Ben Belitt on translating

Ben Belitt, thoughts on translating from Edward Honig, ed, The Poet’s Other Voice: Conversations on Literary Translation.

the seduction of translating

In this sense, translation takes translators far beyond the genre of their own recognizable styles and idiosyncrasies as poets. One of the disintegrative benefits of translation is that it compels or seduces one into writing poetry other than one’s own…

translation as pleasure

I would say I stumbled on translation simply in the process of trying to find something that was cognate with my experience of having thought about a poet, read him word for word and word by word, and found it hostile or hateful to paraphrase. Let us say I invoked a “pleasure principle” rather than a homiletic one, that my approach was hedonistic rather than Aristotelian, much as Coleridge’s is when he says the “immediate aim of poetry is pleasure not truth.” I would be quite ready to say that the immediate aim of translation is pleasure, not truth.

the sweaty labor of mediation

It’s the Platonism, the Idea of the Perfect Poem, or the Perfect Word, that I think interferes with the sweaty labor of translation, the sweaty empiricism in which everything is an action, a commitment, a deed, a choice, and refuses to exist abstractly in the realm of the Potential […] One has to intrude upon possibility; even the poem speaks in its own right, at its most expressive pitch, as a pure tissue of possibility. The translator provides the possibles, probables, utterances, and then tries to anchor the whole floating realm of epistemological possibility. I insist it’s an epistemological, rather than a semantic or linguistic: What kind of knowledge does poetry involve? What is the thing that translators can know, and how can their language know it? What is the syntax for its survival as either immediate pleasure or eventual truth? The knowledge must never be falsified: it is a confidence, a trust—but there is a human need to take a stand and mediate knowledge. All translation, at its best, is mediation rather than definition.

how does one judge a translation upon reading it?

What is the test […]? There is nothing as blue and red as litmus paper. There are signs, faits accomplis, reassurances: for one thing, volatility; responsibility, for another the certainity that all the elements have been subjected to atomic scrutiny—all the words as they pass from their moorings in the (original language) into the ink of the translation, with no leaps of convenience or deletions such as you might find in the Imitations of Lowell.

Imagination: the most dangerous faculty

Imagination isn’t a phenomenon that can be limited to the poem in its original state. As a translator, it is legitimate, it is imperative, to work imaginatively, joyfully, energetically, ingeniously, patiently, inventively, yourself. Imagination cannot be present in the original only, and absent from the equivalence. [Imagination is the most] risky and most daring, the most desired and mistrusted faculty: the most dangerous. We mistrust it but we can’t renounce it. How can we afford to renounce imagination in the midst of a process we know to be absurd and inimitable? Or avoid saying to ourselves, in the awful solitude of translation, with an upbeat of nausea and wonder: “Well, I don’t know for a fact what the poet knew, but I believe I can imagine how this might sound in my language.” That’s an honest and poignant transaction.


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