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.


Dafydd John said...

Just a few general, personal prejudices about translating poetry if I may!

I really have nothing against it, despite all the difficulties and inevitable deficiencies, but I am against the immediate translation of poems. I believe that all poems should be allowed to breathe, exist and live as themselves for a period of time before any translation is attempted.

It follows then that I'm not a great fan of bi-lingual volumes of new poetry. Up to now, it really doesn't happen to any great extent in Welsh, though I believe it to be the rule - somebody please correct me if I'm wrong - in Scots Gaelic.

You will probably point out to me that what I've said makes no real sense, and you're probably right, but I think it is not sense that has brought me here, but some other emotion!

George S said...

Not sure what you mean by "immediate" Dafydd. Do you mean as soon as the poem is composed? If so, how long should one leave it? Months? Years?

Or do you mean once it is read? But it doesn't seem like it.

Don't understand the point about bilingual volumes. Is that to do with breathing time?

Elaborate a bit if you have the inclination. Best. G

Dafydd John said...

Sorry for being so vague!

By immediate I mean when a poem can appear in print for the first time in its original language with a translation on the opposite page. So by a bilingual volume I mean a volume of poems, in Welsh say, with a translation of each one opposite. As I said, I think this happens regularly in some languages.

I know it's arbitrary, but I would like a reasonable time to pass before translation - a year or two?

This, I know is and isn't primarily to do with the poetry. I suspect there is a fear that poems written in a 'minority language' always translated could eventually become defunct. Somewhere down the line someone will ask: why bother writing them in that language at all? And of course there's more attention to be had and (a little!) more money to be made if you write in a world language.

It's a case of saying that the language matters and it matters that you have written those poems in that language.

I hope that makes a bit more sense.

George S said...

OK, I understand now. You are concerned for the condition of threatened or potentially threatened languages such as Welsh, in case the poems should be so quickly translated into one of the so-called world languages that the original language is all but bypassed.

That is understandable and there are poets like the Irish Biddy Jenkinson who refuses to have her poems translated into English at all. It might of course be because she simply loathes anything English, though the answer then might be to translate it into American. But I imagine her reasons are like yours.

Hungarian poets generally tend to think precisely the opposite. They very much want to be translated into major European and World languages precisely because it takes them out of the parish with its small crowded pond. That has always been the Hungarian way. There was an idea circulating among certain linguists - Germans, as I remember - between the wars that small awkward languages like Hungarian should simply die so as to make the world more efficient (the Esperanto movement had a touch of some similar desire for universal communication and efficiency, as did movements like Basic English), and there was in fact a real possibility earlier, in the 18th century, that Hungarian might disappear to be replaced by German. There are fascinating questions of nationalism tied in with this which are far too large to address here.

In the meantime it is a dilemma I think for writers in all small and endangered languages. Your idea of allowing some time for a poem to exist purely in its original language before it enters the world outside is fine. The fact is most poems in most small languages do just that and the overwhelming majority never get translated at all.

My personal instinct is internationalist in that I am all for the sutvival and prospering of all languages however great or small, but also for the natural human exchange between cultures.

And of course I would wish to respect the wish of the writers to do precisely what they want with their own work.