Write Better By Translating Classics–Melville into English!
I’ve been re-reading Herman Melville’s Piazza Tales, “The Encantadas,” and the language has been revelatory. The description is lush and filmic, poetic and always precise. At times, the focus trails off, jump cutting from one image to another: from equatorial birds clinging to a Tower of Babel rock formation in the middle of the ocean to an extravagant tangent about a passive “land bird” like a robin or a canary suddenly joining these feathery monsters with daggers for beaks.
I find myself stunned by Melville’s balance of restraint and verbal surplus, the ebb and tide of his word choices and his metaphors (mostly Biblical and all stingingly apt). While every phrase is thickly descriptive, some terms are common and conversational; others are haltingly weird. There are neologisms and words folded oddly together. Melville’s articulations entice and surprise by turns. Even when brooding and alien his words are vaguely familiar, cousins from another country.
As an avid reader of nineteenth-century literature, I’m on cloud–or maybe rock–nine. As a writer, I’m not sure what to do with my admiration. Melville’s writing is decidedly archaic according to today’s standards. How much could I really learn from him?
In all probability, poor Herman’s best prose would get rejected these days, rejected faster than a fat actor auditioning for a soap opera. Don’t believe me? Just try submitting an imitation of Melville’s high style and watch what happens. You’ll be marooned, slush-piled on Rock Redondo, and told to take a short walk off a shorter plank. Too many compound verb forms muddy the stylistic waters, with dreaded adverbs and latinate nouns obscuring the majesty of whatever white whale the writing is aiming at, like a harpoon unnecessarily festooned with holiday lights and squeaky toys. Melville’s descriptive braggadocio offends our delicate twenty-first century sensibilities.
Of course, all of this fails to account for the possibility of a translation! What if we were to modernize the language, shed the archaism and then see what kinds of lessons we could learn from good ole’ Melville?
It’s worth a shot. For if we succeed, we shall accomplish nothing less than a means of learning how to write better from a classic author, without all that outdated word fashion getting in the way like so many bell-bottomed nouns and verbs in flouncy man shirts.
Naturally, this activity will take a bit of know-how. But imagination is the only prerequisite. Then let us to our ropes and rigging.
In one amazing passage from the opening sketch, Melville writes:
However calm the sea without, there is no rest for these swells and those rocks; they lash and are lashed, even when the outer ocean is most at peace with itself. On the oppressive, clouded days, such as are peculiar to this part of the watery Equator, the dark, vitrified masses, many of which raise themselves among white whirlpools and breakers in detached and perilous places off the shore, present a most Plutonian sight. In no world but a fallen one could such lands exist.
First things first. Let’s identify what is essentially remarkable about the passage. What in it specifically might we emulate? I personally love the last line. It has power in its simplicity and flows as an effective contrast with its short, punchy monosyllabics, so different from the meandering pile of images that precedes it.
This is a potential lesson in pacing. But there’s some antiquity dusting up the corners of our relic. Let’s blow it out of our way, shall we?
First, I’m going to replace semi-colons with periods. That’ll minimize much of the annoyance a modern editor might feel at the sight of the original passage. Then I’m going to close up the distance between the subjects and verbs, tightening up the language as I go and eliminating ornate sentence clauses. Here goes (I can hear the more curatorial scholars cringe as I repaint the Mona Lisa with crayons):
However calm the deep sea, the swells and rocks never rest. They lash and get lashed, even when the outer ocean is at peace. On those oppressive, clouded days peculiar to this part of the watery Equator, the dark, vitrified masses of rock near the breakers rise up through white whirlpools in detached and perilous places to present a most Plutonian sight. In no world but a fallen one could such lands exist.
Obviously, I’m no Melville and that’s the point. I’ve spent the last ten minutes or so really thinking about all these tiny changes I’ve made and many other minutes considering changes that I did not make. Sacrifices were made, theories conjured up, discoveries jotted down–about the alliterative touches I wanted to keep, some that I hadn’t noticed in the original before; about subordinate clauses and how common they used to be and how rare today; about the pristine beauty of that perfect last line.
These are epiphanies I could go on describing. But the real joy will only come if and when you undertake the activity yourself. Let me know which archaic author and passage you might try to translate.