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.

3 comments:

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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