Volume 5, No. 4
The Power of Sound by Joanna Janecka
he most general definition of sound given by Webster's Dictionary is "the sensation produced by stimulation of the organs of hearing by vibrations transmitted through the air or other medium" (1996: 1359).
In this paper, I would like to discuss and prove, following Duff (1981: 96), that sound does accord importance to the meaning of a given utterance. Sound is the element that activates certain domains of the full matrix of a given scene in the recipient's mind and makes the recipient conceptualise the scene in a way peculiar to that individual. This element of scene construal is an important factor in the process of conceptualization as it gives a particular relevance to other elements of scene, and as such, must not be forgotten in the process of translation. It is a fact that the original sound is lost in translation simply because sound as such is unique and non-transferrable. Thus, the task of the translator is to find a sound image as close to the original as possible so that it would activate at least some of, if not all, the source domains.
Sound is the element that activates certain domains of the full matrix of a given scene in the recipient's mind
- The theory of Poetry Translation
As Connolly summarizes (the paragraph based on the article "Poetry Translation" in: Baker, 1998: 170-176), "[p]oetry translation has been called the art of compromise and its success will always be a question of degree."
Indeed, although poetry has been translated for nearly two thousand years, there is no clear-cut "prescription" as how to translate poems.
- Successful translation
The effect poetry evokes is based on its inner musical value, and thus the translation, to be successful, must function as a poem in the similar way it does in the Source Language:
Verse into prose vs. verse into verse
Advocates of translating poetry literally included such celebrities as Nabokov, Robert Browning or Shelley, claiming that "it is impossible to ... convey all the features of the original in a language and form acceptable to the target language culture and tradition" (p. 171).
However, the approach that the form and style of a poem should be conveyed along with the content has also been strongly defended, by Joseph Brodsky among others. Connolly (p.173) supports this view by quoting Tytler (1970: 131-2):
As we can see, there are as many opinions as scholars. My personal view is that when translating poetry, one has to preserve the artistic associations evoked by the poem as close to the original as possible. When most of the associations are lost (and the sound associations are the most important of all), the translation turns out to be unsuccessful and fails to conform to the author's intent.
The best way to sum up the theoretical approach and to take a look at the practice of poetry translation is to quote a contemporary translator, William Trask, who says: "impossible, of course, that's why I do it" (in: Honig 1985: 7, quoted by Connolly, p. 171).
- Nursery Rhymes
Sound is what children conceptualize first. They cannot read, they do not know the surrounding world, so all they can depend on is what they hear around them. Nursery rhymes are intended to be recited or read aloud, and their quality as such depends on their sound, and the effect their sound evokes. Therefore, the sound is the most important element of the image created. Very often children learn the rhymes by heart, without even paying attention to their content. And thus, when listening to the poem At the Vegetable Stall by Jan Brzechwa (Na straganie), for example, Polish children grasp the easy rhyme and rhythm of the short lines, and eagerly repeat the poem. They memorize those lines and even as adults they associate them with their childhood. So, even if the poem is translated, and the translator creates a similar rhythmic and rhyming pattern, the associations are different. The TL readers will never have the same associations because they were not raised with the poem, did not listen to it as children, and it does not bring back memories of childhood for them. The translation of the poem in question shows that even the best translation is more like a new composition in the target language, rather than a transfer of the source image into the target image. Sound associations are inevitably lost in translation.
A similar situation takes place when translating from English into Polish. As an example, let us look at a song sung by American children:
Even when translated into Polish, it will be nothing more than a very simple story about a spider wandering up a water spout, and the associations that an American has with the sound of this song will be lost for the Pole who did not grow up with it.
Translating nursery rhymes is not such a simple task. Duff experimented with translating the simple rhyme 'the cat sat on the mat' into other languages. The task seems simple, as we immediately associate the English version with the Polish 'wlazł kotek na płotek' and the image of childhood and verses learnt by heart for the first time in one's life. However, already the sound of the phrase 'la chatte se gratte sur la natte' automatically translated into French does not evoke similar associations. Duff arrives at the conclusion that:
Nonsense poetry is created to be read aloud. It:
Those associations, typical for the source language, are closely related to its sound. It is the sound that makes the speaker and the listener draw pleasure and entertainment from reading nonsense poetry. To quote Korzeniowska again:
In the process of translation, however, the original sound is lost. Therefore, the associations evoked by the sound are lost as well. However, the translator may create a new set of associations, similar to the original one, also by means of the rhyme and rhythm of the target language, thus producing new sounds. The effect of his work, though, will be a new composition, evoking new associations.
The poem Dlaczego ogórek nie śpiewa? by Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński and its translation Why does the pickle never sing? by Stanisław Barańczak (Appendix II) well illustrate the above point (Barańczak, 1997: 296-297). Barańczak - master of sound - is well known for his predilection for form, and he always works hard to preserve the sound, rhyme and rhythm of the poem. Generally, he seems to believe deeply in the power of sound in its general meaning and its importance to a piece of art. He always places fidelity to rhyme and rhythmic pattern above everything else, and tries to preserve the form first, even at the expense of the content. The poem mentioned above is an excellent example of my claim.
Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński, a poet of the so called Skamander period, is known for the ease with which he handles language. Here, he created a nonsense poem that amuses the reader with its sound. In fact, the sound is the best feature of this piece of poetry. The simple rhymes and short lines are ear-catching; the rhythm is stable, alternating between seven and eight syllables in a line, with the exception of the last two lines. We can safely assume that the change of rhythm has a purpose, since in the last two verses, the mood changes from humorous to slightly moralizing. The translation was done by the tandem Barańczak & Cavanagh, famous for their translatory work and for taking up tasks that few venture to attempt. They have often been criticized for giving priority to form over content, but also praised for their genuine craft and for using language as a tool. The sound associations of a light and humorous story are preserved here, although it has been achieved at the expense of its original content.
Although the new sounds produced in the target language are gathered in the same rhyming pattern and nearly the same (shorter) rhythmic pattern, major differences between the contents of the source and the target texts ultimately result in the loss of original associations. The question in the title was asked resolutely ["Pytanie to, w tytule / postawione tak śmiało"], whereas in the translation the topic changes and it is the title that has cast the question in deathless bronze ["The question that our title / has cast in deathless bronze"]. Also, 'deathless bronze' imposes a more serious register than that of the humorous original. In the original it is solving the problem or answering the question that is painful ["Pytanie to.../ choćby z największym bólem/ rozwiązać by należało"], and not the question itself, which is the case in Barańczak's version ["The question.../ is painful yet so vital"].
The content of the first two lines of the second stanza is completely different. While in the original the cucumber does not sing at any time [... ogórek nie śpiewa/ i to o każdej porze], Barańczak enumerates types of singing that it will not produce: ["... our little friend/ won't sing, croon, lilt or chant"].
The third stanza is completely changed in translation. In the original the cucumber wishes to sing so very much, more than anyone has ever wished to sing before. He wants to sing as beautifully as a skylark, and at night he sheds green tears in his jar. The translated stanza reads as follows:
The content of the last stanza is approximately preserved in the translation, although again the scope of the original expression 'obojętnie' ('indifferently': without interest or concern; not caring; apathetic (cf. WD, 1996: 725)) differs from the scope of the adverb 'callously' (callous: hardened, insensitive indifferent, unsympathetic (cf. WD, 1996:212)) as used by Barańczak. Generally, we can say that Barańczak and Cavanagh managed to retain the sound associations of this nonsense rhyme, although the mood is far more serious and stiff. As a result, the original image is violated as the content is heavily changed.
On the other hand, Korzeniowska's translation proves that preserving associations that are very close to the original is still possible. Her translation serves as an argument for simplicity. Sometimes a solution is very close at our hand, but we do not notice it, being focused upon one aspect of the translatory work, and in our effort we abandon other aspects completely.
The translator has to choose between faithfulness to the content or to the form, including the sound, and the effect it causes. In this case, Stanisław Barańczak and Claire Cavanagh preserved the rhyming and rhythmic pattern, but sacrificed the content, which resulted in a new story. The sound evokes similar associations, but the final image differs from the original. Korzeniowska, on the other hand, fully succeeded in bringing the TL speaker nearer the original associations, not only by preserving the rhyme and the rhythm of the poem, but also by remaining faithful to its content.
To conclude, Korzeniowska comments thus upon the translation of nursery rhymes and nonsense poetry:
And a poem is considered to be a new composition whenever the image it creates deviates from the original one.
Generally, the sound associations mentioned above are untranslatable, or hardly translatable, because when the texts mentioned are translated into any other language, the image evoked by the sound of words in the original language by the original sound, is completely lost.
Sound of Poetry
Language can imitate sounds and illustrate them. Poets, who use language as their artistic tool to create an intended image, very often take this simple truth into consideration. Musicality in poetry is usually achieved by means of the phonetic effects of some phonemes, and they evoke associations that are similar to certain natural sounds. For instance, the accumulation of the /r/ sound creates an image of toughness or terror. This effect was used by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, whose Erlkönig is an excellent example how language, German in this case, can imitate nature. When we close our eyes, we hear the sounds of a storm, thunder and the rustle of willow branches tossed by heavy wind. All that is achieved due to the natural linguistic feature of German, full of the rhotic /r/ and other tough sounds. However, when it comes to translating into a language where such sounds do not exist, the associations are obviously lost. Such is the case with Chinese, where there are no sounds similar to the rolled /r/ (cf. Wojtasiewicz, 1996:41). On the other hand, in Chinese, the meaning of an utterance changes, depending on the pitch of voice. Those associations are inevitably lost when translating into any other language that does not distinguish between different pitches.
Another means of expression that influences the musicality of a poem is onomatopoeia. Otherwise called 'sound symbolism,' it indicates "direct associations between the form and meaning of language. This can take place when phonetic sounds reflect sounds in the outside world, as in cuckoo, murmur, and splash." (Crystal; 1999:313).
Also, sound associations are evoked due to alliteration and assonance. Alliteration is "a sequence of words (or of stressed syllables within words) beginning with the same sound. ... A well-known literary example is the repeated p and w sounds in Gray's The ploughman homeward plods his weary way ('Elegy in a Country Churchyard')" (Crystal, 1999:11). Assonance, on the other hand, is "the repeated use of vowels or vowel-like sounds to achieve a particular effect. ... e.g. the wailing warning from the approaching headland/ Are all sea voices, and the heaving groaner/ Rounded homewards ... (T.S. Eliot, 'The Dry Salvages')" (Crystal, 1999:26).
Nevertheless, the most obvious tools to enrich musicality in poetry are rhyme and rhythm. The Penguin Dictionary of Language defines rhyme as "a correspondence of syllables, especially at the ends of lines in verse" (Crystal; 1999:290), whereas rhythm is "the perceived regularity of prominent units in speech. It is stated in terms of such patterns as stressed vs. unstressed syllables (as in English), or long vs. short syllables (as in Latin). Languages vary greatly in their basic rhythmic types" (1999:290).
Alan Duff claims that "once the music goes, the meaning goes as well" (1981:95). This is most visible in poetry, where "every language has its own sound, and these sounds are uttered in certain combinations to express the feelings and emotions of the writer/ poet" (Korzeniowska, 1998:81).
- Translating Polish Poetry
- Adam Mickiewicz
The above is very well illustrated by the output of the great Polish romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz. He was a master of sound, amazing in his ability to paint mental images with the sound of the language, expressing his emotions in plain but very suggestive language that influences the imagery in the reader.
The poet had been living in Paris for five years, where he immigrated shortly after the November Uprising, when in 1835 he was invited to lecture on Latin literature in Lausanne. His Lausanne lyrics, written between 1835 and 1840, are filled with the sadness of an immigrant who lives abroad, misses his home country and who has no chance of returning; his feelings are shared by the poet's whole generation. "I already feel my old age," he says in one of his poems (Żal rozrzutnika) written in his Lausanne period.
Let us consider the poem Nad wodą wielką i czystą [Over water wide and clear]. The poem amazes with its mastery of sound, which depicts the poet's emotions. It gains its musicality due to the consistent rhythmic pattern (8 syllables in each line), alliteration and assonance as well as repetitions. With the exception of the last stanza, the /v/ sound is repeated very often. Also, clusters of /s/ mainly with stops, as /st/, /sk/, smoothen the sound of the poem and imitate sparkles of light mirrored by the surface of water (e.g. czystą stały, przejrzystą, błysnęło, głos zniknął [voiced /z/], czysta stoi, przejrzysta, wszystko, błyskawice, skałom, stać, błyskawicom). The effect of those sibilants, however, is lost in translation, which impoverishes the powerful sound landscape of the original.
Due to the sound, the atmosphere of the first two stanzas is dark and gloomy. We can nearly hear the anger and rebellion in the third stanza, sudden silence emphasized by the shortening of the fourth stanza, and harmony in the last two stanzas. The first two stanzas read as follows:
At first glance it is obvious that the stanzas sound nearly the same. They have the same rhyming pattern (abac); moreover, the first and third lines of both stanzas are exactly the same. The second lines rhyme due to the assonance and alliteration of the words 'opoki' - 'obłoki' where the only difference lies in the sound /p/ of 'opoki' as opposed to /bł/ in 'obłoki'. In fact, this only seems to be different as both sounds are stops, with the same place of articulation, differing only in that the former is unvoiced, whereas the latter is voiced. The fourth lines of both stanzas are the most interesting. 'Odbiła twarze ich czarne' vs. Odbiła kształty ich marne' catches the ear due to nearly the same pattern "odbiła XXX ich XXX", where again the last words of each line, i.e. 'czarne' - 'marne' rhyme, as it was the case with the second lines. Additionally, the effect of a gloomy atmosphere is strengthened by the phonetic effect evoked by the repetition of the /r/ sound. Also, fricatives /s/, // help the reader conceptualise an image of water and the movement of clouds.
In the third stanza the rhyming pattern is changed from abac into abab, and the mood changes as well, which is illustrated by the change of sound. To compare:
Again, the first and the third line are repeated without any alternation. The second line, however, does not resemble its counterparts from the previous stanzas, and in the fourth line only the entering word of the pattern "odbiła XXX ich XXX" is preserved, which foretells the coming change. In the previous stanzas the phonetic effect evoked by /r/ in the repeated word 'czarne' and its rhyme 'marne' seems to be an onomatopoeic forecast of a storm, which actually comes now, in the third stanza. It is most visible in the alliteration of the phrase 'grom ryknął' which imitates the actual thunder. The gathering of sound /w/ in the last line, i.e. 'Odbiła światło, głos zniknął' indicates the liquidity of water, calmness that has come after rain, and foretells another change of mood.
The fourth stanza maintains the image of the same water:
which remains 'czysta', 'wielka', 'przejrzysta'. This repetition emphasises the constancy of water; the scene may change, from rebellion to peace, but the image of water still remains the same and is characterized by the same sounds: 'czysta,' 'wielka,' 'przejrzysta.' As the description of water is the only thing we find in the fourth stanza and nothing else happens, we can practically hear the silence that has finally come after the storm.
The rebellious sound of a storm is missing in the two last stanzas:
On the contrary, the repeated soft sound /c'/, which appears only in the last stanza, results in the change of perspective. We are no longer interested in the image of a vast and clear surface of water, as a new figure appears. Now, our attention is attracted by the phenomenon of continuity, emphasised not only by the repetition of a single sound ('stać', 'grozić', 'przewozić', 'grzmieć', 'ginąć', 'płynąć'), but also of a whole word repeated three times in the last line of the poem:
The image of flowing, or sailing is upheld in translation, which reads:
but the softness of the original, achieved by the consonant /c'/, is lost here.
The rhyme and rhythm of this poem creates its own melody. Its sound simply flows off the tongue. This is what makes it special and what justifies Duff's claim that "the sound accords importance to the meaning" (1981:96). The translation by Dębska differs from the original in the rhythmic pattern. While the original is built with lines of eight syllables each, the length of lines in translation varies from four or three, in one instance, to eight. With the exception of the first stanza, where rhymes change from abac to abab, the rhyming pattern is roughly the same.
Korzeniowska said that "every language has its own sound and these sounds are uttered in certain combinations to express the feelings and emotions of the writer or poet." (1998:81). Her claim is excellently illustrated by another poem by Adam Mickiewicz, also from his Lausanne period, a period of sadness, nostalgia for his homeland and, first and foremost, awareness of the relentless passing of time. One of our contemporary Polish poets compares the poem to crying [wiersz - płacz] (Przyboś, 1956:24) which is probably the best description of the poem Polały się łzy. Although only five lines long, the poem comprises all the power of reflection on the poet's own life. And, what is most important here, Mickiewicz's emotions are expressed mainly by means of the sound of the language he uses; we nearly hear the cry and the sound of tears flowing down the poet's face, when he says:
The poem is closed in the frame of the sentence 'Polały się łzy me czyste, rzęsiste'. Worth noticing is the absence of traditional rhymes; the only rhymes are internal, but their sole presence in the poem strengthens the phonetic effect. Also, musicality is achieved due to repetition of the same preposition 'Na' at the beginning of each line. Each line within a frame refers to a separate period of the poet's life, which is stressed by a different sound for each of them.
'Na me dzieciństwo sielskie, anielskie' describes childhood that was idyllic [sielskie] and angelic [anielskie]. Indeed, the very soft Polish sounds (/dz'i/, /c'in'/, /s'i/, /k'/, /n'i/) let us associate the first period of human life with harmony, peace and quiet.
The next line refers to the rebellious age of teenagers, and the sound changes deliberately here. We can hear angry echoes in 'górną i durną' due to the consonant /r/, the sound usually associated with anger, as well as the tough voiced stops /g/ and /d/. '[W]iek męski, wiek klęski' is an image of adulthood. Though harmonious due to an internal rhyme, the sound resembles moaning because of the nasalised Polish vowel /ew/. And last but not least, the brilliant phrase 'Polały się łzy me czyste, rzęsiste' which makes us conceptualise the tears flowing. The words in this` line seem to whisper with fricatives /s'/, /s/, /z/, //; they imitate the sound of the flowing liquid with the semivowel /w/; they moan with the nasalised vowel /ew/.
Julian Przyboś commented upon it, saying that "no comforting wisdom flows from this poem; there only flow tears in refrain, in the sentence repeated in such a way as if this crying never ended and never soothed the defeated" (1956, translation mine).
We can only imagine the difficulties in translating this "crying" from Polish, full of rustling sounds, into English. English lacks those very soft sounds (/dz'i/, /c'in'/, /s'i/, /k'/, /n'i/) that bring to mind the image of softness and comfort, as well as nasalized vowels imitating moaning. Thus, we can expect a decent translation from the point of view of the contents; however the main layer of meaning, that is the unspoken meaning conveyed by the sound of the language, will probably be inevitably lost, as the sound of Polish and English naturally differ.
Undertaking the translation of the above-discussed poems by Adam Mickiewicz is indeed a brave task, as their main feature is sound, and the impact of sound associations evoked by their melody. Mickiewicz found a way to handle the Polish language as an artistic tool, and used the tool very often, if not always, to express his passionate romantic emotions when creating his masterpieces.
- Cyprian Kamil Norwid
The richness of means of sound expression is also well illustrated by works of another great Polish poet, Cyprian Kamil Norwid. His works were often translated into English (by Adam Czerniawski or Jerzy Pietrkiewicz among others), though this task seems to be all but easy. Norwid is widely recognized as the master of sound, and sound is one of the tools he uses to influence the imagery of his readers.
For lack of space let us only look into one of his poems: Fortepian Chopina [Chopin's Grand Piano]. It is said that it is enough to close your eyes to hear the music, to hear the variety of sounds, all the tonal coloring created by Norwid.
On the 19th of September, 1863, the Russian tsar's deputy, General Theodore Berg, was assassinated by a bomb dropped from the Zamoyski Palace. In consequence, the palace was destroyed. The press reported that among pieces of furniture and other palace equipment thrown from the palace windows and burnt on the yard there was a grand piano, which supposedly belonged to Chopin. The news inspired Cyprian Kamil Norwid to write an elegiac parable on the power of Chopin's music, its ideal form, its symbolic death and reincarnation. As a motto, the poet quotes George Gordon Byron in French, who said that music is a strange thing ("La musique est une chose étrange!" (C. K. Norwid, 1995:241)). And, indeed, the phenomenon of Chopin's music is highly difficult to express in words. Nonetheless, Norwid ventures to describe what is indescribable, and, which is not surprising in the case of this poet, he succeeds. His poem flows from the tongue, it does not really imitate Chopin's music: it is the music.
Norwid achieves the effect due to his outstanding skill of using such means of artistic expression as rhythm, intonation, or tonal features of vowels to depict the atmosphere of the great composer's works. "Fortepian Chopina" is said to resemble a musical work whose chain links differ in pitch, rhythm, agogic accent (stress given to a note through prolonged duration (Webster, 1996:29)) and emotional character, but which still form a single cycle. As such, the poem is often compared to Chopin's Preludes. It mirrors the Preludes in its formal cyclic construction, in waving and contrasting moods, but first and foremost: in handling the sound and rhythm.
Both rhythmic and intonation pattern, corresponding with each other, mirror the change of mood throughout the poem. The number of lines in each stanza consequently changes all the time, indicating changes in mood as well. The translation by Teresa Bałuk (2000:13) imitates the original length pattern, although the length of half of the stanzas differ in one line. Also the intonation pattern is slightly violated, which results from the rules governing the Polish and English syntax and the way questions (the source of the rising intonation) are created.
The first stanza, introducing the master, Frederic Chopin, consists of seven lines and contains only statements, which makes its intonation falling. The translation is one line shorter. To compare:
whereas the translation reads as follows:
The lack of original division (here: 'uwydatnię'/ 'sublimate') into syllables, consistent throughout the poem, impoverishes the intended rhythm in translation.
The second and third stanzas resemble a folk song in their structure, with a stanza of first five lines, consisting of 11 syllables, and the refrain of the following, considerably shorter, lines. The refrain of the second stanza is built of seven four-syllable-long lines (the last two having 10 syllables together). The refrain of the third stanza is similar: it consists of six lines, four of them five-syllable-long, and two of them having eleven and ten (the last line) syllables. The introduction of a refrain structure changes the original rhythm of the stanza and indicates a change of mood as well.
The length of lines is preserved in the translated second stanza in that it clearly divides the stanza into two parts, but the intonation pattern is violated. The last four lines of the original read as follows:
The first two lines here contain the rising cadence, immediately followed by the falling intonation of the exclamation in the third line, and shortly then the return to the rising intonation in the fourth line. This fragment was translated as:
It is visible that the dynamic intonation of the original is lost here. The reader does not have an image of the changing music of Chopin's play: two original questions were joined into one complex question in translation, and the exclamation, imposing the strong falling intonation, disappeared altogether. Thus, the original rhythm is lost.
The original third stanza continues the folk song pattern, with its two parts consisting of long lines resembling a stanza, and short lines resembling a refrain. It is lost, however, in translation, where, with the exception of two eleven-syllable-long lines, the length of the lines is nearly the same:
Moreover, the rhythm of translation slightly changes due to the lack of the vocative "Fryderyku" present in the original.
The fourth stanza describes the reincarnation of music, and as such it is longer than the previous stanzas. A similar pattern, both rhythmic and intonation, is preserved in translation, with the exception of the graphic form, where, as everywhere else, expanded characters, indicating the load of importance of the text, are changed into italics, which simply indicates a quotation.
The fifth stanza depicts the beauty of Chopin's music. The mood is high but stabilized and as such it is mirrored by the body of the stanza: it repeats the beginning shape of the first seven-syllable-long stanza. The sixth stanza introduces what is going to happen in the next stanza, that is the climax of the poem.
The climactic seventh stanza, describing the core and essence of Chopin's music is the longest one, consisting of twenty-one syllables, both in the original and in translation. We can nearly hear strong beats of piano keyboard. Emotions are visualized by means of abruptly changing intonation: from falling of the apostrophe "O Ty!", repeated in the fifth and the ninth line as "O! Ty", and shortly after comes the rising pitch of the question "I gdzie?..." immediately followed by the unexpected falling "znak...". Then the intonation rises again with four questions asked: "Czy w Fidiasu? Dawidzie? Czy w Szopenie?/ Czy w Eschylesowej scenie?..." and drops with the exclamation "BRAK!...". The emotions do not stabilize: in the next but one line there is another pair: the intonation rises yet again with another question "Dopełnienie?" to fall with the very next phrase "go boli!". The next three lines present the reverse order: falling intonation first: "zadatek!" and rising again in the next line beginning with: "- Kłos?". Additionally, graphic marks (dashes and full stops) indicate breaks - moments of silence - that are also part of the musicality of this stanza and of the whole poem.
The translation lacks a few links in this intonation chain, as well as moments of silence marked by graphics, which results in the violation of the original's very emotional rhythm. Let us compare a fragment of the original: