Friday, 29 October 2010

Translator Traitor.

There’s an old proverb that goes ‘translator traitor.’ It refers to the fact that even the best of translations can misrepresent the meaning of the original. It has also been applied to translations where over enthusiastic liberties have been taken to deliberately misrepresent the meaning of the original. That sounds a pretty awful thing to do but when it happens, the majority of the time the translator’s intention was not malicious in any way – merely very poorly thought through.

One example is the translation of the works of Chuang Tzu by Herbert A. Giles. He was an exemplary scholar and a talented translator. The setback was that he allowed his ardent Christian faith to sometimes cloud his judgement. That’s not a criticism of Christianity; it’s a criticism of Giles. His translation of Chuang Tzu is very readable and enjoyable. The trouble is that he betrays the original text and its meaning by presenting the writings of the Taoist as being essentially Christian in places, even though they were written hundreds of years before Christianity was created. He goes so far as to include God, God with a capital G, God of the Old and New Testament, in the text of Chuang Tzu despite the fact that God is never mentioned once in the original book. Giles even goes so far as to abandon the real title of one chapter and replace it with The Tao of God.

Giles’ choices involved a decision to not translate at times and to fictionalize a part of the text. He was not alone in this ‘translator traitor’ activity. One of the more creative translators, who is now ironically praised for his creativity in doing it, was Edward Fitzgerald who rewrote more than translated the text in regards to his version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. A more modern offender, more liable to cause offence, was J. B. Phillips. He was a scholar who knew Classical Greek and translated the New Testament. He too allowed his personal view of Christianity, his interpretation of it, to interfere with writing a truly accurate translation: he rewrote parts of the New Testament that personally offended him. Not big parts; merely little parts; not many parts; but nevertheless he rewrote what he believed to be Holy Writ. He was, of course, taken up on it by other scholars.

An example is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. When Jesus asks to see the body of Lazarus the reply is a concern about the smell of a body that has been decomposing for some days – Jesus ignores that and repeats his request. For Phillips, the idea that the odour of putrefaction should dare to enter the Holy nostrils of Christ so offended him that he rewrote the brief passage rather than provide a true translation of it. I’m not mocking Phillips in describing his reasoning that way because that is how he described it himself when he tried to defend his ‘translation.’ Bizarrely, he didn’t seem to understand the fuss about his occasional creativity regards translating the New Testament and his translation is still available, completely uncorrected, and is sometimes described as a paraphrasing of the text rather than a translation.

The reason for these examples is to show that no area of translation - be it religious, historical, philosophical or whatever - is free from the phenomena of Translator Traitor. Also, that such behaviour is not always deliberately mischievous. The intention, not thought through, is usually well meaning.

That brings me to suggesting to those that can that they should read and compare Professor Hoffmann’s translation of Robert Houdin’s Secrets of Conjuring and the original French text. Even if your French is abysmal, it becomes apparent that Hoffmann (Angelo John Lewis) applied a lot of effort in tinkering with the text. There are footnotes where he admits as much but they hardly touch on the amount changes he made. In his preface, Hoffmann writes regarding his translation “I have aimed at substantial rather than absolute fidelity” and he calls his preface the Editor’s Preface and not the Translator’s Preface. All in all, I don’t criticise Hoffmann for his translation but for those interested in the history of magic I do recommend taking time to compare the texts. On one hand, Hoffmann did the editorial job that Robert Houdin’s original (completely uncritical and lazy) publishers should have done and so the text gained something. On the other hand, the particular tone of Robert Houdin’s character expressed in his text is lost and replaced by that of Hoffmann. If you compare Hoffmann’s Modern Magic with his translation of The Secrets of Conjuring it is evident that the author’s ‘voice’ and ‘character’ are one and the same. Robert Houdin’s character in the original text is less formal than Hoffmann; his forms of expression reflect the French society he grew up in and not Hoffmann’s British Victorian stuffed shirt society.

The differences in Robert Houdin’s text and that of Hoffmann are, thankfully, not as dramatic as the examples given regarding Giles, Fitzgerald and Phillips. Nevertheless, it truly is worth a look.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

La Belle et la bête by Jean Cocteau

When Jean Cocteau went to make films he took with him the traditions and methods of the theatre of his time. This is best seen in his film La Belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast). The film, while inexplicably overlooked by modern audiences, has been very influential in film making since it's release in 1946.

Many film makers have copied, sorry, included an homage in their films of the imagery to be seen in La Belle et la bête. The strongest imitator has been the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, so much so that film historian Sir Christopher Frayling was expecting a note of credit at the end of the Disney film - but there was none to be seen.

All sorts of film genres have imitated, sorry, paid homage to Cocteau's imagery in this film. Even horrors films have perhaps over exploited, sorry, paid homage to one particular scene from La Belle et la bête. It the part of the film when Belle has arrived at Bête's house. Her arrival and exploration of the house is laden with visual beauty and mystery. One shot is the very scene that Cocteau presented to the film backer as a drawing and based that drawing alone Cocteau received the money to make the film. Belle is moving down a corridor lined with doors and light gossamer like curtains which billow in a breeze.
Below is a picture from the film Dracula 2000 with the leading lady in a similar corridor. You may have seen many other moments like this in other horror films.

Putting aside the topic of paying homage to the imagery of Cocteau, the film has moments that owe a debt of gratitude (as do all film makers) to the theatrical and cinematic technical innovations of George Méliès - whom Cocteau was familiar with because of his theatre work. Cocteau seems to have relished the use of these and ingeniously created his own to work along side them. By modern special effect standards the film appears to show it's age and yet it is that quality that now, as Sir Christopher Frayling states in his commentary, makes the film even more fairy tale like or myth like in it's look. Some of what Cocteau did could be reproduced now in a modern theatre stage version of La Belle et la bête without any change to the methods. Other things, such as moments of graceful slow motion done by using high speed cameras, firmly lock the film into being a cinematic experience.

The tentative connection to George Méliès and the theatre methods used in the film make the film of interest to those interested in the history of magic and it's influences.

One last point is something I noticed entirely by chance. The actor playing Ludovic, Belle's brother, is a doppelganger for art critic Andrew Graham Dixon.

 [Copyright of the photographs belongs to the film makers and the BBC.]

Monday, 11 October 2010

A Spell Of Cards & Another Spell of Cards by Al Smith

An old proverb says “As many heads, as many opinions.” It’s an apt proverb to apply to the many different types of card tricks. For every magician that likes one type of card trick, another magician will dislike that type. Nevertheless, almost every category of card trick survives over time because of the magicians who do like them and part of that survival is the improvements and innovations created by them.

Al Smith’s two books are mostly, note the word mostly is used and not exclusively, about spelling tricks. As a writer who seems to never miss a good opportunity to employ double meanings, Al’s use of the word ‘spell’ in the titles refer to time spent with cards as much as the main type of card effects explained. So be assured that not every card effect in the books is a spelling one.

Just as with his book, Round the Square, these two books lead the reader through the principles behind the various kinds of spelling tricks in order to provide the reader with the ability to create his or her own card effects. Also, just as in Round the Square, Al puts in plenty of thought regarding the performance of each effect and not simply explaining how the effect works. And once again, where appropriate, Al provides the genealogy of an effect giving deserved credit to other magicians.

For anyone wondering about the worth of spelling tricks, you should give pause to the thought that very few of the classic tomes on card magic don’t include such card effects and The Encyclopaedia of Card Magic devotes a whole chapter to the subject. In the latest issue of The LaBaL, professional card magician and author Paul Gordon contributed a humdinger of a spelling effect called Standard Bikes and a variation on it called Standard Bikes With Aces.

For details on how to purchase copies of A Spell of Cards or Another Spell of Cards please contact Al Smith by emailing