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Thread: Translating poetry

  1. #1
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    Default Translating poetry

    Voltaire once said that ?It is as impossible to translate poetry as it is to translate music.? And to this day there are those who argue that the translation of poetry is a contradiction in terms: how can a translator really reproduce in another language the uniquely concentrated and distilled utterance of a poetic text? After all, only the poet really knows what he or she is really saying, and the translator can merely hope to follow, providing an approximate equivalent.

    There is also the question of how the translator can adequately reproduce the formal aspects of a poem, especially if it's a poem written in regular meter and rhyme. How can those attributes be reconstructed in another language without the special link between form, word and meaning being lost? Rhymes are often vital flags in a poem, drawing the eye and the mind in a particular direction toward a special meaning or shade of meaning.

    A translation of a poem is bound to be a compromise. Charles Simic said that what survives the translation of a poem is poetry. And sometimes, rarely, poetry translations acquire a life and energy of their own - when that happens, the poem is reborn, and enters a dimension that was unknown to its creator.

    So: in poetry is traduttore (translator) always traditore (traitor, betrayer)? Or are there exceptions to the rule?

  2. #2
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    Default Re: Translating poetry

    The questions posed in the first two paragraphs of DWM's new thread posting #1 are interesting.

    The third paragraph is dodgy, as it implies that the translator can rise up above the original and conquer in that way. The idea of the translation being better than the original nudges up to clich?.

    The last paragraph consists of a diffuse clich? that is over-parroted, usually by people who have never translated anything in their lives. It is on a par with that other clich?: "lost in translation".

    *

    If poems are utterly untranslateable, we might as well give up now. So we assume that, as I always put it, something by way of flotsam or jetsam can be salvaged from the shipwreck of the translation process, even though the vessel itself lies five fathoms deep (poetic clich?).

    Obviously, unless you are Pierre Menard, you cannot reproduce all of the sounds, meanings and allusions of the original. If, indeed, the poem is too local and provincially hermetic, with references to a thousand things that the general international reader cannot know, it is hardly worth translating. You would have to write a long list of foot- or endnotes. And that rather spoils the concision and spontaneity of the poem.

    However, as DWM well knows, there are poets who write without visible or intrusive rhythm, or a Procrustean rhyme scheme, whose work can be translated relatively easily, without destroying the whole fabric of the original poem.

    One way to test the success of such a translation is for several people to each contribute a translated version of the same poem. But this does mean that all participants must be prepared to have their translation pulled to bits by the others. (No cop-outs for teacher.) Herein lies the test of whether you have solid arguments for your particular translation, or whether it can all be reduced to subjectivism, so that no translation is ever better than any other, unless the translator completely missed a word or image entirely.

  3. #3
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    Default Re: Translating poetry

    Quote Originally Posted by Eric View Post
    The third paragraph is dodgy
    I'm troubled by the language of your post. Why "dodgy", Eric? Why not "open to question", or "debatable"?

    nudges up to clich?.
    Why not "is familiar", or "has been heard before"?

    a diffuse clich? that is over-parroted, usually by people who have never translated anything in their lives.
    Again, this is hostile language - why not "a proverb that perhaps does not reflect the experience of most professional literary translators"?

    There is no need to be hostile, Eric. We are, or should be, friends here. Some of your other points are interesting, but you spoil them by such an aggressive approach to your interlocutor.

  4. #4
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    Default Re: Translating poetry

    In translating poetry, I've personally found the greatest degree of challenge and interest in trying to render rhymed, metrical verse into an English equivalent. The task is by no means a simple one, and there is often a sacrifice to be made in terms of semantics, when a rhyme may alter the sense of a line in such a way that it has to be somehow "bent back" to the poet's original meaning.

    However, some poets - Joseph Brodsky was one of them - take the matter into their own hands. Brodsky gave up trying to have his poems translated into English and even abandoned his own attempts to translate them himself. Instead, he wrote new English poems that were parallels to the Russian versions, and sometimes got native English-speakers to modify the results and make them less "Russian" in grammar and syntax. My view is that in a way this method worked more efficiently than translation, and gave an interesting insight into how the act of writing a poem could be extended into more than one language. In particular, it made it possible to create rhymes and meters which, though they mirrored the Russian ones, produced new creations in English rather than forced attempts to "find a rhyme".

  5. #5

    Default Re: Translating poetry

    When I was trying to find "Дай Бог" by Yevtushenko in English I found this piece of poetry:

    Yevgeny Yevtushenko


    О ПЕРЕВОДАХ

    Не страшен вольный перевод
    Ничто не вольно, если любишь.
    Но если музыку погубишь,
    То это мысль всю переврет.
    Я не за ловкость шулеров,
    Я за поэтов правомочность
    Есть точность жалких школяров
    Но есть и творческая точность.
    Не дай школярством себя стеснить
    Побольше музыки, свободы!
    Я верю в стихи
    Не верю в просто переводы.

    1959

    ON TRANSLATION

    A free translation is not a fault.
    A loving man has a poetic license.
    But if a melody is spoilt, --
    It will corrupt its gist and essence.
    The skill of cheats is not what I'm for.
    I'm for the poet's right to free activity
    The accuracy a wretched student strives for
    Is not the same as that of creativity.
    Do not let pedantry restrain your style.
    More freedom, music, inspiration!
    I do believe in poems,
    while
    I don't believe in sheer translation.

  6. #6
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    Default Re: Translating poetry

    There is a problem with translating rhymes and 'tis the fact that the same rhyme scheme in different languages produces different results; on a beau dire that rhymes and content are interwoven so rhyme /meter has to be translated too if the effect is a different one. A great example is translating American/English rhymed/metered poems into German. DWM, you know German, yes? German is beautiful but cumbersome, poets like Merrill, who use rhyme and meter in a fashion that makes the formal strain almost invisible to the casual reader, do not exist in German. In German, rhyme and meter are almost always obvious, and they are meant to be so. Even as nimble a formal poet as Durs Gr?nbein cannot escape that. Germans like 'Literatur' to be difficult and challenging, and are often scornful of readable books. That extends to poetry. Form is visible, and palpable, and it is important that it be so. I have translated, with a group of fellow writers, translated American poetry into German (for fun) and the stronger one of us tried to make form conform to the oroginal, the heavier the overall effect of the poem was distorted.

    I have come to believe that a reasonably literal translation is best, with notes and examples that explain and demonstrate the effect that a writer's chosen form has in the original language. I think the literal meaning of a poem is what's more important, what you can't add through notes once you deformed the poem. One gruesome example for me is Walter Benjamin, who translated some of Baudelaire and his versions sometimes simply mean something different.

    Poetry is IMO that, what, once you paraphrase a poem, is left, that which you cannot paraphrase. It is also that which is most vulnerable in a translation.

    I mean, I am currentyl writing about poetry, and the change of one word between versions of a poem can change the meaning of the whole thing. In a poem, I feel, as poet and amateur translator and critic, I mean in a finished poem, no word can be substituted through a synonym without affecting the meaning of the whole thing. And since to focus on form often leads to at best a rough paraphrase of the line/stanza in question, I feel this is very problematic.

    But I am very doubtful about the value of translations of poetry (which is why I read so little of it). I think they are a new work, different and separate from the original. It's a collaboration of translator and poet, the result belonging to each in equal parts. That we accept that one version is the equivalent of the other and both are 'written' by the same person does not follow from the text. It's just a convention. Once I gave my mother a bilingual edition of a prizewinning German Mandelstam collection, and she did not immediately understand that the German versions were translations of the Russian. "But...but it says something completely different there...?" People, in my experience, who are reasonably literate and are unfamiliar with the convention, are often puzzled by what is accepted as equivalent of the original.

    I think to say something is "untranslatable" is meaningless. It's always a convention, a cultural decision to accept something vastly different as roughly equivalent. That's true for all genres. But for poetry, sometimes, the convention is strained, and for me, the limits of what I am prepared to accept, are crossed. It's a pragmatic decision, but it always is.

  7. #7
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    Default Re: Translating poetry

    I recently found this poem

    Zbigniew Herbert: On Translating Poetry

    Like a clumsy bumblebee
    he alights on a flower
    bending the fragile stem
    he elbows his way
    through rows of petals
    like pages of a dictionary
    he wants in
    where the fragrance and sweetness are
    and though he has a cold
    and can?t taste anything
    he pushes on
    until he bumps his head
    against the yellow pistil

    and that?s as far as he gets
    it?s too hard
    to push through the calyx
    into the root
    so the bee takes off again
    he emerges swaggering
    loudly humming:
    I was in there
    and those
    who don?t take his word for it
    can take a look at his nose
    yellow with pollen
    (translated by Alissa Valles, by the way)

  8. #8
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    Default Re: Translating poetry

    Mirabell talks quite a lot of sense in #6. Translating poetry is fraught with difficulties if the poems have a strict rhyme & rhythm scheme.

    Most English translations I've seen of Mandelstam are pretty dire. Even with my pretty limited knowledge of Russian, you can see how translators have cut corners, moved around words for no reason, changed images, left things out and so on. But the Russians do seem to stick to rhyme far more often than, say, the Britons or Americans. This does lead to big problems.

    You will notice DWM's translations of Karin Boye's collected poetry on the Karin Boye Society website, where you can compare original with translation. DWM has made a valiant attempt with her rhymed poems, but it cannot be denied that translating unrhymed poetry is easier, as you, as a translator, are "let off the hook", so to speak, and have a much wider choice or words to end the line with.

    "Untranslatable" is indeed one of those convenient clich?s, like "lost in translation". These always get parroted by people who have never tried to translate a poem in their lives - often because they have been too idle to learn even one foreign language.

    It would be interesting to see the Polish original of the Herbert poem. Do you know how the original compares with the translation?

  9. #9
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    Default Re: Translating poetry

    O tłumaczeniu wierszy


    Jak trzmiel niezgrabny
    siadł na kwiecie
    aż zgięła się łodyga wiotka
    przeciska się przez rzędy płatk?w
    podobnych słownikowym kartkom
    do środka dąży
    gdzie aromat i słodycz jest
    i choć ma katar
    i brak mu smaku
    jednak dąży
    aż bije głową
    w ż?łty słupek

    i tu już koniec
    trudno wniknąć
    przez kielich kwiat?w
    do korzeni
    więc trzmiel wychodzi
    bardzo dumny
    i głośno brzęczy:
    byłem w środku

    tym zaś
    co mu nie całkiem wierzą
    nos pokazuje
    z ż?łtym pyłem



    I'd say it's quite a good translation. It's very literal, but in the original there aren't many metaphors that would be hard to depict by the translator. Nothing added, nothing taken away.
    Last edited by pesahson; 31-Aug-2010 at 05:31.

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    Poland Re: Translating poetry

    Thank-you Pesahson. I can see from the Polish what you mean about nothing added, nothing taken away. That is an ideal state of translation. The only thing that seems less in the English is the fact that Polish has an awful lot of buzzing sounds (e.g., here, a lot of "rz" sounds, e.g. trzmiel, korzeny, rzedy, brzeczy, przeciska, przez, slodycz, dazy, wierza, zoltym ['scuse the lack of accents]).

    As the Herbert poem is not rhymed, this makes the translator's task a good deal easier.

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