Monday, January 21, 2008

The Controversial Art of Translation

As I'm currently translating The Wanderer, a tightly-constructed poem in Anglo-Saxon of some 120 lines, I turned to Don Paterson's 'Orpheus' this weekend for some inspiration, as the last few pages of 'Orpheus', his free version of Rilke's famous sonnet sequence, are taken up with notes on the difference between translating and versioning.

At first I was impressed, almost mesmerised, by his highly intelligent and persuasive prose. But as I began to see how his opinions were negatively impacting on my confidence as a poet-translator, I became annoyed. Paterson freely admits that his argument is almost wholly a defence of those who - like himself - 'translate' poetry without a strong understanding of the original language. But that doesn't prevent him from becoming overly-rigid and dogmatic about the issue.

Paterson believes that you must either translate a poem - which is ultimately pointless in verse because it's almost impossible to get the sense and the spirit of the thing down in poetry - or write your own version of it - i.e. essentially a new poem - without bothering too much about being true to the original.

'If, through naivety or over-ambition, both translation and version are attempted simultaneously,' Paterson writes, 'the result is foredoomed.' (p. 81, Orpheus, Faber 2006)

This is over-simplifying the translation issue to the point of nonsense. Anyone who has ever attempted to translate a poem into verse knows that it's impossible to do so without making your own choices along the way, some of which will not be a straight translation but must necessarily be your own invention - or reinterpretation - of the original. The only way to translate a poem without independent choices of that kind - i.e. poetic acts of re-reading - is to translate into prose.

And even the wildest version must, at some point, pay homage to the original sense, otherwise why bother choosing that poem at all?

Influenced by his thoughts, I quickly realised that my own version-in-progress of The Wanderer was part-translation, part-version, and therefore, in Paterson's view, 'foredoomed'. I started tinkering with it, first to bring it back to a straight translation, then - frustrated by the resulting woodenness of the lines - to shift it more boldly into a version, abandoning all pretence of honouring the original.

Having done that, I have found - not surprisingly - that I've completely lost my bearings. I am no longer writing with that strong, sure-footed certainty with which my translation began. The poem feels like a chore to be finished, in whatever faltering voice I can manage to dredge up from the depths of my lost confidence. As the poem itself exclaims: 'All that joy has perished!'

I shall now have to put The Wanderer aside for a few days, and see if I can write something else in the interim, to get my focus and my confidence back - before I continue with my 'foredoomed' translation-version.


Background Artist said...

Patterson is the george bush of poetry. in a position of power in our sad world and was hot when he first came out talking about being gods gift and a shagger. now he is a middle aged bore with as much relevance to my life as a poet, as barney the purple dinosaur. take no notice. the best prose criticism leaves the reader feeling buoyant, included, not excluded like this fella tries to do.

Todd swift wrote an interesting article which rob mack in edinburgh links to on his blog, and draws a pretty accurate picture of how it currently is.

basically heaney is the main force all others have been trying to imitate for 40 years and is now a part of the fixtures, so much so we do not even recognise his influence on the majority of verse written in the english language, even the stuff defining itself against the lyric, is influenced by heaney,

but the fundamental thing he doesn't grasp, and many don't, is that what makes heaney so good and popular is his accessibility, never the feeling that you are an oink as a reader, unlike patters, who goes for the macho long shot, hand on bald head, stroking his shorn dome, gazing moodily, doing his best to look otherworldly and his prose suggests he cannot write positive like heaney does, seeing the good, but has gotta be moaning. clearly an inferiority complex cleverly manifest..ignore the bore..

Rachel Fox said...

Heck Mr Paterson does seem to upset people. I've never been up close but I like one or two of the poems. I did read some quote from him about how poetry should ask questions not give answers which I thought was rather restricting, to say the least. Should is the oddest word too. Alarm bells. I like to aim for an answer now and then. Might not get it but the aiming is fun. Like snooker perhaps.
Rachel Fox

Jane Holland: Editor said...

Hi Rachel

Yes, anyone with a strong opinion and a dogmatic way of putting it across is bound to get people wound up. I tend to suffer from that problem myself, so have some sympathy with the likes of DP. But that doesn't blind me to the flaws in his arguments.

I never found aiming 'fun' in snooker. It was hard, painful, frustrating graft. Hour after hour, day after day, year after year. I still suffer from problems with my neck and knees, from playing unrelenting for years.

But it was joy too. In the same way that monks probably find a certain joy in mortifying the flesh. So my life hasn't changed all that much since becoming a poet instead. I think poetry and self-mortification have a lot in common!

Rachel Fox said...

Indeed, fun was probably not quite the right word. None of the work of writing and thinking and thinking about writing has felt much like fun this week.
Still, on we go...

Ted Roth said...

I can't comment on what to aim at when translating poetry, but I can tell you that for many years I took special joy of teaching The Wanderer in my English Lit class. I know I would not have enjoyed it so much except the translation I used didn't sound like a translation. It struck me and my students as speaking with its own authority. I'm sure much in the original was lost, but the new thing had found its own voice and spoke to my students of their own loneliness and alienation, and they were impressed that those feelings had crossed across the great gulf of time.

Good luck in your work.