Douglas Hofstadter Translates a Poem, and then Writes a Book About It

It's not that simple. First, the book was published in 1997, and it's been a few years since I read it. Being a Hofstadter book it's worth returning to occasionally. It's not that simple also because when Hofstadter writes about something he rarely writes about just that one thing.

I bought the book because I had already read a few of Hofstadter's book. Way back I used to read his Methamagical Themas columns in Scientific American. Later I read Godel, Escher, Bach, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies, as well as various articles included in other people's books. Thus, as a something of fan, and translator, I found a book sub-titled "In Praise of the Music of Language" irresistible.

Hofstadter presents the poem and its history. He starts with his own first attempt at translating it, explaining that having no experience in poetry translation he listed what he considered to be the defining features of the poem as an initial guide to start from. Then he shows other translations, some more of his own, but mostly from friends and colleagues. Each translation, or group of translation is followed by a lengthy discussion. The discussions are about translation as analogies, how meanings are conveyed and understood, thought and symbols, language and symbols, semantics. There is even some discussion of Artificial Intelligence at some point. I'll discuss some of his points in further posts in this series.

Of course that may be just the experience of reading a Hofstadter book. It's a credit to the author that he can take any subject and turn into such a multi-faceted discussion.

One part I found particularly interesting was a discussion of the translation of one of his earlier books, "Godel, Escher, Bach."  He was very much aware of the various issues translators might have with the book. To assist them he created an annotated version of the book. He felt that in some places he should explain the process of writing, thus allowing the translator to integrate an analogous process in the target language into the translation.

Personally, I'd love to see even part of this annotated version, even though the book has been translated into Hebrew, my other working language.

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