An ABC of Translating Poetry
I include this primer on the translation of poetry with pleasure and diffidence since I dislike dogma or prescription. Why not show preferences, to use Jorge Luis Borges' favorite word for choice, judgment, discrimination, and taste? The ABC itself allows me some escape from a charge of inconstancy in method in that it indicates that method is justified provided it is openly named.
A second reason for diffidence has been a reluctance in this book to emphasize the practice of translation—how, for example, to translate Greek or Spanish verse or verbs into English. For many good reasons the practical methods of how to render work from a particular language into English have been the subject of recent volumes on translation. In a history and theory of translation, practice must be specifically documented, but I have made its example secondary.
With these reservations here are some general observations on the practice of the art of translating poetry.
Translation is the art of revelation. It makes the unknown known. The translator artist has the fever and craft to recognize, re-create, and reveal the work of the other artist. But even when famous at home, the work comes into an alien city as an orphan with no past to its readers. In rags, hand-me-downs, or dramatic black capes of glory, it is surprise, morning, a distinctive stranger. The orphan is Don Quijote de la Mancha in Chicago.
Translation is an art between tongues, and the child born of the art lives forever between home and alien city. Once across the border, in new garb, the orphan remembers or conceals the old town, and appears new-born and different.
Moving between tongues, translation acquires difference. Because the words and grammar of each language differ from every other language, the transference of a poem from one language to another involves differing sounds and prosody. And because there are no perfect word equivalents between languages, or even within the same language (as Borges proves in his story of the mad Menard), perfection in translation is inconceivable.
Yet translation of poetry is conceivable. A translation dwells in imperfection, using equivalents and shunning mechanical replicas—which is the dream of literalists who believe in truth. It gives us the other. Or under another name it gives us itself.
A translation is never an exact copy. It is different. In translation perfect mimesis is impossible. But a fake or counterfeit of the original is possible, and usually it lacks criminality, since it stays close and calls itself what it is: translation. In many eyes translation resembles a museum reproduction of a Cycladic statue: it is beautiful but has no intrinsic value. It remains merely a bright mirror of an ancient glory. In its worst, barely clothed nudity, it cloaks its exposure with the scarlet T of translation.
Translation is sin, Eve's courageous breakfast leading to forbidden knowledge of the unknown. Outrage in art is desirable, and a bit of felonious deception and license are also healthy. The true counterfeit (an unattributed imitation or re-creation), which is other in sound and devices, may be invisible, go unrecognized, in order to pass on its own in the new mother language. Then, as an unrecognized alien, it will enter the native literature, be absorbed by it, and refresh it.
A translation dwells in exile. It cannot return. Those who invoke its former home wish to disenfranchise it. The translated poem should be read as a poem written in the language of the adopted literature, even if it differs because of its origin from any poem ever written in its new tongue. Fray Luis de León wrote that translated poems should not appear foreign but as "nacidas en él y naturales" (as if born and natural in the language). Yet why not some flagrant unnaturalness? Why not shake up English poetry with the sudden arrogant figure of Vladimir Mayakovsky, standing tall in his coalminer's cap, shouting his syllables out to the sky from the Brooklyn Bridge? Why not the ghost of the "disappeared" Osip Mandelstam, reading his alchemic lyrics about Stalin's mustache or his EXILE poems from the snows and ice graves of Voronezh?
Lexical shock renews weary language bones. It is good to drink Turkish coffee in the pampas of the American Midwest.
A translation is a friendship between poets. There is a mystical union between them based on love and art. As in ordinary religious mysticism, the problem of ineffability exists: how do you find words to say the unsayable? Since a vision cannot be replicated, you seek equivalents for the other.
When one poet knows the other's tongue, it is a start. If not, a third person, a friendly and responsible human dictionary, can be an intermediary. Enter the informant.
The poet reads the source text or makes conscientious use of an informant to read it. With the informant scholar, the poet translates the poem. The informant is a dictionary, not a poet, useful as a dictionary but risky as a poet.
Although it is best when one poet can chat with the other poet, the ability to chat in the foreign tongue does not create a poet. Nor does knowledge of the language of the original text qualify a translator any more than good knowledge of English makes every English speaker Milton. Poems prepared by a taxidermist, to use Robert Lowell’s words, "are likely to be stuffed birds." So from the King James Version of the Bible to contemporary versions of modern Russian poets, putting together a responsible, literalist informant and a meticulously honest but imaginative writer is preferable to commissioning work from a scholarly nonwriter.
In a translation, without art there can be no friendship between poets.
In the art of literature and scholarship, the Platonic good lies in tradition, a code word for theft. Translators are hardcore stealers, but unlike ordinary literary confidence men, the translator gets caught. For a translator, to be "honest" means that if he steals the original for his poem, as Chaucer did, or invents or omits passages from it, as the two Roberts, Lowell and Bly, have frequently done, he will declare the theft or omission openly, as the Roberts do. Give the art a name like paraphrase, imitation, or verse transfer, and the translation police will not arrest you. A poet translator survives as a good confessed thief. The best poet translators—the "original" authors of the Bible, Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Saint John of the Cross—wear masks and have not been caught.
Heaven is the instant of translation. The poet in hot anticipation, with all the skills and preparation for walking in paradise, creates.
A translation aspires to independence, yet even when apparently achieved, the dream is false. Original work is never independent, nor even wholly original. When handsomely reborn through the word-giving voice of the translator, is the translation a form different from other literature? It is sometimes indistinguishable. When different, it need not be humble and inferior. It is so only by affirmation of a superficial convention that sees poorly and has established feudal hierarchies of value between overlord originals and vassal translations.
The secular poem marks only the last in a string of Buddhist rebirths and transformations. They started long ago, or rather, like time have no beginning. A translation is the first acknowledgement of a string of original Buddhist rebirths.
So all literature is translation and all translation is unique and therefore original. Octavio Paz goes so far as to declare, "Every text is unique and, at the same time, is a translation of another text."
A good translation is a good joke. Reader, you are fooled.
Historically, the transformed words have no beginning, do not seek an original author, an original tongue, or first words. And good or bad, beauty or trash, ancient or modern, a joke lurks under the text. So the translator lacks the miracle of creation that served Yahweh when with the utterance of a few syllables, yehi, he translated chaos into light.
Whether wonderful or monstrous, the version is always a version, another working and retelling. Even a recent reading of the source text constitutes one act of translation in an infinite series of prior acts, extending from childhood's acquisition of the first signs and sounds of words to that reading of the source text. Language incessantly transforms itself, slowly like rust, quickly like conquest, and never, along the endless way of self-translation, remains the same.
Instability—eternal transformation—may be uncomfortable, but it is best to live with it. Because the dream of capturing and stilling words must really be seen as an allegory for death, a bad joke, it is better to accept movement—translation—and live with peppy Proteus and Heraclitus, the two Greek jokers.
A translation aspires to the kabbalah, wherein the universe is a system of permanent though fiery words; yet it wakes down on earth in the knowledge of its instability and impermanence.
Given the inconstancy of words and texts, can we demand miracles from human translators who work today to grace us with a poem? Yes. The poet translator should at the very least compete with the Creator. In our ignorance, we need her work of restoration and we need to be saved. When we look at a poem in a language unknown to us, we are looking helplessly into the formless void that puzzled God until he found the right words to translate chaos into form and light. In that sequence of translation and retranslation from the earliest original creation, from God's self-translation into being, up to the text before us, we depend on the secular powers of the translator to turn the formless void into light.
In the Zohar (the Book of Radiance), the infinite (the eyn sof) lies not in a stationary mass but in two forms of undulatory movement: darkness and light. Within the most hidden recess, a dark flame issues from the mystery of eyn sof like a fog forming in the unformed, which springs forth into light through which Adam saw from one end to the other of the world.
Translation is a movement from darkness into light and back to darkness. Even for the Kabbalists the infinite of God's creation of Adam's vision is only a flash of light.
Religion is God's bureaucracy. As in translation, in the hierarchy of power a fidelity to the word is essential. Fidelity to the letter, preceding the word, makes an even better, higher form of faith. Kabbalists like meaningful letters.
In their old drawings we see a tree of life whose leaves are letters and a man whose body is covered at vital spots by the ten letters of the sefirot.
Before God created the earth and heaven, he created the book. The Torah was "written with black fire on white fire, and is lying on the lap of God." Thereafter to create the world through his word, he devised the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. They "descended from the terrible and august crown of God whereon they were engraved with a pen of flaming fire."
Horace and Jerome removed themselves from the literalism of the letter and condemned even the word in order to champion phrase and sense. Yet any way—the way of Kabbalah's letter, God's word, or Jerome's phrase and sense—works if the created poem is beautiful. Foremost among fidelities is fidelity to beauty in the original poem. Should the new poem not have beauty, the translator has traduced our faith in sense, word, and letter.
An artist translator is a master potter. The potter transforms the spirit of an old pot, the recollection of its shape, into a new pot. Mastery lies in the manipulation of the clay. She pours content into a form of her own creation in her own language. The translator is the Chinese ceramist who re-creates the spirit and produces the vessel in which that spirit lives.
The translator plays with nothingness, with la nada, and from nothing comes everything. "De nada a todo," Saint John of the Cross inserts into a concrete poem drawing. The unlikely and impossible to translate are rich. In la nada the Spanish poet-saint found God.
Untranslatable lines are natural meadows of translation and yield the best wild herbs. What has never been done in the adopted language will expand its thematic and formal boundaries and its literature. Traditions of theme and form are altered by the infusion of poems from other languages, especially the impossible ones.
Translation is voyage and the poet takes a translation across the ocean. Any ship of any description may be qualified to reach port, sailing across the sea of fidelity or the sea of license. The port too will suggest in its name the conditions of the sea by which the ship reaches its destination. So the port where the cargo of poems lies anchored may be called Saint Faithful or New Harmony or Wild Strawberries. But the port must have a name, a true name. Modest designations will do—translation, version, paraphrase, metaphrase, retelling, imitation, or whatever.
The ocean offers all things, including these mixed metaphors about the translation of poems.
Now, moving from the ocean inland up to the orchards, if we endow the trees and their fruit with proper names, we, the hungry readers and critics, should eat well. Think of a hilly field on a Greek island, with that rational light of the Mediterranean in which seven centuries before the common era Archilochos wrote about figs and wanton women and his own wild shameless sexuality. His poems with their sun in the time of the Dogstar—now modernized as fragments—are all preserved in the multiple trees in a Greek orchard on the afternoon hill.
And be fair to the gardener who keeps them up. Don't eat a prickly pear for a peach and make unfriendly faces.
A translator's reward for a mistake must be capital punishment. Freedom to invent, to stray from the text, even to scratch out words and passages succeeds in a defined method, such as imitation, which Chaucer and Shakespeare boldly practiced. But not freedom to make errors. Such practice puts a poet on the hot seat. Only a punk sees freedom and error as synonyms.
The writer's skills, as Quintilian already knew, are increased by exercising the act of translation. Of course Quintilian, being an eloquent grammarian, suggested the translation of quality oration rather than of the poem. Even Latin grammarians and orators have troubles with poems and tend to Q them behind the eight ball.
The translator poet is a blatant robber but should not kill the other author or steal her very name from her. But if murder and robbery are necessary, be open. Robbery can be an admirable crime. Normally, as with music, the translating artist reads and interprets but does not fully invent the score. Yet if you must kill and rob, if you must transform the past and correct and embellish it for your time, confess and praise your benefactor. Then, when you display your stolen wares, greater praise will await your deeds.
The skill of a translator poet is tested by strictures. Freedom resides as much in a closed version as in a free version, for the English language is uniquely flexible, likes to be challenged to change its ways, and welcomes writers who abuse it with taste and imagination. A close rendition requires the greatest imagination and holds the greatest danger, for in staying close the poet may easily be seduced by the facile surface of literality. So a paradox. In close translation, given the imperative of a soaring imagination in order to compensate aesthetically for nearness to the source text, the translator poet needs a good space suit, deft fingers while working in space, or else must keep a pillow on the floor. Robert Fitzgerald soared yet remained intimately close. The Chinese call the method of the great Tang poets of working imaginatively while being bound by strictures "dancing in chains."
A translator poet must be a translator. In the act of rendering poetry from nothing into something, the translator is first a poet, even if outside the recreation he never writes poetry. If a poet—and among the grand translators are Mary Herbert, Hölderlin, Pasternak, Rilke, Valéry, Lowell, Moore, Pound, Quasimodo, and Bishop—we are lucky. But as Octavio Paz has written, good poets are not necessarily good poet translators.
Translation is also an art to be learned, even by poets. Critical for the poem is when it changes tongues, that moment of translation truth when fire and knowledge come alive to commingle and create. In that instant the poem becomes everything or nothing.
A translator operates in the unknown. To choose the unknown path risks loss—and often brings gain. The translator must gamble on gains to balance losses. Clichés in the original are often fresh in a new tongue, so give literal clichés a new life—especially those from the exotic languages. Indulge in literal translation of a worn cliché so it will shine anew, and beware of a safe equivalent that will persist in tedious dimness.
Choice is also a venture against loss. The translator begins with the advantage of selecting the poem that lends itself to her translation. This editorial choice is a formidable gain. In the end, with her gains she may not only come out even but wipe out her progenitors and, after the unforeseen literary genocide, prosper in fresh freedom.
The vulgate flowers of virgin translation drop voluptuous seeds into the new, volatile language.
The translator is a writer. He has good reason to be inimical to archaisms. He uses a contemporary language but not so fearfully as to eliminate its contemporary scope and living history. Don't worry that modernity will rub out the past. Old writers will not lose the centuries of their age when heard in modern diction. Readers of the original text read the language of their own time, unless the author, like Spenser, deliberately imitated an archaic mode. If you wish to do that, devise an appropriate speech, forget the epithet writer, good luck, and count on nothing.
A translation is an x-ray, not a xerox. A poet translator is a xenophiliac.
A translator spends a life asking y, but the I (even puffed up as the one Creator Eye) knows it's for u.
Good translation of poetry is essential to a hungry reader in a decent book store and to a global village of letters. We need it, for we still suffer under that early Babylonian God's edict of language dispersal. Although Antigone and Lear sometimes speak in exotic tongues, subverting God's rage against the monolingual builders of Babel writers still scrawl their words in a thousand scripts, pile them up on mounds of hope and futurity, awaiting translation. Translation is a zoo and a heavenly zion.