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Translation: From A Poet's Glossary

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Edward Hirsch


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December 09, 2014

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Poetic Terms/Forms
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translation: The word translation derives from the Latin translatio, which in turn comes from trans- and fero, meaning “to carry across” or “to bring across.” It is the transfer of meaning from one language to another. Strictly speaking, total translation is impossible, since languages differ and each language carries its own complex of linguistic resources, historical and social values. This is especially true in poetry, the maximal of language. It is axiomatic that in a poem there is no exact equivalent for the valences of sound, the intonations and sequences of words, the rhythm of separate lines, the weight of accruing stanzas, the totality of musical effects. That’s why its untranslatability has been one of the defining features of poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the word untranslatablenessRobert Frost famously said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” An Italian pun captures the idea: traduttore/traditore, translator/traitor.

Yet translation is also a necessity, the only way of bridging the barriers of language. It brings the world to our doorstep. For who among us can read in the original the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric epics, HoraceDante, and PetrarchRumi and the medieval Arabic poets, the poems of Li Po and Tu Fu, William Shakespeare and Walt Whitman, Góngora, Bashō, Rabindranath Tagore, Alexander Pushkin? Translation, our humanistic conscience, makes it possible to make these poets part of our lives. George Steiner quotes Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s letter to Thomas Carlyle—“Say what one will of its inadequacy, translation remains one of the most important, worthwhile concerns in the totality of world affairs”—and adds: “Without it we would live in arrogant parishes bordered by silence.” In 1611, the translators of the King James Bible employed biblical cadences, which they had so eloquently translated, to make the case for translation:

     Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light;
     that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that
     putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most
     holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we
     may come by the water, even as Jacob rolle away the
     stone from the mouth of the well, by which means the
     flocks of Laban were watered. Indeed without translation
     into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like
     children at Jacob’s well (which was deep) without a bucket
     or something to draw with or as that person mentioned
     by Esau, to whom when a sealed book was delivered, with
     this motion, “Read this, I Pray thee,” he was faith to make
     this answer, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” . . .

There is a sliding scale in translating poetry from the strictest literalism to the freest adaptation. The literalists argue that the only faithful translation is an interlinear trot or a prose paraphrase. This is Vladimir Nabokov’s position: “The clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase.” The argument against the strict trot is that it can serve as only an auxiliary to a poem, while losing the poem itself, or at least what is most crucial about it. It is a useful but distant pointer. It never gives us a direct experience.

Another freer mode of translating poetry involves imitation (from the Latin, imitatio), the art of modeling, the act of following a prototypical source, an acknowledgment of precedence. John Dryden characterized the art of imitation as a kinship between authors in his Preface to Fables (1700). Here an imitation takes on the force of a refashioning of a previous poem. Dryden explains: “In the way of imitation, the translator not only varies from the words and sense, but forsakes them as he sees occasion; and, taking only some general hints from the original, runs diversions upon the ground- work.” An imitation is different than a literal rendition. It takes greater license and moves in more ambiguous literary space. It is interpenetrated by its source. The tradition of imitation expands in our time to Robert Lowell’s controversial Imitations (1961) and Stephen Berg’s The Steel Cricket: Versions 1959–1997 (1997). Lowell confessed that he had been reckless with the literal meaning of poems, but labored hard to get the right tone. When an imitation succeeds, it accomplishes something closer to a fusion of two poetic selves. Thus Berg takes the final line from the German poet Ernst Stadler’s 1914 poem “Der Spruch,” or “The Saying,” “Mensch, werde wesentlich!” (“Man, become substantial!”), and renders it: “STOP BEING A GHOST!”

Imitation as Lowell and Berg practice it widens out into a greater departure from the original, an adaptation. Michael Hamburger points out: “Imitation in classical practice was the taking-over and renewal of past conventions and kinds—as the Romans took over and renewed Greek models, generations of later poets took over and renewed the Latin and Greek. What mattered in that was not the individuality of the poets imitated, but the perpetuation of exemplars, conventions, and kinds.” The idea originated with Horace (65–8 BCE), who wrote in his Odes (23–13 BCE, 4.2) that it would be disastrous to imitate the sublime power of Pindar, whose music was like a rushing torrent “that boils and roars and overflows its banks,” rushing down “the mountain-side of song.” He compared Pindar to a great swan conquering the air by long rapturous flights, and compared himself to the humble bee, modestly and painstakingly gathering honey. This helps to account for the difference between the Pindaric ode and the Horatian ode. Seneca the Younger (ca. 4 BCE–65 CE) picked up the Horatian image of the bee as a figure for the author. The bee, he suggests in Epistle 84, first samples various texts by earlier writers, and then “so blend[s] those several flavors into one delicious compound” that the final honey “is clearly a different thing from that whence it came.” This freestanding adaptation, a kind of criticism and appreciation, is the mode of modern works such as Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius (1917–1934) and Christopher Logue’s accounts of Homer (War Music, 1997; All Day Permanent Red, 2003; Cold Calls, 2005). The translation of poetry inevitably strives to re-create a totality that can never be fully recovered. But something else emerges. Joseph Brodsky reformulated Frost’s position: “Poetry is what is gained in translation.”

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Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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