Found in Translation [New York Times]Let’s try to forget that the words “Call me Ishmael” mean anything, and think about how they sound.
Listen to the vowel sounds: ah, ee, soft i, aa. Four of them, each different, and each a soft, soothing note. Listen too to the way the line is bracketed by consonants. We open with the hard c, hit the l at the end of “call,” and then, in a lovely act of symmetry, hit the l at the end of “Ishmael.” “Call me Arthur” or “Call me Bob” are adequate but not, for musical reasons, as satisfying.
Most readers, of course, wouldn’t be able to tell you that they respond to those three words because they are soothing and symmetrical, but most readers register the fact unconsciously. You could probably say that meaning is the force we employ, and music is the seduction. It is the translator’s job to reproduce the force as well as the music.
That is the Italian version of Melville’s line, and the translator has done a nice job. I can tell you, as a reader who doesn’t speak Italian, that those two words do in fact sound like something, independent of their meaning. Although different from the English, we have a new, equally lovely progression of vowel sounds — ee-a, ah, ee, a, ee — and those three m’s, nicely spaced.
If you’re translating “Moby-Dick,” that’s one sentence down, approximately a million more to go.
The Korean can empathize 100 percent, particularly when he is translating songs.