I like to muck about with translation of the Secret History. Inspired by Everett Fox’s raw translations from the Bible, that imitate what the original does no matter how strangely this comes across in English, I have tried to get more authentic with the Mongol.
I don’t read thirteenth-century Mongol; yet you can acquaint yourself thanks to the resources at Monumenta Altaica, who have the Cleaves English translation along with three transliterations of the original. With a transliteration in front of me and rival translations with notes on word use, I concoct.
Take a passage: Blue Jos describes Temujin, The Secret History of the Mongols, §254.
First, the version I have in my novel (Tribal Brawls, epigraph to the chapter ‘Jamuqa Back from the Dead’):
In his hazards he tied his head behind him with his bags,
For safety from spillage he kept his blood in his flask.
With his sleeve for his cushion,
With his coat-skirts for his couch,
The flesh between his teeth he ate for supper
And swallowed his spit to slake his thirst.
In his efforts for us the sweat of his brow ran to his feet,
The sweat of the soles of his feet ran to his brow.
Here’s the original Mongol. You can see the shape and the rhymes (hint: look for rhyme at the start of the line not the end). The first and last lines are prose – I leave them unitalicised; in between is verse:
Qan ecige tan-u qamuq ulus-i bayi-ul-urun
qara teriü-ben qanjuqala-ju
qara cisu-ban nambuqala-ju
qara nidü-ben hirmes ülü kin
qabtaqay ciki-ben dere-tür ülü talbin
šilüsün-iyen unda la-ju
ölümle-n kicien yabu-quy caq-tur eke tan-u qamtu-bar joboldurun…
Here’s an attempt to imitate in English what it does. For instance, that qara, three times in a row, means black — used far beyond the literal, opposed to white to stand for unfortunate or non-noble, common. I left it out of my loose translation that had to be self-explanatory for the purposes of the novel. Now I’m interested in ever more authenticity…
The khan your father, in his work to found the whole ulus [people or state] –
black head being strapped to his saddle,
black blood being poured into his flask,
black eyes unblinking,
not lying his flat ear to a pillow, making do with his sleeve,
making do with his coat-skirts spread out,
satisfying thirst with his saliva,
eating his gums for meat –
he struggled –
until the sweat from his brow ran down to his soles,
until the sweat from the soles of his feet ran to his brow –
diligently he gave himself to the great work.