Saturday, April 14, 2007

Translation Issue of Poetry Magazine

Poetry magazine’s April issue is all translation. A few of their poems are online (including one by one of my favorite poets, Pablo Neruda) and what I especially liked about the issue is that the translators (including Paul Muldoon and Robert Pinsky) have written notes to go along with the poems.

Charles Simic jokes in his note that hell is full of translators of poems, but one of the things that I found interesting here is the variety of ways the translators view their work – some took liberties (Michael Hofmann added what he termed an “opportunistic refinement,” a reference to Fox News in Gunter Eich’s poem, which I found jarring, and A.E. Stallings felt more liberty because she made the translation for someone who knew Alcman’s original poem in Ancient Greek), while others, such as Mr. Simic, seemed anxious to not make any changes or additions at all (he frets over having broken one of Novica Tadic’s lines into two), though most are somewhere in the middle.

In their notes, the translators discuss word choices, the sounds of the poems (such as the sensuousness of Coral Bracho’s Spanish), the formal qualities of the work (Robin Robertson says that Pablo Neruda’s ode to tuna is shaped like Chile, and Peter Cole describes Yitzhaq Alahdab’s “four monorhymed distichs in the Hebrew deployed in a quantitative meter”), and how their languages compare to English (Shawkat M. Toorawa, the translator of Adonis’ poem, mentions that Arabic has no capital letters, which means that it differentiates between God and god by using different words, while J.M. Coetzee feels that Afrikaans and English are both Germanic and thus there are no structural difficulties). Also described are their roles as translators (Kathleen Jamie minimizes her efforts, since she says all Gaelic writers know English and could easily translate their own work), how they work (Mr. Robertson apparently referred to a previous translation of the same poem, and others worked with the poet and/or with a rough English draft provided by the poet), and even why they translate (Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough writes in the note to her translation from the Polish of Janusz Szuber’s poem that “Reading a poem and loving it aren’t enough for translators; they have to translate it, since translation brings them closest to owning the object they love. But the translator’s love has nothing selfish about it: he or she desires to possess the object of that love only to share it with others.”)

It’s also nice to see a variety of languages included, even some less common ones, such as Korean, Belarusian, Gaelic, Swahili, and Hungarian. I, of course, would have liked to see one of the Scandinavian languages represented, however.

Perhaps more literary magazines will begin to focus on translated works as well now; if so, publishing the original text alongside the translation and commentary from the translator seems like the ideal situation. Reading the translators’ notes on the poems added to my understanding and enjoyment of the work.

Thanks to Erika Dreifus for telling me about this issue of Poetry and also to the kind person who sent me the issue!

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