Thursday, January 5, 2012

On translation and squirming through poetry...

If you're interested in the translation of poetry, one thing you hear over and over and over again is that Octavio Paz said that all texts can be thought of as "translations of translations of translations."  He must have written that in Spanish, of course; but what we get in English is this:
On the one hand, the world is presented to us as a collection of similarities; on the other, as a growing heap of texts, each slightly different from the one that came before it: translations of translations of translations. 
In his Oxford lecture on Eugenio Montale's poem, "L'anguilla" ("The Eel"), Paul Muldoon explores this - and Montale's poem - wryly and thoroughly, perhaps definitively.  Like everything else he does, it's a tour de force.  As you'd expect, Muldoon starts off by quoting Robert Lowell's infamous introduction to Imitations, and, having presented his own version, wiggles his way through a number of competing English translations of the poem (there must be at least fifty, but Muldoon takes on a selection of the most formidable of them).  My guess is that most American readers read Montale's poems in either Jonathan Galassi's versions or William Arrowsmith's, though Charles Wright's have been a perennial favorite as well.  Galassi's are increasingly becoming the go-to versions in this country, revised versions of which have just been reissued in paperback by his company, F.S.G.

Anyway, it's a funny thing that such a slippery poem as "L'anguilla" should be such a touchstone for this kind of case study.  This peculiar poem has wormed itself into the canon and is so well-known, even in translation, that it must by now produce little anxiety in the average consumer of poetry - no doubt thanks to its having been so relentlessly translated and dissected.  (I was going to say that we're swimming in translations of Montale, but I'll quit joking and add that the compulsive, of which I am one, will also want to consult a handy volume, Montale in English, edited by Harry Thomas.)

My post here is occasioned, though, by what appears to be the simultaneous reappearance of the Galassi and now the Arrowsmith translations in comprehensive volumes.  Most folks who will have read to this point have seen the former, but it's quite good news that the Arrowsmith versions - published in separate volumes over the years, some of which are now quite scarce - have been collected for the first time in a single book, edited by Arrowsmith's best student, the diligent and brilliant Rosanna Warren.

It might not have happened.  A 2005 article in the New York Sun called "A Montale Mystery" mentions a note of hers that appears in Arrowsmith's posthumously-published version of Cuttlefish Bones:
When William Arrowsmith died on February 20, 1992, he left in manuscript his translations of every volume of poems by Eugenio Montale arranged by the poet himself, except for "The Storm and Other Things"("La bufera e altro") and "The Occassions" ("Le occassioni"), which had already appeared from Norton in W.A.'s translation. "Altri versi," put together for Montale by Giorgio Zampa and published a few months before the poet's death in 1981, was not included; nor, for obvious reasons, was "Diario postumo," edited by Annalisa Cima and not published in toto until 1996.
The Sun telephoned Warren -
She told us that two Montale collections from Arrowsmith - "Poetic Diary: 1971 and Poetic Diary: 1972" and "Poetic Notebook 1974-77" - have yet to be published.  In 1997, she put aside the remaining manuscripts and returned to her own work, which she'd been neglecting. Our inquiry, eerily, came just as she'd been thinking again about the remaining translations. "I have been feeling guilty about the manuscripts, and I am one of his literary executors," she said. "But it's a considerable job and has to be done by someone who knows the work."
These manuscripts lack Arrowsmith's end notes, which are among the very best writing on Montale in English and one of the things that makes his other versions of Montale so valuable. They need an editor who can work with Arrowsmith's translations and compile good annotations. "There's a lot of scholarship on Montale," Ms. Warren said. "To do it responsibly, the editor of these books should know that scholarship."
Ms. Warren was Arrowsmith's student at Johns Hopkins University and his colleague at Boston University. They shared a love for Montale, and he had been showing her his translations for years. "Montale is an enduring poet, and I'm confident that I'll find someone who'd like to take on the task - or that I'd come to a point in my work where I'd like to take on the task," she said.
Well, the task was indeed undertaken, and the book has now been published beautifully by Norton as The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale: 1925-1977.

I mention all this because I am deeply indebted to both Warren and Arrowsmith.  Rosanna was my mentor in all things relating to translation and editing; I'd not have translated Miguel Hernández, nor learned how literary magazines work, except for her guidance over a great many years.  As for William Arrowsmith, I was one of his very last students, in graduate school.  He had to stop teaching in the middle of the semester in which I was taking his class, "T. S. Eliot and the Mind of Europe."  Out of breath and fumbling repeatedly for a plastic water bottle he carried with him in a flight bag, Arrowsmith - clearly quite ill - smiled as if teaching could make no man happier.

Arrowsmith suffered no fools and was intimidating; he could be blunt, and he was always sharp.  But we hung on his every word, little knowing that his words were, sadly, in very limited supply.  Early in the semester, I gathered up enough nerve to go see him in his office.  He'd put some material for the course on reserve in the library, and when I went to retrieve them I found things in German, French, and Italian.  I shuffled around the library shelves for translated versions; there were none.  When I mentioned this to Arrowsmith he looked amazed.  "You have to read them in the original," he said flatly.  Unless, he proposed, I wasn't up to it.  The hair on the back of my neck bristled: it was an eerie moment for me.  Once before, when I was in college, I had made the same mistake.  A comp lit professor of considerable talent sent me off to read some Wagner, and though I had taken just enough German to read it, I found myself wanting to get by with some English translations.  "Why?" the prof asked me - "it's beautiful in the German, isn't it?"  But Arrowsmith did not dismiss me as a lazy or ignorant neer-do-well which, in fact, I was.  He simply pointed out that yes, these works were beautiful in the original, and that as we were talking about the likes of Dante and Eliot, it could scarcely be too much trouble to do as much work as they had, if I'd any real interest in poetry.

He was not being pedantic.  I don't know when it was that poets decided they didn't need to know as much as, say, Dante or Eliot, that they could skate by on their own vocabularies and experience and the translations at hand.  But that's how most of us are now.  Arrowsmith and Warren sternly and generously sent me packing off in a different direction, and I never have been able to thank them enough.

What I remember most vividly about Arrowsmith, however, was a translation talk he gave in which he discussed his translations of Montale.  This was many years before Muldoon became Professor of Poetry at Oxford, needless to say.  And Arrowsmith dissected and demolished other translations of Montale including, you guessed it, "L'anguille," except his own.  I especially remember his discussion of the strange poem, "Xenia I," for Montale's lover, later his wife, whom the poet nicknamed "Mosca" - Arrowsmith clarified it for us with great joy and, well, love, relating the housefly, which is what mosca means, to Donne's erotic poem ''The Flea'' (which Montale had read with another lover), to the mosca in Dante's Inferno and the spiritual itch that must be scratched ("let them scratch wherever is the itch," to translate Dante).  He made his case exquisitely, dramatically, at times even venomously, reading from his own published notes to the poem.  (These are among the principle pleasures of his work on Montale, by the way.)   He waved books and papers in the air.  I think he was even sweating; it was a smotheringly hot room.  At first, we all kind of giggled.  But we stopped that pretty quick.  By the time he was done, I could see eels swimming like thick floaters in the water of my own eyes.  I was frightened, exhilarated, inspired.

It is hard to express how much, in moments like those, I loved my teachers, loved languages, loved poetry.  This has all seemed like a very long time ago to me (it was back in the 80s, after all), but the publication of William Arrowsmith's Montale brings it all back, resurrects a poet and his translator, and revivifies poetry itself.  If gratitude is the grandest virtue, somehow, of all literature, then I have been amazingly lucky, and remain intensely grateful to so many others.  And now readers can be grateful, too, for such a teacher as Arrowsmith... and for all the translations of Montale...  and, of course, for the texts of which the translations are translations.

Pictured: An aalstecher.  You can read a little of what Rosanna has to say about Montale here.


Francisco Aragón said...

I love this post. Thanks, Don.

Usemeplz said...

I like this post for your feelings, you told it so honest and kind. Thanks, it is great pleasure to read such posts.