Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Cloud Talk 4: Disordering, stormy weather

I have moved from cloud to music, because the effect of the cloud - its suggestive effect - is partly musical, partly lexical. Play, music, and cloud are the three terms used by Hamlet but they are parts of a single whole. The play is lexical in terms of language and action. It signifies actor, action and occasion. The music is what is made on our instruments. It signifies, as music does: as form. The cloud is the process of making and understanding.

The title of this whole symposium is Disordering the Disciplines. I’d like to make a small problematical contribution to that disordering and think of the possibility of substituting one form for another.

One of the most frequently translated major poetical works is the CommediaInferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso - by Dante Alighieri, the best known, most poignant and cruel part of the trilogy being, the Inferno. The verse form Dante made famous is terza rima, a form I have used myself on several occasions. The nature of terza rima makes it particularly suitable for narrative because its rhyme scheme is so organised that one verse of three lines is constantly hooking into the next through the use of rhyme, the order being: ABA BCB CDC DED and so on, potentially ad infinitum. This stepping forward is part of the poem’s voyage through the various levels of eternity, a stately progress to move the mind on, past scenes and characters that are witnessed or addressed by the central figure, Dante himself, or his companion, Virgil.

The fact is that Dante’s poem has been translated into various forms: simple tercets, prose, colloquial language, high language, pentameters, free verse and, of course, terza rima itself. Dorothy Sayers said of her own translation that she could not imagine rendering Dante without terza rima: the verse form was, she thought, integral to its meaning as a poem. Others have followed her, partially at least, in their own way – John Ciardi produces a strongly rhymed ABA CDC, EFE and so on; Robert Pinsky, a more variably rhymed, more roughly enjambed terza rima proper.

The complaint is often heard that English, not being an inflected language, is poorer in rhyme than, say, Italian, though this forgets the fact that inflected rhymes are generally deprecated in languages where they are likely to occur. The sheer variety of English vowels is more like to be the problem, but there is no insoluble problem in poetry.

Nevertheless the maintaining of terza rima over hundreds of lines is no easy task. The reproduction furniture makers might think it sufficient to match the form, but it takes a really poetic vision to turn that match into living language.

Let us assume we can do that, difficult as it is, and speaking as a practical translator of poetry and fiction from Hungarian - a little spoken or translated language - it is what I feel obliged to do. That obligation is what I must make clear, first and foremost. That, I take to be the base: that act of baseness, of forgery, of homage and mediation that we call fidelity or ‘translation’.

But fidelity to what? As a poet myself I do not know precisely what it is I am being faithful to, except some balance between the forms of language and a feeling that remains to be explored and clarified, as if emerging out of a cloud. One might set out to create the image of a whale yet end of with a perfectly good camel or a weasel, or what appears so to the reader.


...to be continued

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