Traduttore-traditore: translating poetry
July 21, 2007 9:35 AM   Subscribe

Translating, at least for me, anyway, is like trying to tighten up nuts and bolts, which are slightly worn, with an adjustable crescent wrench.

Sean at the White Peril does a good job translating poetry off the side of his desk.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:45 AM on July 21, 2007

Interesting selection -- some of the information is basic, as I've been translating as a hobby for years (my own work and others')-- but it's a good, helpful collection.
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:49 AM on July 21, 2007

Many people may not realize the extent to which their favorite poems rely on the asthetics of the translator.

A while back, I decided I had a problem with Tapscott's translations of Neruda and set about to re-do them myself. I actually did quite a few. A quick Google revealed that somebody else was doing the same thing but the page had disappeared - only the Google cache was left. It was then that I realized that I may not be able to legally publish my translations since it violates the copyright of the original.

In any case, a simple example may show what I mean. In one of Neruda's Sonnets we have the line:

"In the empty houses I entered with a lantern to steal your portrait"

I have translated that word for word here without worrying about poetics for a moment or how it fits into the rhythm of the overall poem. How does Tapscott translate this line?

"I broke into houses to steal your likeness"

You can see the compromises that have been made. Neruda didn't say he was explicitly breaking in. Tapscott has dropped the lantern altogether. The original Spanish word "retrato" to me means portrait but "likeness" is a fair translation too.

This is just one line but you can see all the decisions being made as to how to render the idea into another language. And why one might fairly ask: When you are reading Neruda in English, are you reading Neruda or are you reading Tapscott?
posted by vacapinta at 10:02 AM on July 21, 2007 [3 favorites]

I have always taken 'Voulez-vous couchez avec moi se soir?' as something akin to 'Would you like to come back to my treehouse fort and eat cookies and milk and have a sleepover?'

When I was informed of the original author's intent I was aghast.
posted by jimmythefish at 10:08 AM on July 21, 2007

Sorry...ce soir.
posted by jimmythefish at 10:10 AM on July 21, 2007

I meant to include the Spanish original line:

En las casas vacías entré con linterna a robar tu retrato.
posted by vacapinta at 10:12 AM on July 21, 2007

My Spanish is halting and weak, but I find it helpful still to read Neruda side by side in both languages.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:12 AM on July 21, 2007

Douglas Hofstadter wrote a book about this.

Le Ton Beau De Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language
posted by empath at 10:13 AM on July 21, 2007

Thanks a lot for this. Interesting stuff, it'll take me awhile to mull it all over.

This book is also a great resource about the problems of translation and... many other things.
posted by roll truck roll at 10:19 AM on July 21, 2007

Seconding the Hofstadter book. It's Hofstadter, so very playful and at times overly cute (in that intellectual way), but also very, very good.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 10:25 AM on July 21, 2007

Thanks for posting this, by the way.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 10:33 AM on July 21, 2007

Oh and sorry about the delmoian trifecta, but here's my also-frustrated-with-existing-translations attempt at translating J.C. Bloem into English.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 10:35 AM on July 21, 2007

Es brillig war. Die schlichten Toven
Wirrten und wimmelten in Waben;
Und aller-mümsige Burggoven
Die mohmen Räth' ausgraben.

»Bewahre doch vor Jammerwoch!
Die Zähne knirschen, Krallen kratzen!
Bewahr' vor Jubjub-Vogel, vor
Frumiösen Banderschnätzchen!«

Er griff sein vorpals Schwertchen zu,
Er suchte lang das manchsam' Ding;
Dann, stehend unterm Tumtum Baum,
Er an-zu-denken-fing.

more and more...
posted by DreamerFi at 11:03 AM on July 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

The poems of the very great C. P. Cavafy, who wrote in Greek, translate remarkably well. Another poet of the first rank wrote an introduction to an edition of Cavafy in which he asks why this might be so and considers which aspects of a poem are translatable and which are not.

N.b. the linked page doesn't mention that it is not the whole essay but my printed version runs on for several more pages. The most pertinent bit:

Since language is the creation of a social group, not of an individual, the standards by which it can be judged are relatively objective. Thus, when reading a poem in one's native tongue, opne can find the [poem's] sensibility personally antipathetic and yet be compelled to admire its verbal manifestation. But when one is reading a translation, all one gets is the sensibility, and one either likes it or one does not.
posted by jfuller at 11:59 AM on July 21, 2007

I've always been curious about poetry translations. Some seem to maintain a rhythm similar to the translated poem; that seems impossible. Words in the original language are not literal but are chosen to create meaning on an emotional level. Being able to even approximate the original poem must be incredibly difficult, making the translator an artist in their own right. Great post.
posted by sluglicker at 12:15 PM on July 21, 2007

I have some published translations of Chinese poems into English, and I would freely admit much of the flavour they took on in my version came from some gut-feeling references to things I was familiar with and felt appropriate. There's quite a distance between the two languages in a number of ways that leaves that as about your best option imo, so long as you're not absolutely traducing the source.
I can't read Irish, but must also agree that Carson's Midnight Court is fantastic.
posted by Abiezer at 12:20 PM on July 21, 2007

I have a collection of Emily Dickinson's poems side by side with their German translations. The translations are inadequate, but I can't fault the translator. What seems most difficult to transpose is not the rhyme but the dashes that break up her syntax, giving her voice its real halting frailty. When the syntax and rhythm of the words is different, the positioning of these dashes becomes arbitrary, it seems to me, more of a lifeless affect. For example, the last stanza to a longer poem:

So We must meet apart --
You there -- I -- here --
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are -- and Prayer --
And that White Sustenance --
Despair --

So müssen wir getrennt uns treffen --
Du dort -- ich -- hier
Grad angelehnt die Tür
Die Meere sind -- und Gebet --
Und jene bleiche Nahrung --
Verzweifelung --

Also German words are too long; the translation needs more monosyllabism.
posted by creasy boy at 1:08 PM on July 21, 2007

Or you could just go the route of Ezra Pound, who pretty much defined much of modernism in English by translating poems from a language that he had no idea how to read (Chinese), and basing his aesthetic theory on the false assumption that "anyone" could read Chinese characters if they trained only their eye.

Personally, I'm not bothered by translations which take some liberties. Pound's "Chinese translations" are beautiful in their own right, but a pretty extreme, albeit interesting example of throwing linguistic accuracy out the window and going only on impressions. Fascinating stuff.
posted by bardic at 1:31 PM on July 21, 2007

I helped to translate a previously untranslated book of poetry by Erich Fried a few years ago. When I say I helped to translate it - a couple of friends at university, one Swiss, one German, went mysteriously quiet a month before my birthday and then presented me with a bilingual translation on the night of the party. I cried like a baby, it was so touching.

Anyway - knowing I write poetry, they asked me to go over their rough English translation word by word. Even then, I knew that my ignorance of German would be a major problem, because of the resonances of German double-meanings and Fried's unconventional sentence structure in his native language. It was especially difficult when he wrote, for example, a tanka and subtitled it as such. It took us about 4 months, working together, until I felt happy enough that I had made the English poetic while sticking roughly to the heartbeat of the German writing.

It was pure luck that Fried's longtime English translator, Stuart Hood, had translated one poem from the collection we worked on - and that there was one word's difference between our final translation and his. Makes you feel good when that happens, but it's still really, really hard.
posted by paperpete at 2:18 PM on July 21, 2007

When you are reading Neruda in English, are you reading Neruda or are you reading Tapscott?

You're probably reading Neruda's creative impetus and broad literal sense melded with Tapscott's sense of poetics in English. At least that's one way of putting it - there will be as many more ways to say it as there are to translate a foot of poetry.
posted by paperpete at 2:27 PM on July 21, 2007

The poems of the very great C. P. Cavafy, who wrote in Greek, translate remarkably well.

Do you know Greek? Because I don't think they translate any better than anybody else's. In particular, I've never seen a translation of "The City" that even begins to approach the wonderful original. Sure, you can get a lot out of even a mediocre translation (which all the published ones I've seen are), because Cavafy was a great poet, but all the poetry is missing. Just as with most translations (but not, as bardic says, with Pound's amazing versions of Chinese classical poetry).
posted by languagehat at 3:43 PM on July 21, 2007

Thank you very much for posting this.
posted by jason's_planet at 4:20 PM on July 21, 2007

The Robert Fagles translation of the Iliad is the one I read in high school and college, and I liked it a lot, but I don't know what kinds of things would have been lost in the translation. Anyone here familiar with the different translations?
posted by Tehanu at 4:55 PM on July 21, 2007

Thank you DreamFi

Nabokov did Alice in Wonderland in Russian. I'd welcome comments on how well he did it, not reading the language myself.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:01 PM on July 21, 2007

Since Nabokov wrote his Anya in the Land of Wonders for Russian schoolchildren, I — poles apart from the target audience — am ill-equipped to pass judgment on its merits. However, it has given me much pleasure. The following comment (from Leigh Kimmel's Nabokov as Translator) attempts to place it in context:
Among the things in Alice in Wonderland which are the delight of children and the despair of translators are the word-plays and the verse parodies.... Lewis Carroll plays liberally with the multiple meanings of various English words, and particularly with sets of homophones whose meanings are so far apart that his bringing their meanings together has a most humorous effect. An excellent example of this is the Mock Turtle's story about the lessons of the sea-school growing less each day and thus being called "lessons" because they lessen each week. Because most of these things are quite specific to the English language, a translator is forced to make a conscious decision as to how to treat these things. While most of the earlier translators of Alice in Wonderland had simply given up on trying to preserve the humor of the puns and had simply translated the words as they were, Nabokov instead tried to find pairs of near-homophones in Russian which would be equally humorous for the Russian reader.

Also, Alice in Wonderland is a work full of verse parodies which are the despair of the translator. In these, Lewis Carroll would parody the didactic verse which was so common in Victorian pedagogy, distorting the moralistic little verses which were meant to teach the children so that instead they mocked the very institutions which their models praised. This sort of thing is the delight of children, who positively love to see adults and their institutions being ridiculed. But they are a nightmare for the dedicated translator. To simply translate the texts of the verse parodies as they are would be to lose half their humor, since the originals which they mock would be unknown to the readers of the target language. Nabokov instead decided to find pieces of Russian verse which schoolchildren in Russian schools were expected to learn and recite, then make parodies on them. These poems, however, were for the most part poems by Pushkin and Lermontov, which were more in the Romantic tradition and thus not completely a parallel to the didactic poems of Alice's Victorian English childhood. But even with that limitation, Nabokov managed to turn out the most hilarious parodies guaranteed to amuse any Russian child bored to tears at having been forced to memorize the originals.

Nabokov also sought to "translate" the situation of the novel into one familiar to the Russian child. Thus he renamed Alice "Anya", which is a common Russian girl's name, rather than simply transliterating it into the essentially foriegn Alisa. He also transformed other characters so that they would better fit into a Russian milleu. For instance, he made the French mouse, which in the English original had come to England with William the Conquorer, into a forgotten companion of Napoleon's invasion force who had been left in Russia by mistake. All this he did in an effort to make it easier for the intended reader, who would almost certainly be a Russian child, to identify with the main character and her situation in a way that would not have been nearly so easy if she were left an English girl in an essentially English situation.

And here is what the man himself had to say in 1970:
In another article — on "N.'s Russified Lewis Carroll" — the same critic [Simon Karlinsky] is much too kind to my Anya in Wonderland (1924). How much better I could have done it fifteen years later! The only good bits are the poems and the word-play.... Incidentally, I had not (and still have not) seen any other Russian versions of the book (as Mr. Karlinsky suggests I may have had) so that my sharing with (fellow Alice translator) Poliksena Solovyov the same model for one of the parodies is a coincidence.
posted by rob511 at 9:07 PM on July 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've had the pleasure of reading multiple translations/recompositions of a little foreign poetry: A couple of stanzas of Eugene Onegin, a few Rubaiyat. The layering, the invariance and the mutability, the ghost of the original seen through all these refractions—it's perhaps the closest I've ever been to knowing the fourth dimension. Or the Dao.

... Now that I think on it, I am tempted to try reading ghazals in this way: Every sher is a different translation of the same foreign original.

We'll see if that gets me anywhere.

I'd also like to observe on the keen pleasure of reading a foreign poem in parallel with a translation. The circumstance invites you to consider alternative translations, and the alternatives walk you through the nuance of the original.
posted by eritain at 10:07 PM on July 21, 2007

I wasn't fully aware of the difference between translations and "versions" and the hackery involved until I read this article about Rumi, the best-sellingest poet around: CORRECTIONS OF POPULAR VERSIONS OF POEMS FROM RUMI'S DIVAN
posted by BinGregory at 11:19 PM on July 21, 2007

The poems of the very great C. P. Cavafy, who wrote in Greek, translate remarkably well.

The ones I've read invariably render the poems in free verse, and apparently there's a lot more attention to rhymes and rhythms in the original Greek. I consider the translations as you would a shadow or a print, an approximation that only hints at the poem.
posted by dhruva at 11:51 PM on July 21, 2007

poetry is wanking. translated poetry is wanking with a glove on.
posted by mikoroshi at 5:37 AM on July 22, 2007

But the orgasm's the deepest you'll get, Pete said, attempting to neutralise the troll.
posted by paperpete at 10:22 AM on July 22, 2007

BinGregory: Thanks very much for that link; I was deeply suspicious of those popularized versions of Rumi, and now I've got good backup for my suspicions. I love the casual bitchslaps: "The sexualized reference to Solomon and his wives is the versioner's fantasy, since only Solomon's ring is mentioned in the original." And he quotes each ghazal in (transliterated) Persian! Great find.
posted by languagehat at 12:18 PM on July 22, 2007

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