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Plagiarism in translation


I have recently been alerted to all the fuss about the Spender Prize in December. Allen Prowle, who won, was subjected to vicious attacks by a bunch of thuggish Dutch translators, who maintained he had lifted the versions from others and then tweaked them. But, in my view, he hadn’t. He had worked with other versions because he doesn’t know much Dutch, presumably. That is a perfectly acceptable practice. His translations were far better than those of the people he was supposed to have plagiarised from. Sometimes, indeed, expressions and lines were very similar, but that is probably because there was not much scope to do them differently. It seems to me that it is dangerous to speak of plagiarism in translation, as the lines are not so clear. In a sense, all translation is of course plagiarism. What do others think? (Google Allen Prowle Spender if you haven’t read the controversy.)


“Thuggish” is uncalled-for. I can quite understand their feelings over this. Even if the new versions are better, it amounts to editing rather than translating, and it’s inappropriate to send that kind of work to a competition.


OK, vicious, then.
It is this in particular that I object to:
“Plagiarism is a crime.
These offences [= copyright infringement - dat is wat plagiaat óók is] are punishable by a maximum of two years imprisonment (…) maximum fine of 50.000 pounds.” That was on the website documenting Prowle’s supposed crimes.

I find that unnecessarily confrontational. If you think someone’s version of a text is too close to someone else’s, you ask them about it. At a university, if we suspect a student or colleague of plagiarism, we invite them to a meeting, and give them a chance to explain. Sometimes people don’t realise, or have different views. It’s not always totally clear-cut. I don’t think it’s right to just attack people in that way.


I think the anger is justifiable, and not even particularly vicious in the way it’s put. This was an entry in a competition and won a prize (admittedly not huge in monetary terms, but with prestige) for work that didn’t merit it because it wasn’t a translation. The original translator is quite right be angry and point out what is dishonest about this, legally and morally. They aren’t in a university department with the perpetrator, they are the person whose work has been used. It’s unlikely that the original creator is going to be in a position to spot that a student has handed in plagiarised work, and be able to have a quiet chat with them. If one of your students plagiarised your work, they’d be pretty stupid, wouldn’t they?


Well, I wish someone else would join in this debate, because I think there are two sides. I take your point. But a translator might be careless, or, having spent a long time making translations work poetically - because that is so clearly what happened here - might forget to check how they arose. In a published book there is plenty of room to discuss such things and acknowledge the work of others. I don’t like to see someone publicly pillloried for what might be carelessness. That seems to me a rather monstrous thing to do.
But let me try and deflect the discussion away from this one case.
The first line of Paul Celan’s most famous poem, ‘Todesfuge’, reads: “Schwarze Milch der Fruehe wir trinken sie abends”. John Felstiner translates “Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening”, Michael Hamburger translates “Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown” and I translate “Black milk of morning we drink it at evening”. Throughout the poem, the differences are at this subtle level, but they are utterly crucial, because this is a poem, and poems work on subtleties. (Not a letter that is not significant, as Blake said.) Perspectives in these three translations (and the several other ones) vary. But there are no big and obvious differences, that would allow the versions not to fall foul of plagiarism tools.So does that mean one of us plagiarised the others?
I hope this is not going to turn into a discussion between just the two of us…


Seems kind of pointless to discuss. If you want to form an opinion on whether or not plagiarism occurred, learn Dutch then do a close reading of all three texts, while also having an idea of Prowle’s style. Conjecture is also fruitless without knowing the personality of the translator - I would certainly have categorically rebutted any claims of plagiarism and provided drafts of whatever sort I had as proof, as well as other translations as proof of my proficiency in Dutch, but Prowle’s decision not to do so does not prove his guilt. I certainly would not submit a translation of Trakl, for instance, to a prize when the only difference between my translation and another’s is a few words in each poem, unless I thought those few words were monumental, and if I really then needed to submit it I would be sure to mention my indebtedness to previous translations, so however you look at it: Prowle did a rather daft thing, it doesn’t affect my life whatsoever, and prizes are ridiculous.


Pointless to discuss this case - my point exactly. But not pointless to discuss the issue of plagiarism in translation, surely? I think it’s a rather big issue, and does affect people’s lives (if not yours, Amy). It’s a tricky and interesting question to what extent someone feels a translation is or should be their “own work”. How far do different translations of the same ST have to differ? Can one only translate from languages one speaks well? (I would say not, by the way.)


Not pointless to discuss plagiarism, but at the same time there isn’t a lot to discuss is there? It just shouldn’t be done ever. What you’re missing I think is the question - why do we translate? Maybe the answer isn’t the same for everyone, but I translate because I love literature and want to bring these different interesting works to people of other languages. So if the work has been translated already, what justifies another translation? Say I’m translating a work into the English that’s already been done by a contemporary whose translation I however find fault with and think I could improve - the proper thing and really the only sensible thing to do would be to try to get into contact with that translator in order to not only make them aware that you are working on a piece they have translated before but also to pick their brain on why they chose what they did. It’s the proper thing to do because they deserve to be informed and it’s the only sensible thing to do because my translation would almost certainly suffer if I didn’t.

So am afraid I don’t understand why you would want to translate something from a language you aren’t fluent in - except as a private endeavour. In Prowle’s case, he didn’t (as far as I know) inform or recognize the translators whose work he was indebted to and therefore what he did would have to qualify for at worst plagiarism and at best impropriety. If the reason he didn’t contact them was becaue he is not fluent in Dutch, that would certainly make the situation clearer. And if why you are translating is not because you love literature and want to bring these works to a wider audience but only because it is a source of income like any other, then what you have is a different situation entirely and anything goes as long as you get paid and don’t get in trouble.


Ah, if it were only so simple! “It just shouldn’t be done ever.” Many of us have struggled for many years to define plagiarism. Perhaps it wouldn’t ever be done if everyone agreed what it was.
As for not translating what has already been done - I disagree profoundly. Every literary text calls out for as many translations as possible. (Though it may not be practical to publish too many.) But a poem that can only be translated in one way cannot be a poem. Poems work by allowing different takes and different interpretations. It’s how they live on. A new translation does not mean the others were “wrong” or could be improved on. It is simply a recognition of the way poems work.
I don’t think translation is only done either for a love of literature or a love of money. Here are some of the reasons I have translated: from inner compulsion; to give someone who has been silenced a voice; to bring pleasure to a dying friend; because I have been asked to; to show students how I would do it. Everyone’s reasons are different, and one translator will have as many different reasons as there are situations.


I’d be really interested to hear everyone’s opinions on the implications of this issue for our latest project. We are about to launch an app for iPhones etc. that allows users to make their own translation of a poem without having to know the original language. One of our published translators takes a poem, splits it into expressions (words or phrases), then translates each one several different ways. These “multi-translations” are then collated together and, in the app, the user can go through expression-by-expression, choosing their favourite translation of it from the alternatives offered and thereby creating “their own” translation.

It seems to me that this is pretty much a simplified version of exactly what has happened here. Do you think we are, apart from the fact that our translators are aware and willing, facilitating plagiarism by (hopefully) hundreds/thousands of people? That sounds like a leading question, and obviously I think the concept of the app is one without bad implications, but I’d be interested to know if you thought that a user’s translation made in this way can be viewed as their own work or not. In the end, what is a translator but someone who makes lots of small decisions from a limited choice, over and over again throughout the length of the poem?

You also might find it interesting to know that for one of the poems we have in the app, by Mallorcan poet Josep Lluís Aguiló, translated by Anna Crowe, of 18 lines split into about 47 expressions with 2 or 3 options for each expression, there are exactly 2,404,631,930,000,000 different possible overall translations.


That’s not plagiarism and no one will care because you are not publishing, no? But why do you want to do this app?


Well we do allow users to share their translation, which technically is publishing!

The idea came slowly over time – it became clear to me that many people have no idea what translating a poem involves. Common opinions seemed to be either “it’s impossible to do well, so why bother” or “you just translate the words into English, right?” I thought we had a good opportunity to give people a chance to have a go themselves. We want the translator’s craft to be better appreciated, and the best way to make that happen is to help people understand what it actually is, how it works, and how creative, difficult, exploratory, uncertain, intangible, exciting it can be. What better way to do that than to allow them to have a go themselves.


Four thoughts:

  1. I was very shocked by some of the comments reported here about this debate. We can all make mistakes in translation and we can all accidentally write English that resembles others’ translations, which seems to be the case here. (See my next point.) But I believe that as translators we should adhere to the principle of charity.
  2. Certain lexical items really do admit of little variation. Immediately to speak of plagiarism is to misunderstand the nature of language. How many ways can I translate ‘Bonjour’ into English? You cannot slap a copyright on lexical space.
  3. I agree that the more translations of poems we have, the better. Each translation will bring out different aspects of the source text, a little bit like walking round a statue, taking photographs. Which is the correct photograph? Well, the question is wrong.
  4. It seems to me that the App is in no way encouraging plagiarism because of the way that it is set up: it is open and uses translators’ work with permission. Plagiarism is a contextual matter.


This is some time later, but it’s a compelling debate. I don’t see it’s appropriate to be ‘shocked’ at the valid opinions of others, all of which seem to me to be lucidly and intelligently expressed here. I personally agree with Amy in that I can’t begin to understand why anyone could pretend to translate a poem when they don;t understand the original language, and I don’t see how anyone could enter the Spender with a translation from Dutch without knowing any Dutch. It seems to me this is a version, which anyone could do, not a specialist poet-linguist who is translating - which is what Anna Crowe is doing from the Catalan. I’ve spent some time looking at this, and have never met a non-English speaker who would readily translate English language poetry based on other peoples’ work - they would be slated because there are too many English native speakers out there. And the app, it seems to me, is a game, not the art of translation per se. But that doesn’t make it a bad idea - it just means it’s poetry-by-numbers and isn’t a thing you could reasonably enter into the Stephen Spender competition.

I know someone who had their work sent to professional translators for a second opinion before entering the same competition - this, to my mind, means it is not all their own work and therefore should not be entered (this does raise the interesting question of where you draw the line, here: I might show a poem I’d written in my own first language to another poet and ask if she/he thought a certain word worked at the end of a certain line, then make a decision and enter it into a competition - I’d consider that entirely legitimate). The app, I think, Ben, is the same as collaboration, and official collaborative translations when one doesn’t know the language is the same. To translate is an art which requires a degree of study and skill. To rearrange someone else’s work is possibly a clever trick, but it doesn’t involve the same level of knowledge or skill. So ik ben met de nederlanders: I’m with the Dutch - though possibly - possibly - a little less aggressively…

…which brings me to add a postscript, which is that having lived in Amsterdam and spoken Dutch for many years, I learned the Dutch naturally express themselves much more forcefully than English speakers, so a level of translation is needed to interpret just how aggressive they’re being - probably a lot less than it appears.


As the not particularly thuggish poet and translator who discovered Allen Prowle’s plagiarism, I’d like to let you all know that I’ve written an article on the situation for PN Review, which will be out in a couple of months and analyses the translations and the original poem word for word. If you could read the original poem, you would see that neither Prowle’s translation nor Brockway’s are very good or accurate. Prowle’s uncredited translation derives from Brockway’s, mistakes and all, rather than the original poem, which makes it plagiarism.


The thing is, I’ve translated poems using ‘versions’ (when I’m not fluent in the other language being translated), and I have often wondered about this as a method. Perhaps the person supplying the crib should also be credited, because to my mind what I’m doing is not a ‘pure’ translation, and speaking as a poet I’m happier when my work is translated into another language by someone who is fluent. It’s a difficult question but a really important one.


Understanding what constitutes a ‘crib’ is also important - a literal draft supplied by someone with a better knowledge of the source language. This case involved a published and copyrighted translation that was not credited.


Personally I wish people would leave translating Dutch to people who do know quite a lot of Dutch, and ditto with all other languages. But if they do as you say this man did, and use others’ translations for inspiration, then surely they should credit them? And probably not enter the result in competitions.


Exactly, Sheenagh. If something’s not entirely your own, you only need to credit the source and ask permission. But, of course, Prowle wouldn’t have been able to enter it in the competition then.
In this case, the original translator of the winning poem had already died, so he couldn’t fight his own corner. The original translator of the runner-up poem is still alive and was very upset about the situation.


I just agree. It seems ‘translating’ has become a sort of me-too bandwagon, which some (anglophone?) poets have jumped onto without first considering the importance of an in-depth knowledge of the translated language. It feels to me as though it’s become a rite of passage which writers feel they should put in their stable to show open mindedness, even a sort of civic generosity by giving a poet from a more minority language an opening into the anglophone market. But it seems to me entirely wrong that all of this bigheartedness should reward only the poet at the end of the line, effectively the ‘thief’ of another writer, and another translator’s words. I hate to rain on anyone’s parade because it’s so very interesting to translate and to be translated, but – how can anything be ‘carried across’ when it isn’t understood first hand in the beginning? By all means do it, and call it by its proper name - ‘after’, or version. Cover version.