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Poetry: What’s Gained in Translation

It was Robert Frost who first said that poetry is what gets “lost in translation”. This week, with the gaze of the literary world trained on the South Bank and its ambitious Poetry Parnassus project, bringing together writers from all the competing Olympic nations, the concept of translation and the many forms it takes is being re-examined, with the focus (rightly) on what’s gained in translation rather than what’s lost.

W.N. Herbert’s article ‘The Infection of Setting’ in Magma 53 explores the process of collaboration between poet and composer and how, in such cases “two musics are at work, two approaches to the articulation and framing of language”. To attempt such collaboration, Herbert believes, is to “enter into dialogue with both the artistry and the aspirant limitations of the other”. Perhaps two different ‘musics’ are equally apparent even when the collaboration is between poet and translator, two people working solely within the medium of language.

From versions to literal renderings, translation takes many forms. Reading some of the interviews from Poetry Parnassus, the words of Brazilian poet and translator Paulo Henriques Britto stood out. Britto is from Rio de Janeiro and has translated around 100 books as well as publishing six volumes of poetry. In conversation with S.J. Fowler, he discusses the nature of the relationship between text and translator:

“…the untranslatable—or hard-to-translate—moments of a poem are precisely those in which the poet has managed to use what is most idiosyncratic, most contingent, about a language as a creative resource. Think of Yeats’s line “in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”; the fact that the phrase “rag and bone shop” means what it means and includes the words “rag” and “bone” is a mere accident, but no other phrase would have the same force in association with “of the heart.” It is a stroke of genius, and it is, I think, untranslatable”.

Those idiosyncratic, contingent moments may be the very same moments that make a poem most striking. Of course, part of what defines a poem a poem is its particular form, aspects of which may be impossible to reproduce. You never step into the same river, or the same poem, twice. This seems something to celebrate.

Perhaps we often engage in a kind of translation even within the same language. The interesting online project ‘Like Starlings’, in which writers are paired up and asked to respond to each other’s poems (in English) almost involves a kind of versioning, a kind of riffing on the other poet’s work, whether the resulting new poems repeat elements from their source or diverge from them. Participating in the project a few years ago, I often felt like I was undertaking a strange kind of translation, working with someone else’s meanings and coded expression.

All language is a kind of translation, from world to sign. Often, poets fail at accurate translation even in their own language. We feel inarticulate most of the time. But the moments when poems succeed in translating something of the feeling that gave rise to them are sublime and worth a thousand near misses and approximations. In the words of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, “a poem is a smuggling of something back from the otherworld, a prime bit of shoplifting where you get something out the door before the buzzer goes off.” (RTE 1, July 1995).

(Poetry Parnassus runs until July 1st at the South Bank.)

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. I’m of the opinion that translation doesn’t end with the writer. In performance particularly, a poem’s meaning can fluctuate and change dependent on intonation, on the sympathies of the audience, on the mood of the speaker, the sounds of the surrounding words, the accent of the speaker, etc. Minor acts of translation ripple out from every single reading.

    One of the things I am most looking forward to about the Poetry Parnassus (and something I experienced at the Days of Poetry and Wine festival in Slovenia in 1996 as well) was the delight of hearing other rhythm-languages of poetry, other musics. The translations, though exciting, come second for me (initially, at least) to the different word-musics on offer. One doesn’t have to understand every word to extract meaning from something, after all.

  2. ‘but the moment when poems succeed in translating something of the feeling that gave rise to them are sublime……….so true. writing a poem for me is ‘once in a moment event’ which cannot be repeated if left until later or tomorrow. it has to be translated onto paper NOW. later won’t do, as it will be lost forever………..the words, phrases and feelings have run away…………….. xdonna

  3. A fascinating, unresolvable subject – I have translated a number of French poems, but on only one occasion have I been even halfway satisfied with the result. If a translation is accurate the poetic quality is frequently lost, particularly when it comes to meter and the different positions of stressed syllables in the two languages. A poetic translation strays inevitably from the untranslatable intention of the poet.

    But we have to try – there is so much beauty in the poetry of other languages that would otherwise be missed.

  4. What is gained in translation may be more than what is lost. A good translation can give us a surplus – a new poem triggered by the original.
    What added value may there be in that new poem? Perhaps another exploration of the theme[s] raised by the original? A translation of imagery? A voice? Most importantly, a new insight?
    An insight into another culture, another society, another tradition, another music, another voice, into other colours. This may be cursory and restricted, but however brief and limited, it is nevertheless an insight, so enriches our personal experience. Through poetry, art, literature and music we gain an insight into the psyche or soul of another culture, community and language. The “other” then becomes less of an “other”. It also helps is to recognise and appreciate the communalities between us. A translation gives access – however limited – to something that is usually inaccessible.

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