on rendering the poem in poetic form. On the other hand, a literal word-for-word translation can serve as no more than a basis for understanding the original and cannot be called a translation. In the excellent series “Èpos narodov Evrazii,” formerly called “Èpos narodov SSSR” (Epics of the peoples of Eurasia/ USSR), both texts and (Russian) translations are found. Here the editors have tried to give a literal translation, which, however, is subjected to a process of stylistic “smoothing” in order to increase its readability and bring out its poetic character. Verse is translated in verse-lines, though not in rhythmic lines, to graphically symbolize the verse structure and encourage readers to read the texts as verse rather than as prose (Kidaysh-Pokrovskaya 1977).
The ideal translation of oral epics is easy to define in theory, but is difficult to carry out in practice. As with all translations of literary texts, translators will only be partially successful. An element of “lying” and of “blaspheming” is unavoidable in translation. There is, however, an additional problem translators encounter when dealing with oral poetry. Vladimir Propp, in an article published in 1966, made the categoric statement that folk songs are untranslatable on principle: “Narodnye pesni po suchchestvu ne pervodimy.” [8] What Propp had in mind was the fact that folk songs are by definition songs, i.e. sung poetry, whose text is only part of a poetico-musical whole. This is also true of oral epics. In the majority of oral traditions that can still be studied today, the text is not spoken, but sung. “Singing,” of course, comprises a variety of modes and might in liminal cases be very close to speaking. The sung performance of oral epics is certainly typical of the Turkic world, where in most cases the accompaniment by a musical instruments also plays an important role. [9] The music, however, is not all that makes oral epics “untranslatable.” Oral epics are not only performed orally, they only come alive in performance. Even in cases where a tradition is focused on near-verbatim transmission and performed poetry is hence comparatively “fixed,” a singer will adapt his performance to his audience; he will shorten the epic if interest in the listeners is lacking or, vice versa, lengthen a description or an episode when it meets with the approval of his audience. Many examples of these kinds of variations can be collected; for the South Slavic oral epics, Lord has drawn attention to the elaboration of passages or their “ornamentation” in various performances (Lord 1960:105).
Folklorists, anthropological linguistics and scholars in the areas of performance theory and ethnopoetics have repeatedly stressed the event character of an epic performance. There is no doubt that we are dealing with a communicative event on a par with other communicative events that have been analysed in detail in the scholarly literature, from Kuna deliberations in the “Gathering House” (Sherzer 1983) to African American street talk (Abrahams 1970). This raises a number of problems for the textualization of oral epics, problems that have been discussed from various points of view and with regard to a different traditions (Honko 2000). As with translation we are caught between the poles of “lying” and “blaspheming.” It is possible to symbolize a number of performance elements – loudness, pitch, quality of the voice, gestures and other bodily movements – as editions in the form of “performance scripts”show (Fine 1984; Tedlock 1983). If video and audio material is available, much of this can be directly illustrated. When it comes to translating rather than editing an orally performed epic, there is, however, the danger of producing an unreadable translation if too much is included: the translation of an epic in the form of a “folklore text” such as the ballad of Stagolee in Fine (1984:184-195) approaches the quality of a literal translation, of the kind Hatto called an “exact” rendering “such as would please a grammarian.” If on the other hand no reference is made to the actual performance, the translation seriously distorts the oral character of the epic translated. As with all translation of poetry, here too, it seems to me, every translator will have to find the best solution possible, a solution which might not work for all cases. I very much doubt that any member of the Société Rencevals will ever read my translation of the Karakalpak epic of Edige, as performed by the bard Jumabay Bazarov in the singer’s home town south of the ever shrinking Aral Sea on 17th and 18th September 1993 (Reichl 2007). Clearly Edige is not the Aeneid nor are Jumabay and his bardic ancestors poets of the calibre of a Virgil or a Chrétien. But when reading such an epic in translation the readers have to be reminded constantly that they are dealing with performed poetry, in this case performed in verse and prose, with the verse portions sung to different melodies and accompanied by the singer’s archaic horse-hair fiddle. The notation of the basic melody to which each verse passage is sung, the graphic arrangement of the spoken words according to the pauses punctuating them, the indication of musical intermezzi (and the singer’s tea drinking) during the prose narrative, the occasional insertion of a photo illustrating the singer’s gestures as well as audio and video clips all aim to bring the performance character alive as much as possible. This does not make the reading of Edige more pleasurable than the reading of Virgil, if it is poetry of the kind of the Aeneid the reader is expecting. It does make it clear, however, that an oral epic is not the Aeneid (nor the Bible or any of Chrétien’s romans courtois) and should therefore not be compared to these works. But it is poetry, and as poetry – in performance! – it presents a challenge to the translator, who is ever threatened to incur the Talmudist’s opprobrium if the extremes of literalness and embellishment are not avoided.


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[ back ] 1. During my school-time in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in the German ‘Humanistisches Gymnasium’ a Lateinische Stilkunde was used which gave specific rules and suggestions of how to translate Latin idiomatically and ‘elegantly’ into German.
[ back ] 2. “Doch konnte es bei allem, was man sprachlich neu versucht hat, auf dem Wege der Hexameter-Übersetzung nun einmal nicht gelingen, den von Voß angeschlagenen Ton entschieden zu verlassen oder gar in Richtung auf den wahren Homer hin zu erneuern.” Schadewaldt 1958:322. Johann Heinrich Voß lived from 1751-1826, his Odyssey was published in 1781. – Voß translated the Homeric epics into “German hexameters,” i.e. lines in which the long syllables of the Greek and Latin quantitative metre are replace by stressed syllables and the short syllables by unstressed syllables.
[ back ] 3. See Karadžić 1841-1862:III, 527-533 (No. 80). In the German translation of Abbé Fortis’ Travel book of 1775, the original text of Hasanaginica and its translation into German are found on facing pages; see Fortis 1775:90/91 – 98/99.
[ back ] 4. See Sevortyan 1978:17-20.
[ back ] 5. It should be noted that the metre of Turkic oral verse is syllabic. In the example quoted the lines are not of equal length; this might be due to the situation when they were written down. It is possible that in performance, i.e. when sung, they were more regular than their written form suggests. On the metre of the oral epics of the Altain Turks (incorporating parallelism and alliteration), see an early article by W. Radloff (1866).
[ back ] 6. See Arnold 1907:210-380 (Arnold’s essay, Newman’s reply, and Arnold’s “Last Words”). In the context of this paper I can only globally refer to surveys and handbooks such as Baker and Malmkjær 1998; for a perceptive study of problems in the translation of poetry, see Barnstone 1993.
[ back ] 7. “Das aber kann ich nicht glauben, daß auch jezt der Vossische Homer und der Schleglsche Shakespeare nur sollten zur Unterhaltung der Gelehrten unter sich dienen; und eben so wenig, daß auch jezt noch eine prosaische Uebersetzung des Homer zu wahrer Geschmakks und Kunstbildung sollte förderlich sein können....” Schleiermacher 1963:50.
[ back ] 8. Quoted in Gatsak 1977:182.
[ back ] 9. For a survey, see my introduction in Reichl 2000:1-40; for examples, see the various contributions to this volume, among Gregory Nagy’s on “Epic as Music: Rhapsodic Models of Homer in Plato’s Timaeus and Critias” (41-67).