C.K Williams on translating

from a Thursday lecture on the triumphs and tribulations of translating

-poetry is itself a language
-poetry can only be translated into poetry
-poetry is the gap between what you know and what you do

We are, he said, mainly unconscious of how much translation has functioned in our history and culture. The Renaissance was heavily works translated from Greek and Rome, for example, and U.S. poetry was rescued from strangling formalism in the 1950s by translations that poured into the country from Latin and South America and Europe.

Bishop — “translating poetry is like trying to put your feet into gloves.”

Always an issue of form vs. content — do you translate the meaning, the poetic vision, the meter, the rhyme? Try for some kind of hybrid? Poetry is music and lyrics, and compromises must always be made.

There are levels of translations — literal, free, translation of the vision by choosing new words and images from the second language. Then there are “versions,” where the translator doesn’t even pretend to convey the work of the original poet, but to make new poems out of the old. “Grand theft auto translation” he called this latter, “past the edge of where translation can go.”

He is now considering “thick translations,” where the poem is translated but then followed by pages of commentary explaining how and why it worked in its original language and what choices the translator made.

Most translated poems are shared work, between someone fluent in the first language and a poet skilled in the second language.

Transfiguring is also a possibility, shifting art in to poetry, poetry to dance, etc — this is a kind of shape-shifting as opposed to translating between languages.

And lest anyone think we all sit around politely reciting verse, here’s C.K.’s comment on one translation, ” It had nothing whatsoever to do with the original and furthermore is just crap.”


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