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!
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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
...forth from my house where all things quiet
But it has also been translated by Roy Campbell
...when all the house was hushed.
Borges notes how this line captures "the
authentic music of the silence" of the
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
In allen Wipfeln
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.
which Thomas MacDonagh (almost literally) translates
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
"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?
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?
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
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
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.
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