Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Transtromer translation troubles

 Some poetry translation trouble has been brewing lately, viz -

The process of translating poetry from a language of which the poet has skimpy knowledge has a respectable history. Correspondents in the TLS exchange have mentioned Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell; Christopher Logue, whose accounts of the Iliad have enthralled readers for over forty years, knows no Greek. Still, the subject continues to vex some people. The April issue of the Chicago magazine Poetry is dedicated to translation. [sic - this past year it was in June]  It offers versions of a variety of works by twenty-five modern poets, together with an explanation of the translator’s approach. Of the twenty-five, more than half have acquaintance with the original language, including J. M. Coetzee from Afrikaans, John Peck from Chinese, D. H. Tracy from Swahili, as well as those charged with Russian, French, Serbian and Hebrew. The minority group are quick to admit their shortcomings: “As a lowland Scot, I don’t speak Gaelic”, Kathleen Jamie writes (a non sequitur, but let it pass), adding that it felt “a bit fraudulent” setting out to “translate” a poem from that language. Being Kathleen Jamie, she comes up with something good in itself -the accepted validation of the poet translating from a language he or she “does not understand”. Like Ms Jamie, Franz Wright (Belarusian), Peter Campion (Korean) and Clive Wilmer (Hungarian) work with rough objects which, as practised versifiers, they strive to sand and varnish. Another is Robin Robertson, who attempts an English version of Pablo Neruda’s “Oda a un gran atun en el mercado” (“Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market”). Discussing his approach to Neruda’s Spanish (with “a good dictionary”), Mr Robertson refers to “a recent collection I made of some free versions of poems by Tomas Transtromer” which attracted “spluttering fire from certain quarters”. As he sees it, “the anxiety seems to centre on the term ‘version’ . . . and it is baffling that a process that has been going on for over half a century seems to have been overlooked”. He then invokes Lowell and Logue. However, in our understanding of Fulton’s complaint, his “anxiety” is not over “the term ‘version’”, but over the resemblances between Robertson’s versions -or whichever term you fancy -and his own. It may be an unjust claim; if so, it seems “baffling” to let it go unchallenged.
 Read the full megilla in the TLS.

Pictured: An extremely famous mistranslation: Michelangelo's Moses - with horns.


Jordan said...

It's probably true that the ideal reviewer of poetry in translation is a poet fluent in both the languages involved but it's also true that ideally the reviewer of any book of poems ought to be an independent auditor; narrowing the pool of available reviewers to the bilingual makes it less likely to find a disinterested observer, I'm guessing.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Considering the nuances, idioms, rhyme, pronunciation, meter and cultural origins of languages (and I speak several), I have concluded that it is simply impossible, no matter how fluent or skilled the translator, to accurately translate a poem from any one language into another. Prose, perhaps, but poetry, never. You do it no justice (with apologies to Bly and Ashbery).