Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sweet Treason: Translating Lyric Poetry

Literary translation is clearly altogether different from the translation of technical writing of any other form of information-oriented discourse. If one translates an article to appear in a journal of experimental physics, the goal is to convey the data as clearly as possible. Such texts as a car repair manual, a newspaper, or, indeed, a lecture on translation may be rendered into another language without any loss of meaning whatsoever.

In fact, some translations of poetry are almost as straightforward. Unpretentious interlinear translations of Greek and Latin poetry were once popular with students as cribs. The translator who primarily seeks to facilitate the reader’s access to the original is engaged in a pedagogical exercise, providing, perhaps, a literal prose translation along with annotations. Even in this case, however, the translator cannot avoid semantic decisions with which others might differ.

At the other end of the spectrum are translations read for their own literary value and judged by the same standards as other poetry. Sometimes such a translator seeks to devise cross-cultural analogies (such as saying “god” for “Zeus” or substituting English iambs for Greek dactyls). A poet/translator may aim to assert the spirit of the original in a holistic way, but, having abandoned literal fidelity, any license may be justified. Such versions may slide entirely from the category of translations to become hommages or poems “inspired by” other texts.

The problems of translation go far beyond even the connotations of words and the recognition of irony and intertextual allusion. A distinguishing characteristic of the aesthetic text, of literature as opposed to other forms of discourse, is that form is content. Therefore the translator must consider prosody, rhyme, vocalic clusters, rhythm, alliteration, level of diction, and countless other elements, all of which are operative or significant in varying degrees in a given poem.

The upshot is that poetry has been called flat-out untranslatable by definition. My title is derived from the saying “traduttore, traditore". A French version, laced with misogyny, suggests that a translation's fidelity to the original is inversely proportional to its aesthetic value: "Les traductions sont comme les femmes, ou belles ou fideles." Unfortunately, though, the less beautiful are not always the more faithful, nor are loveliest always least faithful.

The translator pursuing a goal of word-for-word correspondence will rapidly discover that content can be preserved only at the cost of form, and retaining formal elements often means sacrificing a share of literal meaning. And where are grace and charm by then? Even a commitment to some semblance of original form does not end the difficulties. Should the translator of Beowulf who rejects free verse seek to retain the four beat accentual meter (not to mention the alliteration, the caesurae, and the kennings) to give a stronger flavor of Old English ? Or should he render the text in iambic pentameter, as the typical epic meter of English? Perhaps heroic couplets would reflect the more highly patterned conventions of the original, though rhyme plays virtually no part in Old English prosody. In some cases the patterning cannot possibly be reproduced. The quantitative measures of Greek, Latin, and Arabic poetry, for instance, are virtually impossible to duplicate in English. In a non-tonal language the translator cannot even try to imitate the tonal patterns used in poetic convention in Chinese and in Yoruba. Opposite responses to decisions about formal convention are the chief difference between nineteenth century translations and those of today.

The brilliantly original stylist Vladimir Nabokov places himself among the advocates of literal translation. I will indulge us all by printing his remarks at some length:

There is a certain small Malayan bird of the thrush family which is said to sing only when tormented in an unspeakable way by a specially trained child at the annual Feast of Flowers. There is Casanova making love to a harlot while looking from the window at the nameless tortures inflicted on Damiens. These are the visions that sicken me when I read the "poetical" translations from martyred Russian poets by some of my famous contemporaries. A tortured author and a deceived reader, this is the inevitable outcome of arty paraphrase. The only object and justification of translation is the conveying of the most exact information possible and this can be only achieved by a literal translation, with notes.

Nabokov may be been replying to the challenge in the preface to Robert Lowell’s very successful 1962 collection Imitations: "Strict metrical translators still exist. They seem to live in a pure world untouched by contemporary poetry. Their difficulties are bold and honest, but they are taxidermists, not poets, and their poems are likely to be stuffed birds.” Instead Lowell took every freedom: “I have dropped lines, moved lines, moved stanzas, changes images and altered meter and intent.” More than one twentieth century translation has been made by writers who knew little or none of the original language.
Most translators operate somewhere between these extremes. One who seeks to bring as much of the original into another language as possible will use the prosodic and thematic decisions already made by the author, whereas the advocate of free-wheeling taste-governed approach will aim primarily to create a compelling text in English, but most translators fall somewhere between and are thus confronted with a myriad decisions governed by the competing claims of accuracy and art. A sensitive writer might hesitate between highly dissimilar choices:

The sonnet form does not signify for the contemporary North American reader what it did for Petrarch’s contemporaries in fourteenth-century Italy. Using the same form for a translation in a different age and a different culture may therefore carry quite a different meaning and produce the opposite of a faithful rendering. One solution is to look for a cultural equivalent (such as the English iambic pentameter for French Alexandrines) or a temporal equivalent (modern free verse for classical verse forms of the past).

Perhaps the best concluding word among the quarreling authorities is an image.

Translation is the art of revelation. It makes the unknown known. The translator artist has the fever and craft to recognize, re-create, and reveal the work of the other artist. But even when famous at home, the work comes into an alien city as an orphan with no past to its readers. In rags, hand-me-downs, or dramatic black capes of glory, it is surprise, morning, a distinctive stranger. The orphan is Don Quijote de la Mancha in Chicago.

And Barnstone’s compelling images remind us of the value of translation. Just as all human culture is profoundly collective, and technological innovations spread rapidly even in antiquity, poetry, a form of verbal technology, is continually refreshed and renewed by innovation which may arise with the excuse of a foreign text as well as though the ingenuity of a native. Roman translators of Greek work like Ennius, Naevius, and Livius Andronicus presented the Romans with models, just as the Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese scholars adopted Chinese conventions. Catullus translated Sappho and popularized her meter in Latin. Xuan Zang brought Buddhist scriptures to China from India just as today missionaries translate the Bible for the remotest tribes. John Gower wrote in English, Latin, and French around the same time that Chaucer adopted the continental habit of rhyming (as well as translating Romance of the Rose and Boethius), and in the next century Wyatt and Surrey learned from Italy to write sonnets. Translation of newly available ancient works, and, in particular, the Greek classics, was a constituent part of the Renaissance. Then, as Pound has pointed out, the Elizabethan age was a great age of translation, producing Chapman’s version of Homer, Golding’s of Ovid, Gavin Douglas’ and Surrey’s Vergil. In the early twentieth century the Imagist movement imitated Chinese poetry. Poets such as Pound, Rexroth, Bly, Gary Snyder and Paul Blackburn have made translation a significant portion of their oeuvre. Translated works such as the morality play Everyman or Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat are treated very nearly as original works, while some translations (such as the King James Bible, A. W. Schlegel’s Shakespeare or Baudelaire’s Poe) are regarded as classics.

The pitfalls and peaks of translation illustrate, as though through a microscope, problematics inherent in all communication. Few of us feel we have access to absolute Truth; rather, we are conscious of constantly managing with what data we can pick up. Further, every speaker, whether lecturing from a podium or sharing a pillow with a single auditor, is conscious that words do not quite adequately bear meaning. Scarcely able to know our own minds, we formulate utterances by makeshift and jerry-rigging. We have all known of cases in which a listener understands in a way that differs widely from that consciously intended by the speaker, or in which two auditors have altogether different interpretations while the speaker’s mind remains unknown.

Even the simplest of conversational conventions may be laden with potential oblique signification. A simple “good morning” may carry tones of flirtation, censure, concern, etc. How much more mysterious are words of love, of philosophy, or of art! The notorious vogue of deconstruction taught us, at least, that every utterance is inaccurate, that our writings persist only under erasure. The forked tongue in its figurative sense is part of what makes us human. The flawed material that does make it to the page will be incompletely and inaccurately understood by readers in an ever-metamorphosing variety of readings.

Thus, the problems of translation are simply a particular category of the problems of communication in general. The Greek rhetorician Gorgias taught the most uncompromising skepticism, declaring three remarkable propositions:

1. Nothing exists.
2. Even if something were to exist, nothing could be known about it.
3. Even if something could be known, it could not be communicated.

Gorgias, of course, ignored these limitations to become a celebrated man of words, composing works that were described as magical and incantatory, with an effect that, according to the author, could only be compared to taking drugs.

Most thinkers would not follow Gorgias (or even take him seriously), but few would dispute that the formulations of language are never perfectly efficient, that further information is inevitably lost upon reception, and that aesthetic texts are dramatically more imperfect, because more ambitious, than other kinds of writing. Even the greatest poetic composition falls short of a complete record of vision and it is always imperfectly understood by the consumer. But we no sooner stop singing for this reason than we stop declaring love to our lovers (or our gods) because language seems not quite up to the task. We tell lies and truths and monstrous combinations of the two to our fellow humans daily, and we while away some of our time under the sun telling tales to beguile the day, singing a song of joy over a full belly, and later making love with words in the dark.

All communication (including reading and translating) is a search for meaning. There can be no perfect translation, just as there is no flawless man, no poem to end all poems, but that is no reason to stop talking, and singing, and translating. James Merrill’s wonderful "Lost in Translation" delineates a knot of woven narratives suggesting memory loss, misunderstanding, emptiness, and ignorance, but, along the way, creates an unforgettable series of scenes between a boy and his governess, a séance, a 19th century French notion of Islamic lands, the mature poet adrift in Greece, and more. Like all poems worth their salt, it reflects our own fallen life in magnificent but fallen language. As Merrill says:

But nothing’s lost. Or else: all is translation.
And every bit of us is lost in it . . .
And in that loss a self-effacing tree,
Color of context, imperceptibly
Rustling with its angel, turns the waste
To shade and fiber, milk and memory.

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