...IV.Having been duly exposed as a fraud by a commenter in my previous post, and having just spent sixty hours in a car with four poets and a gradually disintegrating pile of Russian verse, I'll return briefly to familiar ground: translation as theory and practice. Mark Strand's witty essay (?) tackles some of the translator's characteristic dilemmas--in an overly perfunctory way, perhaps, but nonetheless with incisiveness and clarity. Every translator, especially of poetry, must answer for herself the questions Strand poses: will you keep the focus on the translator or the poet? Will you be free or literal? (Nabokov's answer is not always the best one.) Will you domesticate the author's idiom or emphasize its particularity?
To get away from all the talk of translation, I went camping by myself in southern Utah, and was about to light the campfire when a bare-chested man crawled out from the tent next to mine, stood, and started to file his nails. “You don’t know who I am,” he said, “but I know who you are.” “Who are you?” I asked. “I’m Bob,” he said. “I spent the first twenty years of my life in Pôrto Velho, and feel that Manuel Bandeira is the great undiscovered twentieth-century poet— undiscovered, that is, by the English-speaking world. I want to translate him.” Then he narrowed his eyes. “I teach Portuguese at Southern Utah State where the need for Portuguese is great since so few people there seem to know it exists. You’re not going to like this, but I don’t go in for contemporary American poetry and don’t see why that should disqualify me from translating. I can always get one of the local poets to look over what I’ve done. For me, meaning is the important thing.” Stunned by his penciled-in eyebrows and tiny mustache, I said, a bit unfairly, “You language teachers are all alike. You possess a knowledge of the original language and, perhaps, some knowledge of English, but that’s it. The chances are your translations will be word-for-word rendering without the character or feel of poetry. You are the first to declare the impossibility of translating, but you think nothing of minimizing its difficulty.” And with that I packed my things, struck the tent, and drove back to Salt Lake City.
I was in the bathtub when Jorge Luis Borges stumbled in the door. “Borges, be careful!” I yelled. “The floor is slippery and you are blind.” Then, soaping my chest, I said, “Borges, have you ever considered what is implicit in a phrase like ‘I translate Apollinaire into English’ or ‘I translate de la Mare into French’: that we take the highly idiosyncratic work of an individual and render it into a language that belongs to everyone and to no one, a system of meanings sufficiently general to permit not only misunderstandings but to throw into doubt the possibility of permitting anything else?” “Yes,” he said, with an air of resignation. “Then don’t you think,” I said, “that the translation of poetry is best left to poets who are in possession of an English they have each made their own, and that language teachers, who feel responsibility to a language not in its modifications but in its monolithic entirety, make the worst translators? Wouldn’t it be best to think of translation as a transaction between individual idioms, between, say, the Italian of D’Annunzio and the English of Auden? If we did, we could end irrelevant discussions of who has and who hasn’t done a correct translation.” “Yes,” he said, seeming to get excited.
“Say,” I said. “If translation is a kind of reading, the assumption or transformation of one personal idiom into another, then shouldn’t it be possible to translate work done in one’s own language? Shouldn’t it be possible to translate Wordsworth or Shelley into Strand?” ...
- from Mark Strand, "Translation," in The Weather of Words (2000)
For this last, Strand's answer is, again, not always the best one. He has famously "translated" Wordsworth's Prelude into his own idiom (I have not read this, or, indeed, more than a few books of the overlong original), and what is at stake for him in this essay is the vindication of that project. The particularity of the poet, for Strand, inevitably overshadows the differences between languages; people like Bob, who start from the language, deserve nothing more than contempt. I think this position rather self-serving. More importantly, I do not think that a baldfaced statement making the poet (or the Great Poet, or the True Scotsman) into a hermetically individual snowflake really does justice to the translator's difficulties. Yes, langue, parole, blah blah blah; but it is obvious that the practice of poetry-writing is a historically-grounded one that exists in an intimate and inevitable relationship with the history of the language.
I am thinking here of Russian poetry in particular. Due to a variety of factors--intellectual culture, social elitism, snobbish traditionalism--Russian poetry never turned into free verse, as Western poetry largely did in the twentieth century. Individual free-verse poets existed and exist, but the word "verlibr" itself continues to have a derisive connotation for Russians. So a central problem for translators of Russian poems is that even poetry rooted in European modernism (like the work of Blok, Akhmatova, or Mandelstam) retains many of the formal features of traditional verse. This is not just a question of the author's individual particularity--the decision to write in this way was as much a social as an individual one.
What is to be done? Should fidelity to the very modernist (self-reflexive, imagist) concerns of these poets be sacrificed to permit an elegant rhyme-and-meter translation? Or should the original form be jettisoned entirely, as Ilya Kaminsky has done (quite unsuccessfully, in my opinion) for Polina Barskova's recent work? As you probably expected, I don't think either extreme is preferable to the middle course. What that middle course is is a matter of debate. I prefer to retain only meter (or, at any rate, the textual features that permit the reader to recognize that the original poem was written in meter) and be maximally accurate within those boundaries. Other translators retain the rhyme but abandon the meter--which often makes the work sound like it was written by a preteen, but might nonetheless occasionally be useful.
If we put aside thorny problems of interpretation for the moment, there is also another problem with the idea of a unique individual idiom. A poet's idiom in English is quite a different beast from that poet's idiom in Russian (say). My translations of Pasternak (would ideally) sound different from my translations of Mandelstam, though they may be substantially similar--and of course each translated poet is different from his own original. It is thus an oversimplification to suggest that the translator should try to be maximally faithful to the poet's individuality. What is really needed is an ability to negotiate between the demands of the languages at large, the uniqueness of the poet, the specific purposes of the translation, and the more nebulous claims of euphony and rhythm.
It is all well and good to say, as I have done before, that this skill is largely an instinctive one, that translation is at its best when such calculations become seamlessly integrated into one's thought process. But this blurs the boundaries between translation as a kind of unconscious, Romantic poetry-writing and translation as a deliberate, craftsmanlike process. Could one--could I--relearn how to translate? I suspect I could not. I have been translating professionally (if not regularly) for half my life, and I do not think my style has changed in any substantial respect. Yes, the phrases I use sound more natural and my translation is less of a mere calque than it used to be--but I recognize the same familiar patterns, the same run-on sentences, in a translation from 1999.
And yet of course I know more about translation theory now than I did when I was twelve. Does that mean that Strand is right after all--that what I am really always doing is clumsily making Pasternak into Afinogenov, no matter what I say? I don't think so. What I think it means is that the negotiating skill I mentioned actually operates on a deeper level than that of translation. One develops an approach to translation as an outgrowth of a more fundamental relationship to languages and literary traditions; if I have conscious objectives and stylistic commitments as a translator, it is because my view of Russian and English is such that I cannot do otherwise. Hence translation is both instinctive and intellectual. But perhaps this is yet another version of an idiom...