… better than the original

July 21st, 2016 Sections: Language

Tirana Museum – one of the highlights of the tour

One of the stangest days in my life was the day I ended up in Tirana, the capital of Albania.

The country was just opening up to Western visitors and the trip wasn’t exactly planned in advance.  I was actually on holiday with some friends in Montenegro, (in what remained of Yugoslavia), when we saw a poster advertising tour to Albania, and it seemed like to good an opportunity to pass up … so we walked into the office and booked our seats.

It was a fascinating and memorable trip … although many of the details with have faded from my memory … However, there are still many that I can recall with remarkable clarity.

Our guide for the tour was a diminutive teacher of English, a University lecturer … who brought along one of his ‘students’ to gain some experience and meet some native English speakers – at least that’w what he said … but he didn’t exactly look like a student – he was too old, too fit and well dressed, and was already fluent in English.  We jumped to the conclusion that he was probably a ‘minder’ assigned to our guide to ensure that he stuck to the ‘official’ line in anything he said to these foreigners.


This was more or less confirmed as we sat on the bus on the journey inland to the capital from the port od Duress where had landed … and the group leader took the microphone and started a Q&A session … explaining that most of the passengers on the bus probably knew little or nothing about the country and asking our local guide a series of questions about the country and everyday life for ordinary people.

Some questions he answered freely and easily … whilst others he tried to field and adroitly avoid … but when the question turned to the foxholes and pillboxes that littered the countryside … and the issue of conscription and military service …the guide handed the microphone to his ‘student’ saying something like ‘you’re better qualified to answer this’.

There were several other classic moments – vignettes – but one in particular seems appropiorate to today.

We were being taken through the National Historical Museum and had reached some exhibits related to a great Albanian natiopnal poet … and, no, I can’t remember his name – that;s one of the details that has faded from my memory.  What I do remember is that he also translated many foreign works into Albanian … including works by Shakespeare.

It seems that his translations were highly rated … so highly rated, in fact, that they were considered by many, (who, exactly? … that’s a good question … he never really said), to be “better than the original”, to have improved on the original.

I smiled when I heard that … but not all members of our party were so restrained … bursting into laughter.

I am fairly sure that to most Albanians – his versions of the Bard’s words were, no doubt, more intelligable than those William actually wrote down on paper … even to a native English speaker like me, who has grown up in an environment, using a language, that was largely influenced – if not exactly shaped – by the man himself … (having coined so naby words and phrases that we use in modern day English …

Let’s fact it … they probably wouldn’t have known English.

… and even native English speakers have trouble wioth some of the Elizabethan English in the original.

As well as being in their own mother tongue, the translation would have been more modern … not in 16th Century language … and, therefore, more acceble to them.

 I had an similar experience when my Russian teacher asked for my copy if the the Works of sShakespeare and started looking up some of the passages she was familar with … and when she turned to Hamlet’s To be or not to be sililoquy turned to me and commented, It’s better in Russian.

In Russian it is Beet, ili nee beet

This story came to mind as I read an account, in Russian, of the first moon landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin forty seven ears ago, on 21st July, 1969 … (OK, I know, they actually landed i the evening of 20th – according to TTC GMT – but emerged from the lunar module six hours later … just before three oclock in the morning, GMT, on the 21st) … and Armstrong’s famous pronouncement, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” was rendered as “Это один маленький шаг для человека, но гигантский скачок для всего человечества.” – Eta odeen malenkiy shag dlya cheloveka, no giganstskiy skachok dlya vsyevo chelovechestva – That’s one small step for a human, but a giant leap for all mankind.

Caught up in the excitement of the moment he seems to have fluffed his lines … missing out the ‘a’ (as in “one small step for a man”) and this has been the subject of much comment and speculation in the past.

It helps that, in Russian, they don’t have articles, (a, an and the), and that is more or less implied by the context, … and the addition of the word no (but) and vseyevo (‘all’) seemed, (to me at least), to add to the phrase something that wasn’t clear in the original, highlighting and making explicit the contrast/comparison between the two parts of the sentence and thus better reflecting Armstrong’s original, planned, intention.

To me, it also serves as an example of good translation … instead of providing a word for word rendition, a good translator concentrates on the meaning and intention and how best to convey that to the new audience.



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