Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Friday, December 24, 2004

A note on The Christmas tree and the problems of translation

By Aussiegirl

As my little contribution to Christmas I have posted below my own translation of Mykhailo Kotsiubynskyi's children's story, "The Christmas Tree". It was originally published in a Ukrainian magazine in 1891 and has become favorite of Ukrainian children ever since. A much lighter work than his usual style, it nevertheless excels in its descriptions of nature, which was one of Kotsiubynskyi's great strengths.

My own memories of the story date back to my childhood in Australia. My father used to tell it to me at bedtime, and as I lay in the dark, visions of wolves in the night filled my imagination, and even though I knew how the story ended, I always breathlessly demanded to know if the little boy would be all right. Sweet memories.

Mykhailo Kotsiubynksyi (1864-1913) was a Ukrainian novelist whose subject matter varied from the abject human misery of his novels and stories, to man's shortcomings and imperfections in his numerous psychological works. From the realism of his earlier works his style changed to a more complex mode of impressionism. One of his unforgettable novels, entitled "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors", was made into a movie in 1964 that is available on video. There are a lot of lovely comments about it on the IMDB (http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0058642/usercomments)

The novel describes the almost frightening rugged beauty of the mountainous terrain, and how the lives of the Hutzul people are inextricably woven into a web of ancient beliefs, primitive rites and the heartless forces that nature, love, life and death wield over man's fate. Ghosts and the shadows of forgotten ancestors haunt every page and every scene of the movie. It is an unforgettable experience if you can manage to find a copy. The Hutzul people lived in the mountainous Carpathian regions of Ukraine in the west.

I would like to make just a note about the problems of translation. Every translator faces at least one dilemma - does one try to be literal and to attempt to translate word for word, or does one try to capture the mood, spirit and essence of the piece for the reader, taking into account matters of differences in style and manner of expression? I have chosen the latter over a literal word by word translation.

The famous Italian writer Umberto Eco, author of "The Name of the Rose", always worked with his English translators when possible. He advised them to not get hung up on the word for word translation. Capture the essence and the gist, was his message. For instance, I remember reading that in one of the famous passages from one of his novels, the character is riding in a car and watching the passing scenery. As he sees some trees he quotes a passage of Italian poetry that is familiar to all Italians and conjures up a certain feeling or mood that is instantly understandable. Eco advised the translator to find a similar English snatch of poetry that might have a similar echo in the English reader's mind rather than attempt a literal translation of the Italian verse which would prove meaningless to an English reader.

So I have chosen to make the English as close to a natural sounding vernacular as possible, given the differences in expression between the two languages, Ukrainian tending to be much more of a flowery language, given to colorful and extended metaphors.


At 12:37 PM, Blogger Timothy Birdnow said...

Thanks for posting that wonderful story!

Merry Christmas to you and yours, Aussiegirl!


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