Friday, March 12, 2010

Can poets be bi- or multi-lingual?

In continuation of thoughts from earlier posts
here and here, this from Ian Bamforth, "Catchwords 5," in PN Review 192:

In her epistolary ménage à trois with Boris Pasternak and Rainer Maria Rilke, Marina Tsvetaeva made a radical claim for the universality of the poet. "To write a poem is already to translate - from one's mother tongue into another, and it matters little whether the other is French or German. For the poet, there is no such thing as a mother tongue. To write poetry is to translate."

Responding to a questionnaire sent him by the Flinker bookshop, Paris, in 1961, Paul Celan (who own brilliant translations into the German range from Emily Dickinson to Tsvetaeva herself) denied that poets could be bi- or multilingual. Certainly there was "double-talk" aplenty: ordinary life is full of it. Poetry, on the other hand, "is by necessity a unique instance of language." Celan's task as a poet was to excavate the tongue favoured by his dead mother while making sure nobody would ever mistake him for a German poet.

The translator is not necessarily a traitor, and the act of translation may be the very contrary of an act of betrayal. Unexpected things are often found in translation. The crucial issue is whether the translator is a foreigniser or a domesticator."

Fiona Sampson, in the TLS of March 5, 2010:

[John Taylor, in Into the Heart of European Poetry] makes the point that, when "a substantial portion of the poetry of seminal" writers has been translated, "if a reevaluation is called for ... it can now be done." It's through translation, in other words, that a particular literature enters wider literary history and can receive disinterested assessment. This not uncontroversial position runs the risk of appearing Anglocentric, and could play into the hands of scholars who believe that only those with expertise in a particular language can have a meaningful relationship with its literature. However, Taylor's book suggests how fruitful and intelligent his approach may be, providing a model in which literary curiosity proceeds by connection rather than retreating from difference. [...] [his criticism] suggests the case that there is to be made for the close reading of translations in general.

See also this exchange on what is - and is not - lost in translation.


J.H. Stotts said...

consider, especially, tsvetaeva's credo (as voiced in her 'new year's letter' to rilke upon his death) that in death 'we are not nil- but hundred-tongued.'

Gene Tanta said...

Nice thoughts, Don. Here's what your excerpts make me think of:

“To be immersed in a language without the obsession to dominate it, conquer, take personal (even “subjective”) possession of it, as if it were property: perhaps this is the virtualizing space of the modernist composition.”
-- Charles Bernstein


Toward the end of The Task of the Translator Benjamin offers a solution: "[t]he basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue." (80-1)

Henry Gould said...

I guess I agree with both Tsvetaeva & Celan, if that's possible.

Poetry is a universal phenomenone capable of crossing linguistic borders. On the other hand, it's the poet's deep fluency in the "mother tongue" which sets the initial conditions for the making of poems which are eventually worth translating.

Henry Gould said...

Don, speaking of "translation" (which is how they say Elijah left this world)... I wrote something for Elena Shvarts today :