Alvin Lee: “Northrop Frye’s Thoughts on Translation”


We are continuing to feature papers presented at the Frye Festival over the years.  Here we are presenting General Editor of the Collected Works Alvin Lee’s opening remarks to a round table discussion on “Translation: Collaboration or Betrayal?”, delivered in 2002.  It has also been added to the journal’s Frye Festival Archive here.

`Northrop Frye’s Thoughts on Translation’

Frye said some important things about translation from one langue to another. He also, in GC chapter 1, borrowed the French term langage, to help him see what kinds of things are expressible in all languages, and so need to be taken into account by all translators of les langues. I’ll try to identify some of what was involved for Frye in each of these two verbal areas.

By langue or ‘tongue’ Frye meant what you and I normally do when we distinguish English from French or Italian, or Hebrew from Greek or Sanskrit, or Chinese from Japanese and Korean. When we speak of language in this sense, we are indicating the words on the actual tongues of a particular people, as they live together and interact in words. Historically many such languages have come to be written down, though many more have not; and so some of the latter have disappeared—perhaps we should say they have never appeared. Most obviously a langue is a complex system of sounds. Frye realized that it is the sound-associations within a language that are the first casualty in translation, even though these `are of immense importance in building up linguistic responses.’ ‘The assonances between words of similar reference, the standard rhymes, the words of multiple meanings that allow for puns, these are all accidents, or, as philologists like to say, “pure” coincidences. Yet they make up a texture that enters into the mental processes of all native speakers of the language.’ This ‘texture, extending as it does to a dense mass of idioms that can often be translated only by a complete rephrasing of the original, helps to make language one of the most fragmented of all human phenomena.’(The Great Code, 4)

Given these facts, said Frye, ‘everyone concerned with language is aware of the extent to which reading a translation is a settling for the second best.’ (4)

Frye lamented that he was not more proficient in foreign languages. He did not have spoken or written fluency in any language other than English, though his reading knowledge of French, especially the French poets of late 19th-century France and some Canadian francophone writers, was sophisticated and critically astute. As we all know, this former inhabitant of Moncton was gloriously alive verbally. Intellectually he was one of the most conscious inhabitants of the world of words in the 20th century. This means, in relation to foreign languages, that he had a reading knowledge and more than just a scholar’s curiosity when he was pursuing important lexical questions about Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, and Italian. I have the sense that he spent a lot of time with dictionaries, commentaries, and translations set beside original texts, also in talking to colleagues skilled in particular languages, when he was probing Biblical passages or The Divine Comedy or Kant’s Critiques or a Holderlin lyric, or numerous other writings. So far as Asian texts were involved, he depended almost entirely on translations. But here too he delved and questioned, sometimes wishing he had a better translation, as he looked for the radical or root sense of the words. Whether the text was eastern or western, English or foreign, it often was the etymological meaning that he went for, because this was the one that was at once concrete and figurative. It is my sense that Frye often reached a basic metaphorical understanding of the words in Homer or Genesis or Hegel that a professional translator, not gifted or educated in metaphorical thinking, would filter out while ostensibly trying to make the text understandable to a non-initiate.

Frye’s attempts to get beyond or through langue into langage, did not lead him to minimize the undeniable obstacles facing translators. But he does press on, to the question of what it is in langage that allows the expression of similar things in several languages. How, specifically, he asks in The Great Code, can we account for the fact that most of the influence of the Christian Bible (not the Hebrew Bible nor the Arabic Koran) has been in the form of translations? What ‘common sense’ is there in langage that takes us beyond the difference in linguistic and cultural reference? What is the explanation of the fact that there is ‘a degree of mutual intelligibility and communicating power’ in ‘human creative expression all over the world.’

Frye’s answer is sorted out and formulated in his notebooks in the seventies and eighties and set out at length in his last three books: GC, WP, DV. A few quotations will help us sense the essence of his answer to these questions:

(i) ‘In the course of this fascinating dialogue Mr. Scott quotes Robert Frost as saying that “ the poetry” is what is lost in translation, adding that he does not think this the whole truth [55]. As a result of reading what follows, I have become convinced that it is the opposite of the truth, and that “the poetry” is precisely what, given exceptionally favourable conditions like these, can be translated. What cannot be translated are the linguistic accidents, such as the sound patterns that a language makes or the nuances of meaning peculiar to it, like the difference between rêve and songe in French which has no counterpart in English.’

(ii) [from the same dialogue] ‘Meaning is derived from context, and there are two contexts for verbal meaning: the context of literature and the context of ordinary explicit or intentional discourse. When we first read a concentrated and difficult poem, we first try to grasp its explicit meaning, or the prose sense of what it says. We often call this the “literal” meaning, but actually it is a translation of the poem into a different verbal context, and is not what the poem really means at all. Gerard Manley Hopkins draws a distinction between the poet’s “overthought” or explicit meaning, and his “underthought,” or the meaning given by the progression of images and metaphors. But it is the “underthought” that is the real poetic meaning, and the explicit meaning must conform to it . . . . the real meaning, the imagistic and metaphorical meaning . . . .the translation of any poem worth translating should be as literal as the language will allow, but it should be a literal rendering of the real and not of the superficial meaning. . . . a translation, when thorough enough, may be a critical elucidation of its original as well as a translation. . . . . Translation . . . becomes a creative achievement in communication, not merely a necessary evil or a removal of barriers.’ [‘Dialogue on Translation,from a seminar in Montreal in 1970 in which the poem ‘Tombeau des rois’ by Anne Hebert had been translated into English by Frank R. Scott and the two versions were being considered. The Frye piece is included in Northrop Frye on Canada, CWNF 12, ed. David Staines and Jean O’Grady (Toronto: UTP).]

(iii) ‘[188] . . ..  Xy  began with a Greek-Hebrew polarization, so its word was a translatable word from the beginning.’  [NB 21, [188], p. 257 Denham typescript of Northrop Frye’s Notebooks and Lectures on `The Great Code’ and Other Religious Texts, CWNR 13 (UTP)]

(iv) ‘[246] Chapter Two: The Gift of Tongues. Translation, leading to the “moral” of the hermeneutic dilemma & that only imagery can really be translated. (I think it amounts to that, and the hermeneutic dilemma relates to all the accidents of language, including the grammatical ones.)’ [NB 21, [246], p. 273 Denham typescript]

(v) ‘[258] Hebrew is exceptionally concrete & poor in abstractions. Also it has an exceedingly constricted vocabulary. You don’t expect rhetorical amplification in the Bible any more than we should expect a social-gossip column in a resistance press. Adjective & adverbs are relatively rare in the Hebrew Bible, & the suppleness & flexibility of Greek was more of a nuisance than an advantage.’ [NB 21, [258], p. 275 Denham typescript]

(vi) ‘[260] Two: all reading is translation. Hebrew is translatable because it’s intensely demonstrative: everything is “and” connected, even though our conceptually-obsessed language keeps putting in “so,” “but,” “therefore,” & the like. We shipped far too much Latin after Wyclif. (The oral origin of parallelism is “dialogue,”or, ritually, antiphonal chant). Hebrew rhythm is accentual, which is why English lit. is so Biblical. Accidents of language (cf. Koran) can’t be reproduced, except independently in poetry (e.g. Eliot’s A-W [Ash Wednesday])’  [NB 21, [260], p. 276 Denham typescript]

(vii) ‘[308] Now in the translating of the Bible there are three elements. One is that of sound, the associative-dissociative element. I have notes on this: it’s what corresponds to voices. next come the sown dragon’s teeth, the voices of concepts, the fighting voices. Then, follows the mandala of peaceful deities, the hieroglyphs, tree, mountain, city, garden, river. Here the root word is translatable; the symbolic overtones may not be.’ [NB 21, [308], p. 288 Denham typescript]

(viii) ‘[325] The Three can begin with the Hebrew & Greek stuff & the division of language into the three areas of sound (untranslatable; Koran & Kabbalism0, abstraction (dialectically translatable only; illustrate from Douai & KJ) & imagery (literally translatable, leading to Four’s discussion of what’s literal).’  [NB 21, [325], p. 293 Denham typescript]

(ix) ‘[419] . . . . It’s possible too that something on translatability & the gift of tongues comes into it: the final triumph of the Spirit, the Word of God in the heart, is a translation into an unknown tongue. Dialectic of Babel & Pentecost.’ [NB 21, [419], p. 315 Denham typescript]

Frye Translated

With the help of the running tabulation kept by Frye’s main bibliographer, Robert Denham, we know that at the other pole of the translation question, that of Frye himself as a writer being translated, his works have moved into numerous other languages and cultural contexts. One or more Frye texts is available in English and the following languages (probably now an incomplete list):

German, French, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Serbo-Croatian, Danish, Dutch, Korean, Chinese, Farsi, Hungarian, Hebrew, Polish, and Turkish. Frye books, most especially AC, are widely read in English as well in India and Pakistan, and, in varying degrees, in many other countries in which the first language is not English.

The languages include the following language families: Germanic (4 languages), Romance (5), Slavic (2), Altaic (1), Persian (1), Semitic (1), Sino-Tibetan (1) and Japanese-Korean (2).

The most translated books are:

AC 10

GC 9

EI 5


CP 5

WP 4

Frye’s first book, FS, has been translated only once, into Italian, by Carla Plevano Pezzini and Francesca Valente, in 1976. Pezzini and Valente have also made available in Italian Mito metaphor sinbolo (1989) and DV (1993). Other Italian translators have done AC, EI, FI, TSE, WTC, FT, MC, GC, StS, SecS, MD, Frye on Shakespeare, MM, WP. This means that there are 17 books of Frye available in Italian, the most in any other language. There are 9 in Japanese, 8 in Spanish, 7 in each of French and Korean. The Farsi translation is of EI and was issued in Tehran in 1984. The first foreign language translation of a Frye book was AC into German in 1964, seven years after its publication in English. The only other book that I know of that has also been translated into German is A Natural Perspective. The scarcity of Frye in German does not mean he is not read in Germany, where most intellectuals and educated people read English. In recent years there is a good deal of reading and translating of Frye in China and a multi-volume collected edition of his writings is to be brought out, in Chinese, in Shanghai. If anyone in this audience has further information about translated Frye texts that it seems likely I don’t know of, I’d be grateful for the new information, as, I’m sure, would Professor Denham. It would make a fascinating international conference to assemble as many as possible of those who have translated a Frye text into another language and cultural context, and learn from these workers with words and cross-cultural questions what they could tell us about the issues involved.

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