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Erna Bennett

Translating Poetry

Italian has a saying, "traduttore-traditore" (translator-betrayer). The phrase reveals at once the problem of all translators - words don't have literal equivalents in different languages. To say "translator-traitor" in English would be unduly dramatic!

But, as Christopher Caudwell notes in his "Illusion and Reality", while the qualities of great novels can survive translation, those of poetry cannot. Surprisingly enough, this is not due to the difficulty of translating metrical pattern, but to the nature of poetry itself. The usefulness of the debate on translating is that it compels us to look more critically at the task of the poet and the function of poetry

Poetry is neither just words, nor just metre. It is a music of words, and is a way of seeing and interpreting the world and our experience of it, and of conveying to the listener a heightened awareness of it through an intense concentration of metaphor and words in which the natural flow of speech sounds is moulded to some kind of formal pattern. Such patterns can never be the same after the act of translation

Pattern, obviously, is governed by the rules of syntax and prosody that language has inherited from the historical and social pressures that shaped it. Poets may accept or reject these rules, but this is also determined by historical and social tensions. Some who choose to modify the rules may, like Lear or Carroll, for example, or Edith Sitwell, do so by writing "sound poems" or nonsense verse, musical but meaningless. Emerging from the same social tensions, poetic "movements" have expressed widely divergent views on what should be the purpose and the structure of poetry.

What, then, is a translator to do? Which of the many threads of which poetry is made must he capture in his translation? Luckily, we don't have to answer that question. He answers it for us. He responds to his own poetic instincts. He chooses which of the poem's many threads he will seek to interpret. If he aims at literal translation, he will not necessarily expect a "poetic" result. He may aim to translate a poem's "music" or "mood". But the sounds of words and the norms of prosody make of every language a fortified compound, as hard to escape from as to access.

Many years ago, Stanley Burnshaw, aware of these problems of translation, compiled a work in which poems in various languages were translated literally, and set side by side with texts interpreting the verse and a guide to the prosody and pronunciation of each poem's original language. The book, "The Poem Itself", was - and remains - a unique and fertile work.

Literal translations do not make a poem. Some of the music or magic, some faint ghost of the original, may come across, but its full, rich fabric rarely survives undamaged. Understanding, tuning in on its or the poet's linguistic or cultural wavelength, a free translation, may all make an acceptable, even an outstanding poem, but then it may not be a "translation". It was Jorge Luis Borges who pointed out in his famous 1967 Harvard lectures, just published in Italian as "L'invenzione della poesia", that German clearly distinguishes between Umdichtung (a poem modelled on another), Nachdichtung (a free translation) and Übersetzung (a translation), but however neat the distinction, any translation is a new poem, modelled, closely or less closely, on the original. The question we must answer is, whose poem is it?

I cite one example, a short poem by Ernesto Cardenal, "La carretera" (The causeway) from his collection "Homenaje a los Indios Americanos", sensitively translated by Monique and Carlos Altschul. The case illustrates very clearly how English, however fine the translation, is not a suitable vehicle for the music of Spanish.

Estamos abriendo una carretera
A Chichén Itzá
todos los del pueblo
para conectar nuestra aldea de Chan Kom
con Chicén Itzá.
Aunque nunca vendrán los turistas
y la carretera no dará dinero.
("La Carretera de la Luz"
le llamamos los del pueblo).
Todavía faltan muchos kilómetros
pero desde los árboles más altos
de la selva, vemos allá lejos
en el horizonte
un triánulo blanco:
las ruinas del Castillo
de Chicén Itzá.

(We are opening a causeway/to Chicen Itza/-all of us from the town/to connect the village of Chan Kom/with Chicen Itza./Even though tourists will never come/and the causeway will not yield profits./( "The Causeway of Light"/-all of us from the town call it.)/Many miles are still to be done/but from the tallest trees/in the jungle, we see far away/on the horizon/a little white triangle:/the ruins of the Castle/of Chicen Itza.)

Other small miracles are possible and Borges refers to one. Spain's great poet, San Giovanni della Croce, writing in the sixteenth century, opened his "Noche oscura del alma" (The Dark Night of the Soul) with this strophe:

En una noche oscura
con ansias en amores inflamada
¡o dichosa ventura!
salí sin ser notada
estando ja mi casa sosegada.

The last line, in Italian, (another romance language)
...essendo la mia casa addormentata,
translates the words but fails to reflect the music. The same poem has been put into English by several poets. The less said about Symons' version in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse the better:
...forth from my house where all things quiet be.
But it has also been translated by Roy Campbell as:
...when all the house was hushed.
Borges notes how this line captures "the authentic music of the silence" of the original poem.

We may refer to another small and equally rare example, in MacDonagh's translation of Goethe's often translated short poem, "Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh":


Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.

which Thomas MacDonagh (almost literally) translates as

Over all the mountains is rest;
In all the tree tops the faint west
scarce stirs a bough.
The nestlings hush their song.
Wait a while - ere long
Rest, too, shalt thou.

Where the music is dominant in the original work, as in the ancient sagas and epic poems, the translator rightly concentrates on the music. A striking example of a successful capture of the "music" of a poem is the 1996 Greek translation by Panos Karagiorgos, who lives and works in Corfu, of the Anglo-Saxon epic "Beowulf". It is interesting to reflect on possible reasons for the success of this long 3,182-line translation. One lies in the similarities of structure of the original Anglo Saxon epic and of Greek epic poetry. But another explanation must surely also lie in the translator's fine cultural tuning to the mood of his subject, derived from his life-long familiarity with the Greek folk epics.

We still must ask, however, what can be left of poetry after its passage, whether in literal or in free translation, across so forbidding a frontier? How can even the most talented of translators presume to take it across undamaged? Almansi and Merry introduce their study on "Montale: the private language of poetry", published in 1977, with the comment that to present a poet "to a foreign public is a desperate enterprise, motivated by love, passion and arrogance... Any smuggler of great poetry into another linguistic country knows well this contradictory feeling, as he is encouraged to his task by his proselytizing urge, discouraged by his common sense."

We return, therefore, to the question, what is this thing "poetry" that travels so badly? And if it travels so badly, why then is it that it is always to be found abundantly beyond the frontiers of its native tongue in spite of the virtually universal view that the result is not a good replica of the original poem? Better, some might say, a poor imitation than no poem at all. But is that all there is to it? I think not.

Poetry has deeper roots in our consciousness that most of us are aware. From our earliest days we are nourished with nursery rhymes. Rhymes at school help us remember rules of grammar and arithmetic. Rhymes help drivers remember the rules of the road, and pilots their take-off checks. Poetry read, or sung, has helped man face heavy labour and adversity. And chanted patterns of words assisted - and still assist - the performance of physical labour.

The origins of poetry pre-date written literature. Speech rhythms fitted to metrical designs assisted memory in distant ages when learning existed but writing did not. Some - all? - of the earliest written languages were hieroglyphic, and what are hieroglyphs if not metaphors, the images from which poetry is constructed? Poetry is, indeed, deep in our roots. It is not uncommon to find illiterate people who may not normally be articulate, who can and often do, when stirred by emotion, lapse into rhythmic, poetic speech.

A "gooseflesh reaction" then tells you that you are listening to poetry. Is it justifiable to think that stirring such emotions - that we believe also stirred the poet - is a part of the translator's purpose? Emotions that are moved not merely by words or prosody, or learning, or virtuosity, but from the poetic magic of their fusion in the whole-ness of the poem itself?

Certainly, the translator's first task is to dismantle the linguistic part of this organic structure. How can he then, or can he, claim to be faithful to the poet in doing so? How can he, or can he, reproduce in another tongue the music of a poet's words? How can he, or can he, awaken in another language the emotions that stirred the poet and his listeners in their own tongue - not just emotions but gooseflesh also, not the translator's but the poet's also? How freely may the translator translate before he ceases to be a translator? At what point can he, or does he become a plagiariser, or a copyist? Let me close with an example of a free translation, and a question. Is it faithful to the poem's creator who wrote in long unrhymed polysyllabic lines? Can the translator claim to be true to the poet by seeking to capture only those emotions that knowledge of the poet suggests were those that moved him?

The original is Νεοελληνικός Κούρος from Vrettakos' "Εις Μνήμην 1940-1944"

Ήρεμες οι βροχές κατά μήκος τής οροσειράς.
Τα έλατα ειρηνικά, φορτωμένα την καρτερία τούς.
Εκεί κοντά κάπου, κοιμήθηκες, αν θυμάμαι καλά.
Τώρα πια θα την έλιωσε τη σάρκα σου ο καιρός
και θάτριψεν η έρημος τα κόκκαλά σου.

Μα μ' όλο πού σε αρνήθηκε η πατρίδα, δεν μου πάει
να φανταστώ πως έλιωσε μαζί τους και το ωραίο,
το αστραφτερό, το σαν αργασμένο
μέταλλο θείο, εκείνο σου χαμόγελο αλλά, λέω,
πώς αυτό απόμεινεν εκεί και πώς τις νύχτες
βγαίνει και δύει μες στο δρυμό - μικρό φεγγάρι.

The translation is called "A Kouros of our times"

Tranquil the rain
along the mountain chain.
Quiet the pines,
with stoic patience laden.
There, nearby, you slept,
if I remember well.
Time, however, now has swept
away your body
and, who can tell,
the desert kept
your crumbled bones.

But for all your land denied you
I see no way
to easily believe
that along with these
in the same while
it swallowed up
the splendid and beautiful
sacred weathered metal
of your smile.
Rather, I note how
it has remained there
in that place
and how, at night,
like the moon,
it wakens in the woods
and shows it face
and casts its light.

© Copyright 2002 Translatum Journal and the Author
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