I’d like to present here an artistic mistranslation from the 1910’s which is very famous in Hungary. It was originally written by F. Karinthy, a famous, witty Hungarian poet and writer of lots of short stories and sketches and a famous novel. He took a stanza by a great poet, E. Ady, and followed the ways of translations through a few rounds of misinterpretation. The English is my explanations to the original poems based on Karinthy’s original explanations. I hope that the full piece can be appreciated by those speaking German even if they don’t understand the Hungarian.
Jöttem a Gangesz partjairól
Hol álmodoztam déli verőn
A szivem egy nagy harangvirág
S finom remegések az erőm.
Which means, roughly, the following:
I’ve come from the shores of the Ganges Where I was day-dreaming in the midday sun My heart is a large blue-bell And fine trembles are my strength.
A translator with a flair for beauty read this in an anthology and was deeply moved. He dicided to translate it and send it to the paper called “Dichterstimmen”.
So he translated it thus:
Ich kam von Ufer der Ganges
Dort traumt ich von südischen Schlager
Main Herz, du Blume, du banges
Du bist so zitternd, so mager.
Well, for the sake of rhymes, one changes a thing or two in such a poetic translation.
At this point, Karinthy does not add explanations for the misinterpretations, because he could be sure that his Hungarian readers at the time all understood the differences. For the sake of my readers here, I venture to add a few points:
Although the word ’verő’ could mean ’Schlager’, yet, the poet meant a shortened and well-known form of ’verőfényes’, which is an adjective meaning something like ’brightly sunny’, and the short form can refer to the time of day characterized as such, as can the noun form ’verőfény’ as well. Further, unfortunately, ‘déli’ here is not supposed to refer to the southerly direction as in ‘südischen’, but to the midday. Thus the ‘bright midday sun’ becomes ‘southern hitter’ in the translation. ’Banges’ is supposed to rhyme with Ganges, unfortunately, the original has nothing to do with being ’anxious’. It spells a bigger problem that, according to the original, the poet’s trembling is his power, just the opposite of any meaning of ’mager’.
Well, so far so good, or not. But the problem got bigger when another translator read the German version without realising that it had been translated from Hungarian. He thought it to be an original poem and so translated it to Hungarian and sent it along to a literary journal like this:
Ufer, a zsidó kupléíró
Aludt a folyosó mélyén
Barátja, Herz, biztatta
Hogy ne remegjen, ne féljen.
There’s an undoubted misunderstanding here, but who can fully find his way among those strange Gothic letters (at the time still widely used in Germany). So it is no wonder that the otherwise excellent translator misread „südischen” to be „jüdischen” and turned the name of the river Ganges to be a corridor.
There wouldn’t have happened a bigger problem if a third, otherwise excellent, translator didn’t happen to read it, who then translated it and sent it to „Gedicht-Magazin”, in full artistic reformulation:
O, Dichter der alten Juden
Was schlafst du im FluBsalz so tief?
Hörst du nicht den stolzen Herzog
Der dir in Ohren rief?
Well, as to the corridor, it is true that if one is a German translator, he can’t be fully held accountable for the slight difference in Hungarian between ’folyosó’ and ’folyó só’ – corridor and fluid salt respectively. Besides, the translator supposes the proper name ’Herz’ to be an abbreviation for ’Herczeg’, ’Herzog’ in German, meaning a duke.
The magazine duly accepted the originality of the poem without further investigation and published it. That’s how it got into the hands of the fourth translator, who then published the poem, which rose to world fame in the meantime, as follows:
A Herz-féle szalámiban
Sokkal sűrűbb a só,
Mint más hasonló terményekben
Hidd el, ó nyájas olvasó!
Which means roughly the following:
In the Herz-salami Salt is a lot denser Than in other produce, Believe me, oh kind reader.
He was right that ’Dichter’ can be translated to be ’denser’ just as ’poet’ from German.
Apart from smaller modifications that duly suit a poetic translation, like calling on the kindly reader in the last line, this translator, otherwise, did not change much of the content of the poem.
… he probably even obliged to gratitude the famous Hungarian manufacturer of salami, who, we hope, duly expressed his gratitude.
Moral: always check the source of the source of the source. If somebody has done it, it doesn’t mean it is good.
I owe my gratitude to the following source for the original work, where those who would like to read Karinthy’s original in the original can do so:
- The evolution of the translation (kishajnalka.com)
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That’s so interesting. I had never really thought about the way that translations can gradually lose their original meaning, leaving a poem with very different meaning. Probably poetry is the hardest thing to translate? I’m thinking this because of how hard and long I think before choosing each word I might use 🙂 Great post!
Thank you. Actually, this is only perhaps the most outstanding example, and it was actually intended by the author as a good joke, which it is. Some of my previous posts enumerate a number of simpler examples. Here, my intention was only to use it as an extreme example of how badly translation can go wrong. I’m an avid foe to translation used for teaching modern languages, mostly prevalent in the Netherlands, and some other places where the mistral or foehn of ESL hasn’t blown it away. I’m very much taken aback by this trend here, mentally and existentially as well. Who would have thought, of all places?
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