The Linguist

The Linguist 61,3 - June/July 2022

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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22 The Linguist Vol/61 No/3 2022 FEATURES Robin Meyer adopts a resistant approach to translating the multilingual poetry of troubadour Sayat'-Nova A lmost every translation bears its challenges – finding the mot juste, the right turn of phrase, the idiom closest to that in the original. Yet translation goes beyond just transposing words, phrases and sentences into another language; the task of the translator, in the words of Walter Benjamin, is to transmit, to let echo the underlying intention of the original in the translation. 1 To be true to that task, we can neither just retell the original nor provide a literal translation. These two extremes, as the poet John Dryden recognised in the 17th century, are best avoided in favour of giving the original thought "either the same turn if our tongue will bear it, or if not, to vary but the dress, not to alter or destroy the substance". 2 In essence, he advises staying as true to the original as possible without doing violence to the target language. A perfectly sensible maxim, or is it? In certain fields of translation this is more easily said than done. Consider poetry or, to put the cherry on the cake, pre-modern poetry, or even multilingual pre-modern poetry. I face this conundrum at the beginning of a long-term project: the translation into English of the Armenian poetry of Sayat'-Nova, an 18th-century troubadour who lived and composed in and around Tiflis (modern Tbilisi, Georgia). He is revered in the Caucasus as one of the greatest folk singers and composers, and his songs are well known and oft recited to this day in their original languages: Azeri, Georgian and Armenian. 3 Despite his fame, no complete English translation of his largely romantic poetic songs is available in English. English versions of some poems can be found online; others have been partially translated by Sayat'-Nova scholar Charles Dowsett. One of the reasons these pieces are so challenging – and perhaps why a published translation is as yet lacking – is their multilingual nature. The Armenian poems are written in the dialect of Tiflis, transfused with borrowings from Georgian, Azeri, Turkish and Farsi. These loanwords did not survive in Modern Eastern or Western Armenian, the varieties most commonly spoken in the Republic of Armenia and the international Armenian diaspora. The task of translation thus brings with it the challenge of finding not only the origin of these loanwords, but also their precise meaning in 18th-century parlance. In poem 26, Sayat'-Nova uses the term նաղաշ (/nɑʁɑʃ/), best translated as 'painting, artwork'. This word is derived from Farsi نقاش (/naqqɑːʃ/; 'painter'), ultimately a borrowing from Arabic ن قّ اش (naqqāš; 'engraver, inscriber'). Both original terms designate occupations, but cannot do so in Armenian, A poetic othering

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