Evaluating translations of surrealist poetry: Adding Note-Down Protocols to Close Reading


Evaluating translations of poetry will always be difficult. The paper focuses on the problems posed by French surrealist poetry, where the reader was held to be as important as the writer in creating interpretations, and argues that evaluations involving these poems inevitably require reader-response data. The paper explores empirically, in the context of André Breton’s “L’Union libre”, whether a modification of Think-Aloud procedure, called Note-Down, applied both to the original text and to three English translations, can contribute useful information to a traditional close reading approach. The results suggest that comparative Note-Down protocols permit simple cost-benefit analyses and allow one to track phenomena, like the persistence of an effect through the text, which might be hard to obtain by other methods.

Table of contents

The thesis of this paper is that evaluating a literary translation requires empirical support if it is not to be a random exercise. I begin by demonstrating that French surrealist poetry presents a particularly intractable problem for evaluation, with its fragmented and highly metaphoric texts and its emphasis on the importance of the process of reading. I shall then take a well-known example, namely Breton’s “L’Union libre”, and three English translations, and show that although ‘close reading’ by a single individual, of the sort proposed by Richards (1926, 1929) for modernist texts and Prendergast (1990) for 19th century ones, is important, it is not sufficient, since many of the conclusions required for [ p. 2 ]translation are inevitably hypotheses, even personal beliefs. It is proposed that reader-response data is needed to supplement and counter-balance close reading. Think Aloud techniques would seem to have a number of advantages for examining short poems and process aspects of reading and in Section 4 a method I call Note-Down is developed to retain the advantages of Think Aloud but overcome some of its limitations for evaluation. The results of a Note- Down study are compared with conclusions derived from close reading.

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