Wednesday, 20 May 2009
Another questionnaire on translation
I put these up here in case anything new occurs to me on the subject. Questioner agrees to it. I am not a theorist of translation. I am just a plumber of verse with ideas above his station.
How do you define poetry translation?
As a poem clearly stated as a translation that would not exist without the original poem and that conveys a convincing reading of the original poem as a poem in the receiving language. What that convincing reading consists of and whom it convinces are matters of more complex argument. In one sense, it is an echo of an echo of an echo, since interpretation of a poem in the original language is itself an imprecise science, as is the composition of the original poem. All three activities are full of instinctive shifts, re-focusings and homings-in.
What is your own process?
Read the poem, get some idea of what it is doing and how it is doing it, then start at line 1 and go on. Translating is part of the process of understanding, so the poem becomes ever more the possible poem-echo as it goes on. The process of composition of a translation resembles, for me, the process of composition of an original poem. As above.
How do you translate aspects of form?
I regard form as an aspect of address: the way the poet addresses the language, the way the poem addresses the reader. It is, in that respect, a vital, in fact core, element of the poem, part of the dynamic of composition and perception. Form is not a surface decoration or a twitching genuflection to tradition. Saying that, however, does not 'solve' the question because different forms in different languages have different associations and values. Hungarian can scan by stress or quantity and is happy with hexameters. Hexameters constitute part of the normal field of expectations. In English they retain an exotic edge, so a decision has to be made regarding what might constitute some equivalent to the original in the receiving language. (Pope faced the same question with Homer). There is no great difficulty with some common European forms. Precise imitation is not the point. Imitation furniture is not what is required. It is the entry into the mode of language in the receiving language. That may involve rendering a Shakespearian sonnet as Shakespearian sonnet and not a thirteen line free verse, and Villonesque ballade as a Villonesque ballade and not as prose. It may, but it is not wrong to take any liberty providing the reader knows it is not the whole story. I like Lowell's Imitations. They read well, like good sinuous, muscular verse. I can't speak for Bonnefoy's Shakespeare but I have every expectation of it being excellent work. But even with more precisely formal translation the brush is broad, not fine. The fineness is a matter of delicate distinctions in the receiving language. As in an original poem. That degree of freedom is vital.
How essential is a fluency / knowledge of the target language?
It is core. More important than knowledge of the original language. The philosophical issue at stake is whether we believe that a poem is a set of clearly identifiable intentions and fulfilments, or whether it is - as I think - an oddly shimmering shape, like a cloud that is very like a whale (cf Hamlet). There is at one key point an instinctive grasp of what that cloud resembles in our language. That is where we start. All contributions in terms of philology, lexicography or cultural annotation are welcome but they do not, in themselves, constitute a translated poem.