More and more and more thinking about translating poetry, the impossibility and necessity of it. These are rough notes as I’m gathering them; when it all jells into something more solid (solid-ish?) I’ll post that too.
Notes from a lecture by Mihaela Moscaliue: “Translation: Poetics and Politics, Theory and Practice”
A.Burgess—Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.
F. Schleiermacher—The best translator is one who is never fully at home in the foreign language, and seeks to evoke in the reader an experience like his [sic] own, that is, the experience of someone for whom the foreighn language is simultaneously legible and alien.
K. Mattawa—A translator’s job is to provide a dancing partner for the original poem
J.L.Borges—Translations are a partial and precious documentation of the changes the text suffers.
G.Borrow—Translation is at best an echo.
Seamus Heaney described two different approaches to translating, based on how Vikings treated Ireland and England:
—raiding, where poets go in and raid other cultures and languages and take all the booty they can, such as Lowell’s “imitations” which take and own and change at will
—settlement, in which you enter and colonize, but also stay, allowing yourself to be changed by the conquered culture even as you impose change on it
We don’t have a clear language to description translation its various forms. Faithful, literary, free, approximate, literal, formal, informal, intralingual, intersemiotic, intersystemic, transtexualization, transillumination, transformation, transmigration, transplantation, and on and on. German has three different words for three distinct concepts: umdichtun (a poem modeled on another); nachdichtung (free translation); ubersetzung (translation).
What does one translate in a poem? It’s content? It’s type of vocabulary (formal, literary, slang)? It’s music, sound patterns, rhyme? When I was still working with children’s books, I got an order once for “classic alphabet books translated into Spanish.” Big sigh, then a long explanation of how Spanish and English are not the same alphabet, so there is no such thing as an English alphabet book “translated” into Spanish, with the suggestion that I buy them some SPANISH alphabet books.
“A translation is never a duplicate, but a seduction, a precise awareness that there is no finished, complete translation.”
“Poetry may be untranslatable, yet wants itself to be translated.”
“Translation is an intensification of the writing process.”
“Translators are not ventriloquists for the original writers.”
“A translator is a lover made better by unfaithfulness, by what is learned when rules are broken and experiments are done.”
Robert Haas: “recalcitrant strangeness and accuracy” (said about some translation he was doing from a Polish poem of a French concept that doesn’t exist in English, but I simply love the phrase itself)
From Jean Valentine’s talk on her work translating Maria Tsvetaeva
Jean Valentine: translating is a certain kind of chaos
from a translation of a 1929 Tsvetaeva essay on Rilke:
And today I want Rilke to speak—through me. In the vernacular, this is known as translation. (How much better the Germans put it—nachdicten: Following in the poet’s path, paving anew the entire road which he paved. For let nach be—(to follow after), but—dichten: is that which is always anew.) Nachdicten—to pave anew the road along instantaneously vanishing traces. But translation has another meaning. To translate not only into (the Russian language, for example), but also across (a river). I translate Rilke into the Russian tongue, as he will some day translate me to the other world.
By the hand—across the river
from Peter Cole’s talk “Risks and Rewards of Translation”
Peter Cole began by describing his own slow movement towards translating (for which, fyi, he has won a Macarthur Genius Award). He said that initially he was taught, and had the sense, that translation was a threat to him as a young poet, that it was an inhibitor to development of poetic voice. He also described the effect of reading most translations, ground out of “the great gray zone of the homogenized” from which all poems came out sounding the same, a kind of translation-ese which was not really any language at all. But his own writing and life pulled him toward the Hebrew bible, and a decision to learn Hebrew as an American poet.
Translation, he said, is the source of deep discomfort for everyone involved in it. It is an ongoing series of crises. Bialyk, he said, described translations as kissing through a veil, adding, though, that such a kiss is a way to get started. Other descriptions of translating he has encountered:
-chicory for coffee
-like looking at a tapestry from the wrong side
-reproduction vs. procreation
-adultery, desecration, related for the Italian term for translate which grows from the root for traitor or betrayal
-“poetry is what is lost in translation” Robert Frost
-“the spirit that creates prosody dies in translation; you cannot translate the intimacies of sound form; the body’s pleasures will not translate” Donald Hall
So then why translate when translating is impossible? Because, Cole said, all poems seem impossible before they are written. Translation is the art of approximation, but so is poetry itself. Every poem is an imitation of nature; every poem, no matter how great, is leaving something out. Great poetry may be exactly what is present in translation.
The function of art is estrangement, to make the familiar new, Cole said, describing how his encounter with learning Hebrew made English seem utterly new.
In response to Hall’s assertion that the primary pleasure of poetry is in the mouth, that the forming of sounds is an early erotic experience, Cole asserted that translations make sense and make sense—how they make real the sensory dimension of the poem. In translating, you feel the poem as a sensual, verbal object that immerses you in a world that is utterly sensual. Nothing is better for a poet, nothing can expand and realign the poetic muscle as translation of poets you respect and love. The engagement changes your poetic anatomy, remakes you.
Translating also effects us on the aesthetic and moral levels, for when you seek to do justice to work you respect, you are driven to know, to learn, to take action in the world.
Gershem Sholem—translation is one of the greatest miracles, bringing us into the heart of the sacred order from which it springs.
So how then can we understand translation from this perspective? Cole offered a stunning list of possibilities:
-akin to musical transposition, changing the same work to a different key
-restoration of a painting
-erotic sexual congress, sensual dance
-redemption of lost poetry
-opening a window, breaking a shell, removing a veil, removing a well cover
-like shrines taken from one holy place to a new holy place in order to consecrate the new place
-poetry, since all poetry is translation
Abraham Cowley: I am not so enamored of the name of translator that I don’t with for something better, though I don’t know what that should be called.
And also, from Peter Cole, a few dangers of translating to avoid:
-translating is the extraordinary nourishment of oxygen, but could end up suffocating the poet
-the translator could become only a technician
-psychological release could go awry; translation is a kind of fiction, always trying on other lives, but you could get trapped in the delusion that these lives are your own
-the intense and complicated pleasure and texture of translating could make the poet’s own voice extinct