“I am not part of this crime”

from Neruda’s “Letter to Miguel Otero Silva,” translated by Robert Bly

[…] I took life,
and I faced her and kissed her,
and then went through the tunnels of the mines
to see how other men live.
And when I came out, my hands stained with garbage and sadness,
I held my hands up and showed them to the generals,
and said, “I am not part of this crime.”
They started to cough, showed disgust, left off saying hello,
gave up calling me Theocritus, and ended up by insulting me
and assigning the entire police force to arrest me
because I didn’t continue to be occupied exclusively with
      metaphysical subjects.
But I had brought joy over to my side.

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Robert Bly’s 8 Stages of Translation, part 1

Excerpted (muchly!) from Robert Bly’s The Eight Stages of Translation, Rowan Tree Press, 1983. It’s now out of print and difficult to locate. In the book he goes through the translation process with a sonnet from Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orphesus.” I won’t type out his various versions, but “seeing” how he makes choices and changes them is fascinating. Below I’m outlining the steps, giving his descriptions, advice, and small bits of his commentary.

From the introduction:

In this essay I will not deal with the theory of translation but I will try to answer the question: What is it like to translate a poem? We’ll look mainly at the difficulties. The difficulties are all one difficulty, something immense, confusing, all of a piece. One translates a poem in fits and starts, getting a half line here, weeks later the other half, but one senses a process. I’m going to simplify the process into eight stages. I mean by that the stages one goes through from the first meeting with a poem to its recreation, when one says goodbye to it. As I’ve mentioned above, the stages will often collapse into each other, or a single line will suddenly go through all eight stages in a flash, while the other lines lie about looking even more resistant than before. What I will do then is to pretend that all goes in order; but this is an ancient ploy. When one makes a map, one pretends the earth can be laid out flat. But a map helps us to visualize the territory.

Stage 1:

During the first stage we set down a literal version, we don’t worry about nuances—English phrases that are flat, prosaic, dumpy are fine. We only want the thrust. […] As we read the literal, our first reaction is: What happened to the poem? Where did it go? So we read the original again and it’s still marvelous; so evidently something has been left out—probably the meaning. Before we go further with a translation then, we have to deal with the issue: What does the poem mean?

Stage 2:

         To find that is what I call the second stage. Some translators just print the literal version; they turn away from this stage. If we enter it, we will need everything we have learned in literature courses, or from our own writing, and all the (language of the original poem) we can scrape up in order to penetrate the “problems.” Often friends are helpful at this stage, to bring up quirky details that we haven’t noticed.

         [when wrestling with the deepest levels of the poem] we feel ourselves drawn here into areas we do not feel confident in, even to ideas we cannot accept. If we cannot accept them, we will resist them as a translator and do a poor job translating the poem. During this stage, then, we test how far we are willing to go. It’s clear that the poet is ahead of us, otherwise the poem would not be worth translating; it would have nothing “to say.” […] In a good poem, which violates certain secret assumptions, this second stage may take several hours. I spent a long time on this stage alone, some of it arguing over the text with other students and translators.

         […] The more one talks, the more clear Rilke’s beliefs become, and so his meaning. He is certain of it, and so the German has a lovely enthusiasm, expressed in lifting, joyful rhythms. If that store of feeling is beyond the translator, he or she should leave them poem be. At the end of this stage, the translator should ask himself whether the feelings as well as the concepts are within his world. If they are not, he should stop. […] In the second stage, we decide whether to turn back or go on.

Stage 3:

         If we decide to go on, we return to our literal version and see where it lost the meanings just found. We redo the literal and try to get it into English this time. We think of the genius of the English language, what its nature is. I’ll call that the third stage.

         During this stage, we use all we know about the structure of the English language. During the composition of the literal version we followed the word order of the original German, and by doing that found ourselves drawn in the whirlpool of the delayed verb. German gains energy at times by delaying the verb, and even the main noun, so it appears late in the sentence. English gains energy the opposite way, by embarking the main noun immediately and the verb soon after. Most sentences in English that begin with prepositions, with “into” or “upon the” or “for the” tend to be weak in practice; this is not a doctrine but something we observe in reading or writing English.

         […] Leaving the word order of the original poem behind is often painful; beginning translators especially resist it. They feel disloyal if they move the verb, but each language evolves in a different way and we cannot cancel a thousand years of language evolution by our will. Moreover, if we are disloyal to German, we are at the same moment loyal to English. The word order of Spanish is closer to that of English, and this stage is usually less painful when translating from Spanish. So then, after redoing later lines, thinking solely in this stage of the sentence and clause structures natural to English, we would arrive at a new draft. We ignore the sentence structure of the German original, and try to move all sentences bodily into the genius of English.

more than a leap from dictionary to dictionary, translation is a spiritual exercise

from Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz, introduction to 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese poem is translated Asphodel Press, 1987 (sadly out of print!)

      In its way a spiritual exercise, translation is dependent on the dissolution of the translator’s ego: an absolute humility toward the text. A bad translation is the insistent voice of the translator—that is, when one sees no poet and hears only the translator speaking.

      The point is that translation is more than a leap from dictionary to dictionary; it is a reimagining of the poem. As such, every reading of every poem, regardless of language, is an act of translation: translation into the reader’s intellectual and emotional life. As no individual reader remains the same, each reading becomes a different—not merely another—reading. The same poem cannot be read twice.

Great poetry lives in state of perpetual transformation, perpetual translation

      Poetry is that which is worth translating.

      For example, this four-line poem, 1200 years old: a mountain, a forest, the setting sun illuminating a patch of moss. It is a scrap of literary Chinese, no longer spoken as its writer spoke it. It is a thing, forever itself, inseparable from its language.

      And yet something about it has caused it to lead a nomadic life: insinuating itself in the minds of readers, demanding understanding (but on the reader’s own terms), provoking thought, sometimes compelling writing in other languages. Great poetry lives in state of perpetual transformation, perpetual translation: the poem dies when it has no place to go.

      The transformations that take shape in print, that take the formal name of “translation,” become their own beings, set out on their own wanderings. Some live long, and some don’t. What kind of creatures are they:? What happens when a poem, once Chinese and still Chinese, becomes a piece of English, Spanish, French poetry?

Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz, introduction to 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese poem is translated Asphodel Press, 1987 (sadly out of print!)

Shez: Literary Alibis

more translating work. There’s an earlier version of this, from when I started in May. I’ve learned a lot in the last few months, and know I have still have so much more to learn. So “Yeah!” for step 2, knowing there’ll be plenty more steps to celebrate along the way…

תירוצים ספרותיים


כְּשֶׁיַּגִּיּעַ יוֹם הַדִּין לָאָבוֹת הָאוֹנְסִים
לֹא תַּגִּידוּ אַף מִלָּה
סוֹפְסוֹף תֵּשְׁבוּ בְּשֶׁקֶט
וְתִתְּנוּ מָקוֹם לְזַוְעוֹת בְּכְיָהּ שֶׁל הַיַּלְדָּה


אֲבָל עַד שֶׁיַּגִּיעַ יוֹם הַדִּין תַּמְשִׁיכוּ לִסְתֹּם לי אֶת הַפֶּה
וּלְחַיֵּךְ אֵלַי בְּנִימוּס
לֹא תַּדְפִּיסוּ אֶת הַשִׁירים שֶׁלִּי בִּמְקוֹמוֹתֵיכֶם
וְתַמְשִׁיכוּ עִם תֵּרוּצֵי סִפְרוּת.

Shez Dance of the Lunatic page 86
Literary Alibis
translated by Elliott batTzedek
July 8 2011

When the day of judgment arrives, none of you—you fathers who rape—
will say even one word
finally you will sit, your silence
making at last the place where the terrorized girl can weep

but until that day of judgment, you’ll continue gagging me,
you’ll go on smiling graciously,
you’ll refuse to allow my words to be printed
      anywhere you are
you’ll go on with the alibi of literary value

re-blogged: On Translators and Photographers

Great insight from kjd at Love German Books

On Translators and Photographers

One of the difficult things about being a translator is that you essentially work alone. So get-togethers like the VDÜ’s annual Wolfenbüttel knees-up are especially rewarding, as we have a rare chance for a good gossip.

This year I talked to the translator and writer Ebba Drolshagen, who was attending in her capacity as a photographer – the third string to her bow. She was telling me how photographers are supposed to be invisible, especially when shooting reportage pictures. There’s a tacit agreement that we ignore the photographer, don’t look at the camera when we’re being photographed and pretend to be getting on with whatever we’re doing. But in actual fact, the photographer has a huge influence over the picture, choosing the subject matter, the angle, how to frame the shot. So the end product very much bears the photographer’s signature, even though we may not acknowledge it.

Translators, we decided, are not dissimilar. That old adage about how a translation should be unobtrusive, true to the original and beautiful still holds. Readers don’t want to be reminded of the translator’s role in the finished book, we’re told. Translators too are expected to remain invisible, standing behind the camera, as it were, while they choose the words, copy the tone and capture the mood. No two translations are the same, just as two photographers would always reproduce the same scene differently. Neither the photographer nor the translator are neutral, always interpreting and recreating through their own gaze.

So here’s to the creativity of photography and translation, two wonderful and underappreciated arts that make life richer for everyone.

Translating: “In his love for me” by Shez

I’m working on an MFA in poetry in translation. My translation project is a book of poems by an Israeli Jewish lesbian who writes as Shez. She says of her own work that she writes about being an incest survivor, and wow, does she. Since this has been an important theme in my own work, I have some layer of callous built up such that I can focus on the language and art and not just be overwhelmed by the content, but sometimes, sometimes, what she’s written is so accurate and powerful and heartbreaking that even I stumble, have to step back and breathe.

This is one of those poems, in my most recent translation draft. I’m new at translating, and am still working on the best way to re-present the last line in English, but I think I’ve found the heart of the poem and now just have to fine tune it.

באהתו אותי


בְּאַהֲבָתוֹ אוֹתִי
הִיטְלֶר מַשְׁחִיל פְּנִינָה רִאשׁוֹנָה מֵהַשַׁרְשֶׁרֶת
אֶל תּוֹךְ גְּרוֹנִי – אַחַר כָּךְ בָּאָה
פְּנִינָה נוֹסֶפֶת, וְעוֹד אַחַת, נָחָשׁ
לָבָן מְאֹרָךְ מִשְׁתַּחֵל פְּנִימָה.

In his love for me
Shez, translated by Elliott batTzedek
July 7 2011

In his love for me
Hitler threads the first pearl of the necklace
down my throat – the second pearl follows
then another and always another, white snake
lengthening, squeezing in

On Casey Anthony and Incest Statistics

On Casey Anthony and Incest Statistics

Look, I don’t know what happened in Florida years ago. A child is dead. I wish for her sake that the death was a painless accident, one with no fear, violence, terror. I am not being callous when I say that so many many children are dead, ones the press never describes as pretty, beautiful, precious, cute, tragic — ones the press never describes at all, like all the Pakistani and Afghani children killed by drones which are, by definition, heartless, soul-less, premeditated murders.

I do know this: while most everyone I know claims to “know” the statistics about rates of incest, “know” that men rape and terrorize and murder children every single damn day, when any one woman stands and says, “This happened to me” she is immediately disbelieved. As if “those children” child rape happens to are aliens, out there, somewhere. As if the adults who rape children are even more alien, evil outsiders, half mythological boogeymen.

Since none of us know what happened, how has the press created a narrative so strong that hundreds of thousands of people are ready to lynch this woman? The 13 people that did get to see and hear what exists of the evidence said, quickly, that it was not enough to prove anything.

Since none of us know what happened, let’s try on a different narrative, one that all kinds of official FBI statistics and years of sociological and therapeutic studies say could be true. Casey Anthony, as a girl, was raped, humiliated, and terrorized by a father obsessed with controlling everything about her. Her brother was, on occasion, part of this abuse. She therefore grew up in a web of fear and lies, probably with a high level of dissociation, one that would allow her to live through hell at night and get up and go to school as if life were normal in the morning. Both the lying and the dissociation became habitual, such that even Casey’s closest friends had no idea what was true. When Casey became pregnant, she at first “didn’t know” for many months, and then never told a consistent story about who the father was. With no real life skills, and under her father’s obsessive control, she continued to stay intertwined with her family, ensuring the lying and dissociation remained uninterruptable. She was, her friends report, an extremely loving and attentive mother. But then again, her friends were also always being lied to about basic details of her life.

Then, at her parents’ house with her mother gone, something happened, which resulted in her father saying that Caylee was dead and that they would have to cover up the death. How did Caylee die? Casey reported that her father reported the girl had drowned. If so, why not call an ambulance, call the police, report the horrible accident?

Exactly. Without really knowing what happened, let’s suppose, as we’re supposing all of this, that Caylee died the way plenty of girls have died, while being orally raped by an adult male. (Sorry if even reading that upsets you, but reality is reality and it ain’t pretty or easy or nice.) Or maybe she died some other way under this man’s hands – since the body was missing for so long, we may never know. We do know that the body, when found, had been treated the exact same way Daddy George buried family pets, mouth and feet duct taped and the body then wrapped in a blanket. And we do know that Casey pretty much lost her mind at that point, descending in a dark fantasy world where the child had never existed, then, pulled out of that world, into a pathetic, amateur web of lies.

(Here’s where I can’t agree with the press conclusion that’s she a classic sociopath – she just doesn’t seem that smart or calculating. Latina nanny is right up there with Susan Smith’s black car jacker. And need I remind you that Susan Smith’s daddy started raping her as a young teen and continued into her 20’s?)

Why did the story of the incest, her father’s “discovery” of Caylee’s body, the cover-up, only come out at trial? One proven theory – that, after three years in jail away from her family, Casey finally had enough distance from the terror to begin to move out of the lying and dissociative breaks. One theory, but it’s been true plenty of times in the history of incarceration, including folks who finally get sober, finally are safe from some kinds of violence (and victim to others in the horror that is our prison system), finally stop running and begin to have their lives catch up to them.

I’m not asking you to take this as truth, or to take it whole-cloth. I’m only asking that you hold this story up to the story the press has been telling, and measure for yourself the gaps, the unlikely moments, the prejudices, of each. I’m very clear about my prejudices and assumptions here, as an incest survivor myself. My great-uncle would sometimes call me by his daughter’s name, making me wonder if Daddy George knew the difference between Casey Anthony and Caylee Anthony. I know that incest survivors, as young adults, often drink, sleep around, take stupid risks, and get into to awful situations way over their heads, and that this is a pattern started by the abuse.

Who in the press will be so honest about the assumptions driving THEIR version?

Rabassa: evergreen words

One of the real struggles in translation is to match diction. Is the original text light, snide, slang-filled, formal, technical, intentionally heightened, obsessively literary? If so, the translator needs to match that tone in the second language, to carry the flavor of the text. But you also don’t want to create something that is so “hip,” so contemporary, that it will feel horribly dated in only a few years. How to balance that? Like every other decision, it is a value judgment, but here’s some thoughtful advice from Rabassa:

Translators, then, are placed in the difficult position of having to be careful not to nail their translation onto the period in which they are living. If the work under way is something contemporary the effect won’t be quite so bad since the original text might well become archaic even sooner than the translation. Like the leaves on trees, words age, yellow, and drop off after a time, although languages, like trees, are divided into different species and the words in one may hold their meaning longer than those in the language into which they are being translated. When I come to translate a “classic” I try to find what we might call “evergreen” words. Translating Machado de Assis […] I try hard to find words that are equally valid in his time and in ours and which, we hope, will endure beyond both ages. A good translation of Cervantes, and there are quite a few, must not be so contemporary that it will eventually become archaic because Cervantes as read today in Spanish is only mildly so. Motteux can sound archaic because he was a contemporary of Cervantes, Putnam cannot. Where Motteux messed up was in not finding as many evergreen words as Cervantes had used. Perhaps he didn’t let Cervantes lead him linguistically. As I discovered translating Machado de Assis and Garcia Marquez, the masters will enable you to render their prose into the best possible translation if you only let yourself be led by their expression, following the only possible way to do. If you ponder you will have lost the path.

From Gregory Rabassa If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, 2005, New Directions Books

translating as writing

From Gregory Rabassa If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, 2005, New Directions Books

The translator, we should know, is a writer too. As a matter of fact, she could be called the ideal writer because all she has to do is write; plot, theme, characters, and all the other essentials have already been provided, so she can just sit down and write her ass off. But she is also a reader. She has to read the text closely to know what it’s all about. Here is where she receives less guidance or direction from the text. It is a common notion to say that if a work has 10,000 readers it becomes 10,000 different books. The translator is only one of these readers and yet she must read the book in such a way that she will be reading the Spanish into English as she goes along, with the result that her reading is also writing. Her reading, then, becomes the one reading that is going to spawn 10,000 varieties of the book in the unlikely case that it will sell that many copies and will be read by that many people.