Friday, March 19, 2010

On Translating Poetry and Procrustes' Bed

I begin with a credo.

Translating poetry is equivalent to an act of literary cruelty and a deliberate destruction of everything that is poetic art. 

Perhaps this is counter intuitive, at first glance. 
After all, the translation of a poem from one language into another is done with the intent of sharing a literary creation across cultural boundaries and to bring the original into the limelight.

In reality, any poetry translation is a failure, and a dismal one, at that.
Here are some arguments. 

Every poem, just like delicate clockwork, is  made up of a harmony of puns, syllables, rhythms, accents, rimes, syntax, assonance and not in the least, of what I would call ‘poetic DNA”.

The ‘poetic DNA’ is the hallmark of a poet, whose unique perspective orchestrates, behind the scene, meaning and words. 

Mozart’s music is easily recognized – it speaks of an incomparable artistic temperament.

Such is the case for poetry too – it bears the imprint of its author. 

Mozart’s music remixed and re-written by others may be something that gets our attention for a couple of seconds, but then makes us run, full speed, back to the original.

Translating poetry is, in a way, the re- enactment of the legend of Procrustes from the Greek mythology.

Syllables are moved into another language, which turns the rhythm of a poem into a barbaric mash-up.
Groups of vocals and consonants are maimed, to make them fit another meaning.
Puns may not be rendered, since they may require foot-notes to explain a cultural context.
Changes to the minute clockwork that constitutes the delicate balance of a poem wreak havoc on the ensemble.

So what’s to be done?

Would you give up reading Dante if you cannot speak Italian, or would you rather read a translation of Dante’s poetry, knowing full well  that the true Dante may never be within reach in the translated version?

It’s a difficult question. 

Fortunately enough, the situation is marginally better when it comes to translating prose.

But don’t get me wrong – In this blog - I’m not suggesting that you read prose.

In this blog, I’m suggesting  that you read poetry.


John Hayes said...

An interesting discussion! As someone who does translate, I've always looked at the process as an attempt to create a new poem--something that by its very nature is neither "my" poem or the original poets' poem, but that is a good English poem that might give some sense of what's beautiful in the original. Of course, one has to accept that in a certain sense as you point out it's an absurd exercise, possibly a violent one--a Procrustean bed--but as a translator-poet it's a wonderful way to interact with the original & work on one's own craft--as a reader, however, you must realize that what you are getting is only a shadow of the original.

Irina said...

I think, John, that's the right approach in as far as I am concerned, and hence the anxiety with regards to translating poetry in this post.
Re-writing a poem, as closely bound to the original one as humanly possible is the right definition of a poetry translation.

Which brings us to the its many limitations. In the end though, I'd much rather read a translation (hopefully a good one at that) than not read an interesting poet at all.

Thank you for your comment, John . I too approach translating poetry with reverence and enchantment.

Tatiana said...

Draga Irina, ca de obicei ne surprinzi si ne incinti mintea si imaginatia cu idei originale.

Paste fericit si luminos!

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