translation notes – not all languages are equal

from “A Note on Translation” in Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovith, translated by Chana Block and Chana Kronfeld

Given the imperial status of American English today, translations of poetry into English, especially from minor languages, run the risk of domesticating the foreign, blurring subversive features, or bleaching out any sign of cultural particularity. This is a tendency we have consciously tried to resist. We have benefited in this regard from recent developments in translation studies that move beyond metaphors of fidelity and betrayal to a model of intercultural negotiation, one that is keenly aware of asymmetries of power between languages.

Which is the perfect way of saying something I’ve known about language but had no way to say quite so clearly. For me, I think, the problem is how to deal with something that is the most ordinary, everyday image or cultural understanding in one language but, translated, takes on the exotic, the unfamiliar, the extraordinary. What then to do? Choose an image that is domestic to the speakers of the translated language (that is, as one teacher said, change the tacos to hamburgers)? Write the literal with a lot of notes? How do you both let the readers of the translation remain aware of the other and yet, if the poem calls for it, write in the every day, comfortable, familiar?


3 thoughts on “translation notes – not all languages are equal

  1. So true! How do you do justice to the rich culture of a language that doesn’t have a context in English? Not to mention staying true to the lilt and rhythm of a foreign tongue. You’ve taken on quite an undertaking, my friend. Kudos to you!

    Also, I love the changes you made to your blog layout 🙂

  2. I have no idea how I’m going to do that! And I’m much more than a little intimidated by the two translators who have posed this question, since they know more about Hebrew literature and language than I ever will. If they struggle, who am I to even try?

    And thanks re: blog layout – I’ve been doing some cleaning up when I don’t have the energy to actually write. It’s changed so much since I started, and probably will keep changing. I love your practice of reading a poem aloud – maybe, post-Drew, I’ll have time to do something similar. Long live poetry as an oral art!!!

  3. Sometimes knowing a lot about a particular cultures language and literature can be a hindrance. I’m sure you’ll bring a fresh perspective. And we must try, otherwise we’re stuck with the way things have always been done…which is no fun.

    Oh yes, I’m somewhat acquainted with the fact that blogs change. Mine is still pretty young, but I already feel like it’s been all over the place! I’m so glad you enjoy the “Poetry Monday” pieces. It’s important for me to read work aloud and I love sharing the practice of it!

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