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Write Better By Translating Classics–Melville into English!

September 30, 2013
Roca Redondo

Roca Redondo

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we shall accomplish nothing less than a means of learning how to write better from a classic author, without all that outdated word fashion getting in the way like so many bell-bottomed nouns and verbs in flouncy man shirts.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.

12 Comments
  1. Its on my to do list as of now, hold me to it! I feel like Ben in Tom Sawyer, hand me the bucket of paint. What a brilliant exercise.

    • Not a coincidence that you mention Twain, whose N-word ridden novels have received their own sanitizing through modernized versions of late–as if that kind of bowdlerizing could re-write history and erase America’s long history of racism? Anyways, I’m getting off the stump to say, yes, this is a good exercise aesthetically (and maybe also for some healthy confrontations with the nature of history too).

  2. hakariconstant permalink

    I fell in love with archaic language in 6th grade when I came across a copy of Beowolf in my middle school’s library. At times I wish I had been born at a time when that kind of language was the prevaling kind in speaking and writing. Its sad that so many today can’t enjoy it, but I do like your idea of translating that kind of language, if a lot of force developed behind the idea and it became a movement to translate classics and underappreated rarities, it might spark some kind of literary revolution of old ideas that time tested and proved great, and really have an awesome influence on minds today. That’s been done already with the Bible, though the more modern translations we have are translated from the original non-English languages, and not rewordings of the still popular but archaic language of the King James Version. As a Christian myself, I have a bit of a window into seeing the effect on many Christians having a Bible easier for them to understand, and I know there are many other books that would have an awesome effect on people if the could understand it. Not even talking about just serious mind books, but books like Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, that was incredibly intersesting to read, and had me literally laughing out loud many times as I read it. Anyway, great post!

    • Thanks for such a generous reply. I grew up reading the King James version too. They teach it now in many college and university English departments as a piece of literature, because at the level of the language at least, it represents some of the finest rhetorical work produced by the Elizabethans.

  3. hakariconstant permalink

    And sorry for my poor spelling, my iPod Touch doesn’t have spellcheck, and I am a horrible speller :/

  4. Michael, how about Top Ten Flash Fiction Book Publication Contests? I feel like throwing away some money in exchange for false hopes. Come on. You love this stuff. And it will save me, I mean all you readers, lots of time and frustration. Please.

    • That’s a great idea. My wheels are spinning and grinding at the sight of this suggestion. I’ll have my elves look into the possibilities. There may be something wrapped under the internet for you come Friday morning.

  5. Ronda Roaring permalink

    I’m listening to Moby Dick as a audio book. Melville’s writing is so rich. I feel sorry that he died so unappreciated.

    • Oh I know, but that puts him in such surprisingly great company. More proof that popularity and bestselling status is no indication of greatness or longevity.

  6. Mia Avramut permalink

    I’m intrigued. It’s a brilliant approach. I must confess, having two very young readers-listeners here has called, repeatedly, for an ad-hoc renewal of Swift’s language.. This exercise is a must, now.

    • Ah, Gulliver, no doubt, and his minute observations, not to mention all that untranslatable understatement. I often wonder how it ever works as children’s literature, remembering the hours I spent poring over the OED while reading it in college.

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