Interlinear translations: a must for understanding literature

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

I stumbled across a good example (pdf) of a literary critic who really could have used an interlinear translation (this one for example is one I know quite well, because I made it) when reading Demian. The paper makes the argument that Sinclair is in hell at the end of the book, and even uses the following to reinforce it:
As striking is the main character’s name: Sinclair. It would mean nothing special in German, but we have the benefit of being able to recognize the English “sin,” and perhaps also the French “clair,” “obviously.” Put together, we have Mr. “Plainly Sin.”
"It would mean nothing special in German". Well, except for the word Sinn (meaning), found pretty much everywhere in the book.

Er sucht nur das, was Sinn und Wert für ihn hat, was er braucht, was er unbedingt haben muß. 
Was für einen Sinn hat solche Reue zwei Schritt vom Grabe weg, ich bitte dich? 
Dann zeigen sie ihren Sinn, und sie haben alle Sinn.

To imagine that Sinclair somehow has something to do with an English word is beyond stretching it.

In the notes following the paper we find the following footnote:
Hermann Hesse, Demian (N.Y.: Bantam, 1966), trans. Michael Roloff and Michael Lebeck, p. 140. All citations from “Hesse” refer to this edition.
There's another problem there. This is the edition that translated Egel (leech) as angel:
It is obvious how many of them are fish or sheep, worms or angels, how many are ants, how many are bees
(this translation has not made the same mistake, BTW)

and had a great many other oddities. Sometimes I would find a sentence and even a whole paragraph simply untranslated, other times word usage that struck me as odd. I have no problems with a less than literal translation, but some of the phrasings used didn't seem to have any place:
Sie kennen jetzt den Ruf, und wann immer Sie jemand brauchen, der das Zeichen trägt, dann rufen Sie wieder!

became:
you know the call now and whenever you need someone who bears the sign, you can appeal to me.

Why "appeal to me"? The original doesn't even specify who Sinclair is supposed to call to, nor does the word "appeal" carry the same strength and directness as rufen. The translation also makes it look like Sinclair needs to somehow use Frau Eva to call somebody (when you need someone...appeal to me).

One example of a missing sentence:
Die Türe ging auf und Frau Eva kam herein. “Da sitzet ihr beieinander! Kinder, ihr werdet doch nicht traurig sein?"

The door opened to let in Frau Eva. "You're not feeling sad, I hope."

That translation is barely acceptable as a book to read on its own, and as a tool for literary criticism it's even worse. In fact, it takes the typo I first mentioned above and runs with it:

Pistorius tells Sinclair at one point, in a seeming offhand way, that he might encounter angels at any time: 
“You wouldn’t consider all the bipeds you pass on the street human beings simply because they walk upright and carry their young in their bellies nine months! It is obvious how many of them are fish or sheep, worms or angels, how many are ants, how many are bees!” (Hesse, p. 89). 
Unless it is a knowing aside to the audience, the reference to angels here is anomalous. All the other cited beings are animal, subhuman, unflattering. So, given the two candidates Demian and Pistorius, it seems it is Pistorius who speaks in the voice of angels. Demian, interestingly, does not appear in the “Jacob Wrestling” chapter, perhaps another deliberate though subtle clue to his identity. He is not an angel. He is something very different from an angel.
That's quite the conclusion to draw from a single typo.

An interlinear translation is far superior for literary criticism for two major reasons:

1) We cannot expect every literary critic to intimately know the original language of each and every classic, but at least we can show the original and make it easy to look words up. Even without knowing German, an interlinear translation would have made it obvious that Hesse has used the word Sinn a great many times, and no, it does not mean sin.
2) Any mistakes in translation are that much more easily identified.

How literal a translation should be will depend on the goal of the translator. One geared for a student could be even more literal than mine (complete with different colours and marks for grammatical genders and cases), while one for literary criticism would probably be a bit less literal.

At the same time, I still enjoyed reading this paper. Encountering such an odd and mistaken interpretation of the book is still something new.

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