I was chatting to a German friend of mine the other day about the problem of translating one piece of writing into another language (the problem being whether what gets translated authentically maintains the spirit of what is meant, not the mechanics of translating itself).
We concluded that some things probably translate more smoothly than others, and that it’s often better to have a translation of a good work, rather than none at all.
The matter got put into focus for me when another German lady asked me if she might translate a poem that had come to me during a retreat that we attended together. She wanted to post a translation alongside the original English in a newsletter that she compiles, and I thought that this was quite a good solution. What’s more, she worked very carefully with the words she chose – and read them back to me – to maintain the sound of the poem as much as possible.
In working with a number of English translations of the AN, it became quickly obvious to me that there were quite a few differences in style and the words chosen by the different translators. Some had embellished aspects of a tale, or more than likely, taken a few poetical liberties with the original, although (I think) without probably losing much of the meaning from the original story.
I’ve no way of knowing whether their translations are good or bad – I can’t speak Arabic, the original language for most of the The Nights, and I don’t have access to an expert on the subject. But I don’t think this matters.
My retellings of some of the original tales have taken a few diversions even from the famous English translations of Sir Richard Burton and others. I’ve occasionally left out a few details – such as the extensive religious symbolism in the story of The City of Brass – and embellished a few others.
But I’ve tried to ‘feel’ what the story wants to say, and in the process, tried to tease out at least some of the key messages, morals, or learnings that it seems the original intended to put across.
Every retelling of any story is a new creation of sorts, even if only in a limited way. Storytellers know this – and no one story will be told in quite the same way by two different storytellers.
Since the tales of The Nights were meant to be told as stories, rather than read, it seems to me all the more acceptable to let them have a new voice. We are sadly losing much of the magic that the oral tradition of storytelling can offer, but happily the wonder and color of the old tales that have been told in marketplaces and around camp fires for many years is still there for anyone who looks for it.
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