Thursday, 18 September 2008

Synchronised swimming

Translating poetry is a practical question, if only because if you regarded it as a theoretical one you would probably never start.

A translation is not the original poem in another language but, with luck, a decent echo of something the translator has heard in the original, working its way through the receiving language. It's a journey, much like a poem.

Where we go in that journey is, to a considerable degree, determined by who we are, where we are, where we are expecting to go, and where we are accustomed to going. All these involve variables. It doesn't much matter whether we are native speakers of the poem in its original language. Any comparison of two interpretations of the same book, of the same poem, of the same passage, in the same language, will demonstrate the fact that people read differently. Consequently there isn't an aggregation of fixed individual objects that adds up to one agreed fixed and unified bigger object that is the sum of its parts. Meaning doesn't work quite so directly, quite so controllably, quite so exclusively in any field, let alone poetry, which thrives on ambiguity.

Nevertheless, there are a number of features we can agree on. Is this poem about a coal scuttle or a nightingale? There seems to be a nightingale in the poem and no reference whatsoever to coal scuttles. Probably not about a coal scuttle then.

And as to this nightingale, we can see that the nightingale appears at the beginning. Or the middle. Or at the end. It appears in conjunction with certain other factors that seem to depend on it, or it on them and these things seem to happen in a certain order. Let's also note the poem has sixteen lines and is divided into four quatrains. No ambiguity there. The poem seems to be regarding itself as a song. Very well then, it is a song. It lilts. It has certain manners that seem reasonably clear. The form behaves a certain way. Look, there it is, behaving.

You can't quite describe its path so as to make it as useful as an OS map. But then that is the same with any poem you yourself write. As a translator all you can do is to move like the poem-to-be-translated moves.

In practical terms - I am speaking for myself now - I read the thing, make a quick, rather intuitive decision about the way it moves, then get on with it, solving the technical problems of movement rather than trying to keep my sense of meaning continually updated. Meaning can look after itself. Meaning arises out of process, is itself process. The form will create meaning. Watch it move. Watch it behave.

The exercise starts off like synchronised swimming but then, with luck, it turns into something a little freer than that, a kind of response and echo. And there we are, afloat. The water is dark. You can never quite see what's going on underneath it. But the bodies seem to be moving in some sort of harmony of behaviour. Floating is meaning.

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