Friday, 27 March 2009

Translations, versions, poems

There isn't really a 'final' version, only versions.

I don't believe in the one 'right' translation. What you lose in transit from the original language to the receiving one may be made good, in its way, by what the receiving language offers. It's not like for like: it is echo for echo. It isn't an equal echo but it's all we have. To a native speaker, no echo in another language is going to reproduce the experience(s) of the original poem. To the non-native-reading foreign reader the experience resides in the receiving language.. This doesn't mean that anything goes. If we think a little more deeply about the experience of reading a poem in our own language we may become aware that the experience, as a whole, comprises the possibility of an array of meanings and that, in almost every important way, that is the whole point of the experience - the poem lives in an echo chamber of its own language.

If we doubt that we should try comparing the responses of a group of people to a single poem. What we get there is a broad area of agreement about subject, voice, register, and form, but, at the edges, on the penumbra, there is an ever more subjective set of associations and registerings. That is the echo chamber. The meanings echo back, overlapping and amplifying each other.

One cannot detach the area of agreement from the penumbra, the source from the echo.

In translation we may agree broadly on source, but echo remains various.


Language changes, its meanings change, the conditions under which it is spoken change. On the other hand human life follows much the same arc, with much the same range of variations. We are born, we grow, we sicken, we recover, we love or are loved, we form relationships or don't form relationships, we have or don't have children, we watch them grow, we work, we travel, we suffer, we take pleasure, we age, we die. Add a few details to that if you like, change the proportions and degrees. Where we differ dramatically is in the precise way such things combine and interact, like crossed shadows, and in the way our language chases these shadows.

The very act of speaking is translation of experience into language. Listening to each other we interpret what we hear. Poetry, the area of language least concerned with transaction and exchange, is the most attuned to the nature of the whole - the useful, the useless, the important, the passing - and tries to bind all this together with its sense of pattern. Each pattern, if it is going to be successful, has to be experienced as new. It has to be felt anew because language wears out. Cliché is truth whose language has worn out, has worn away with use. And even then it retains some residual power, if only as cliché, our knowledge of it as cliché, that knowledge too having a value. Nothing is without value. The art of the poet is to gauge, balance and energise these values. Even cliché can be part of the new.

In what sense is any work of art original? In the sense that it strikes us as fresh each time, at least for a long enough time. Music, visual art, literature retain power only so long as they can strike us afresh. That striking afresh is the originality-effect. It's the negotiation between what we think we know and what is passing and cannot be known. The reason poetry inspires love, when it does, is because the language in it remains fresh. You can bury your nose in it and it will smell fresh each time.


I don't think translation is betrayal. I don't think translation is theft. Translation is hearing and replying: it is trying to get your ear, mouth and mind round that which potentially fascinates you in another work in a different language.


(Why do people write poetry?)

Because they hear, see and feel the poetry in things, the way things hang together, and because they love and distrust language and are driven to spend their lives trying to make shapes in it that seem to echo with life. This making of shape, this preoccupation and delight is what makes them write poetry. The hearing, seeing and feeling of poetry doesn't necessarily mean you want to write it: it means you esentially understand it. I think almost everyone does, and has done so since the beginning of time.

People write love poems because they sense the shape of love, not because they are in love. People write poems of commemoration and celebration because such events determine the shapes of lives: births, marriages and deaths are a start but the rest follows. Shape following shape, even if only as shadow.

*Some answers to a few questions asked over email.

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