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.