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Katlin Profile
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"The Poet as Translator"


To christen this forum, I thought I post a link to Kenneth Rexroth's essay on the topic. He begins this way:

"When discussing the poet as translator, from time immemorial it has been the custom to start out by quoting Dryden. I shan’t, but I will try to illustrate Dryden’s main thesis — that the translation of poetry into poetry is an act of sympathy — the identification of another person with oneself, the transference of his utterance to one’s own utterance. The ideal translator, as we all know well, is not engaged in matching the words of a text with the words of his own language. He is hardly even a proxy, but rather an all-out advocate. His job is one of the most extreme examples of special pleading. So the prime criterion of successful poetic translation is assimilability. Does it get across to the jury?"

Rexroth then goes on to discuss the task of translating in general, while providing a number of examples of what he considers to be good translations as well as those that have gone awry. He concludes the essay with the following:

"Finally, what does all this mean to the poet himself? What has it all meant to me? As Eliot, paraphrasing Dryden, has said, inspiration isn’t always at its peak. Today we demand practically unrelieved intensity in poetry. The versified agricultural handbooks of the past are not for us — not even the verse novels of the Victorians. No poet ever could meet such a demand every day in the week. Translation, however, can provide us with poetic exercise on the highest level. It is the best way to keep your tools sharp until the great job, the great moment, comes along. More important, it is an exercise of sympathy on the highest level. The writer who can project himself into the exultation of another learns more than the craft of words. He learns the stuff of poetry. It is not just his prosody he keeps alert, it is his heart. The imagination must evoke, not just a vanished detail of experience, but the fullness of another human being.

Last and not least, translation saves you from your contemporaries. You can never really model yourself on Tu Fu or Leopardi or Paulus the Silentiary, but if you try you can learn a great deal about yourself. It is all too easy to model yourself on T.S. Eliot or William Carlos Williams or W.H. Auden or Allen Ginsberg — fatally easy — thousands do it every day. But you will never learn anything about yourself. Translation is flattering, too. I don’t at all like feeling like T.S. Eliot or Allen Ginsberg. All through the world’s literature there are people I enjoy knowing intimately, whether Abelard or Rafael Alberti, Pierre Reverdy or Tu Fu, Petronius or Aesculapius. You meet such a nice class of people."

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May/22/2009, 6:20 pm Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 
Katlin Profile
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Re: "The Poet as Translator"


Here is Shelley on translation:

"Sounds as well as thoughts have relation both between each other and towards that which they represent, and a perception of the order of those relations, has always been found connected with a perception of the order of the relations of thoughts. Hence the language of poets has ever affected a certain uniform and harmonious recurrence of sound without which it were not poetry, and which is scarcely less indispensible to the communication of its influence, than the words themselves without reference to that peculiar order. Hence the vanity of translation; it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its colour and odour, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet. The plant must spring again from its seed or it will bear no flower---and this is the burthen of the curse of Babel."
May/22/2009, 6:28 pm Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 
ChrisD1 Profile
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Re: "The Poet as Translator"


Kat,

It's true, the meaning or sense of poetry is amplified/embodied in its sound. I read poetry in translation because I'm an English only reader and often wonder how close it is to the oringinal.

Rexroth seems to suggest poetry has some essential quality that transcends language when he speaks of "the translation of poetry into poetry," referring to it as "an act of sympathy." I'm going to read the essay. Thanks for the link.

Chris
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Re: "The Poet as Translator"


Well done, Katfriend. The two contrasting perspectives set up the argument nicely.

I figure both poets are right, which may be a paradox. Of course it is impossible, or nearly so, to translate a poem's sense as it gets carried in sound. But I think Rexroth is right too. Poetry, when it embodies what I call a poetry of thought, in fact can get carried over. Not just into another language but forward to another time and place. I am certain of this. And I for one would be the poorer but for the poetry of the ancient Greeks, or Confucius' Classic Anthology or the Troubadors, etc. Besides. I can attest to what Rexroth says when he talks about getting saved from one's near contemporaries.

Tere
May/23/2009, 12:10 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
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Re: "The Poet as Translator"


Chris and Tere,

Yes, I think poetry that survives translation (as well as poetry within one’s own language that survives the test of time) embodies something essential, to use Rexroth’s term, or embodies the poetry of thought, to use Tere’s. Jane Hirshfield , another poet whose insights on translation I trust, begins her chapter on translation in Nine Gates with this quote from The Preface to the King James Bible: “Translation it is that openeth the window to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel.”

In one interview she seems to attribute that essential something, in part, to the voice and sensibility of the poet:

 “Well, the translator (or I, when I translate, in any case) serves the poem at hand. If the voice of the particular poet comes through, the credit should go to the poet, not me--it means that her sensibility so infuses what she writes that it survives even the radical uprooting of actual words, actual sound-qualities, and comes over into the new language.”

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But in that same chapter on translation mentioned above, Hirshfield quotes these lines Rilke inscribed “on the copy of The Duino Elegies he gave to his Polish translator:

Happy are those who know:
Behind all words, the Unsayable stands;
And from that source alone, the Infinite
Crosses over to gladness, and us—

Free of our bridges,
Built with the stone of distinctions;
So that always, within each delight,
We gaze at what is purely single and joined.”

Hirshfield then contends: “With the gift of this poem about words’ relationship to the Absolute, Rilke attempted to free his translator form the curse of ‘traitor.’” She describes translation as “a leap of faith”:

". . . there must be something in addition to words, an underlying sense of a destination unknown but also there, which makes us accept one phrase and reject another when they rise to mind in a poem's first making, or delete or alter or add when we revise. The act of writing a poem is not only a making but also a following: of the mystery of source as it emerges into form, of the wisdom of the heart and mind as it encounters the wisdom of language. The act of translation constitutes a leap of faith, a belief that somehow this part of a poem that lives both through words and beyond words can be kept alive, can move from its life in one verbal body into another.”

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How is such movement possible? In response to Frost’s claim that “the poetry is what gets lost in translation, “ Hirshfield offers Octavio Paz’s response to Frost, “the poetry is what gets transformed" in translation:

"After all, poetry is not merely the text. The text produces the poem: a set of sensations and meanings. . . .With different means, but playing a similar role, you can produce similar results. I say similar, but not identical: translation is an art of analogy, the art of finding correspondences. An art of shadow and echoes. . .of producing, with a different text, a poem similar to the original.”

Hirshfield also points out, “Translations very existence challenges our understanding of what a literary text means.”

Hirshfield states: “The old prohibitions live on as a useful self-doubt in the translator, ensuring the original texts be approached with due care. But the silk ribbons of the home language must be cut, for the work to be read by others.” And she cautions: “If a certain sense of freedom is essential to translation, that is because fidelity’s claims are so strong. Yet fidelity is in this realm a chimera. A literal word for word trot is not a translation. The attempt to recreate qualities of sound is not a translation. The simple conveyance of meaning is not translation. What then can fidelity—even fidelity already recognized as failure— mean? ” According to Hirshfield, “Fidelity’s multifaceted nature, impossible to define in the abstract, reveals itself only in practice. The attentiveness and flexibility required are as individual as those that make for a good marriage.”

For some practical advice on translating from Hirshfield, I found these online articles to be of interest:

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Last edited by Katlin, May/23/2009, 9:23 pm
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Re: "The Poet as Translator"


In an article about the poetry of Polish poet Ewa Lipska, Robin Davidson has this to say about the work of translation:

quote:

The translation of Lipska's poems—built as they are upon wordplay, punning in the poet's native language—is the task of entry into a mysterious text doubly resistant to being read. It is daunting work. Lipska herself sees the translator's task as heroic, for she asserts that it is translators who sustain an author's existence over time. The very nature of language, unlike music, requires this delicate tightrope dance between author and translator, between one language and another, between sign and meaning.



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Re: "The Poet as Translator"


This strikes me as true and one reason why I feel intimidated by the task.

Tere
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Re: "The Poet as Translator"


In an essay in which he discusses co-translating the work of Aimé Césaire, Clayton Eshleman makes several points about the art of translation which resonate with me:

When I speak of creating an American version out of a French text, I don’t want to imply that I think of myself as writing my own poem in the act of co-translating Ce­saire — or to put it more vividly, à la Kafka’s “In the ‘Penal Colony,” writing my own sentence in the back of a victimized text. I do not believe in so-called “free translations,” Lowellian “Imitations,” or Tarn’s “transforma­ions.”

I see the poet-translator in the service of the original, not attempting to improve on it or to out-wit it. He must, alone or with a co-worker, research all archaic, rare, and technical words, and translate them (in contrast to guessing at them or explaining them). As I see it, the basic challenge is to do two incom­patible things at once: an accurate translation and one that is up to the performance level of the original.

All translations are, in varying degrees, spectres or emanations. Spectral translations haunt us with the loss of the original; before them, facing the translator’s inabilities or hubris, we feel that the original has been sucked into a smaller, less effective size. Like ghosts, such translations painfully remind us to what an extent the dead are absent. Emanational translations, on the other hand, are what can be made of the original poet’s vision; while they are seldom larger than their prototypes, good ones hold their own against the prototype and they bring it across as an injection of fresh poetic character into the literature of the second language.


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Re: "The Poet as Translator"


In an iinterview, Ilya Kaminsky, editor The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, talks about the influence translated works have had on a number of poets whose works have so far stood the test of time:

Readers of Akhmatova’s Requiem and Northern Elegies may be curious to know that the poet was translating Shakespeare’s Macbeth at the time of writing those poems—and, clearly, Akhmatova’s tone often overlaps with what we find in Macbeth and other tragedies.

and:

You mention Whitman, and one instantly thinks that there could be a whole anthology of poets under his influence (Lorca, Pessoa, Neruda, Mayakovsky, Apollinaire, Yona Wallach, Tristan Tzara, Tomaž Šalamun, Milosz). Brodsky once claimed to stand completely outside of Whitman’s influence, but a quick look at his “Great Elegy for John Donne” brings to mind Whitman’s “The Sleepers.” How did that come into Brodsky’s work? It came there, perhaps, because Brodsky was obsessed with Marina Tsvetaeva’s The Ratcatcher, which in turn has a clear connection to Whitman’s “The Sleepers.”


He makes this pithy observation about postmodernism:

To my mind, that is the best sort of postmodernism: not someone proclaiming snobbishly from the ivory tower that there is no “truth” in our moment, but the notion that there are many versions of truth—many local, imaginative, tonal, and musical ways to deal with questions that we are all obsessed with.

He also talks about the dearth of works translated into English:

You speak of the abundance of English translations of poetry available. But the truth is, very little is available: 50% of all the books in translation worldwide are translated from English, but less than 3% are translated into English. And that 3% figure includes all books in translation—in terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7%! (The figures are available at [sign in to see URL]. My anthology is published in alliance with Words Without Borders, and all the royalties will be donated to keep them alive. They need all the help they can get.) Don’t these figures suggest that we in the us may be looking into the mirror a bit too much? Maybe we should start looking through more windows for a change?

"Opening the window to the world is, in part, the job of a translator.

I may hope that my own translations are less colonial raids into other languages than subversions of English, injections of new poetic forms, ideas, images, and rhythms into the muscular arm of the language of power."

That’s Forrest Gander in his recent book of essays, A Faithful Existence, which contains some of the most interesting writing about translation available in English since Pound. Gander is one of many American poets interested in translation, but the abundance is illusory. There are serious gaps in our knowledge of contemporary world poetry. Very few major twentieth-century women poets are available to us in quality translations. Also, while so many acclaimed contemporary American poets translate authors from, say, Paris, very few translate from the rich tradition of French-language poetry from Africa
.

Kaminsky debunks what some call the futility of translation:

Few translations in any century could be called “successful reinventions”—or what I would call great translations. But how many great poems are there in any century? Hundreds of poets wrote during the Romantic era; perhaps two dozen are still relevant today. A translator of genius—like a poet of genius—is hard to find. But the fact that there are few translators of genius in any century doesn’t justify rejecting the art.

and:

No need to hide behind the large sign “Poetry is lost in translation” and pretend that works of art written elsewhere do not exist or should not be available to us. They exist. The genius of our literature, as you rightly quote Pound, feeds on our interaction with these works, and so there is a clear need for them to be brought over into English, if the genius of our literature is to be sustained.

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Many thanks to Shab and other translators for their difficult and essential work of "opening the window to the world."

Last edited by Katlin, Apr/5/2010, 9:40 am
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Re: "The Poet as Translator"


I am solidly with Kaminsky in the matter. It is called cross-fertiliaztion.

Tere
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