A couple of years ago at Poesidagarna, an annual poetry festival in Malmö, Sweden, the theme was translation, and the event featured poets and their Swedish translators. The poets read from their works in the original language and then the translators read their Swedish translations, and there were also discussions about the translation of these poems. The American poet Donald Hall, who has also published children’s books, plays, and nonfiction, and was the poet laureate of New Hampshire for five years, said that though he didn’t understand most of the languages spoken at the festival, he nevertheless enjoyed hearing the poems read in the original languages and felt that he got something from them despite the language barrier. It was as though the feelings and meanings in the poems were clear simply through the sound of the words; no translation was needed.
In a recent post, I discussed the idea that not all writing can be, or should be, translated. Many readers seem to feel especially strongly about this when it comes to poetry.
In her novel Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels, who is also an award-winning poet, writes, “‘Reading a poem in translation…is like kissing a woman through a veil.’…Translation is a kind of transubstantiation; one poem becomes another. You can choose your philosophy of translation just as you choose how to live: the free adaptation that sacrifices detail to meaning, the strict crib that sacrifices meaning to exactitude. The poet moves from life to language, the translator moves from language to life; both, like the immigrant, try to identify the invisible, what’s between the lines, the mysterious implications.” This quote suggests that a poem in translation is not as authentic as one in the original language; as though reading and understanding a poem were not considered challenging enough, in translation, the meaning of the poem is veiled, hidden behind a layer. The veil’s thickness and material depend on the translators’ skills, but there is always a veil nonetheless.
Even translator Gregory Rabassa admits, in his memoir If This Be Treason, “I do find that with a language in which I am rather weak, like Russian, I do know just enough to enable me to read poetry along over so many unknown words and yet get to understand it in some ways better than in an English translation that is loud and clear.” So if someone who makes a living as a literary translator would rather read poetry in the original language even if he is not completely fluent in that language, does that mean that translating poetry is so demanding that it is best not attempted?
What, if anything, makes translating poetry different from translating other literature?
More on that in the next post.
Midweek Notes from a Practicing Writer
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