Jul/Aug 2000 Salon

Letter and Spirit

by Paul J. Sampson

Robert Frost said that poetry is what gets lost in the translation. He didn't advocate stopping people from translating poems, even presumably his own. But he was cautioning us that the translated poem is not the original poem.

What set me thinking about this subject was a letter to an Internet literary community by the poet Peter Munro, who told of reading a translation of a poem by Octavio Paz, which he saw presented face-to-face with the Spanish original. Peter says that he himself does not speak or read Spanish, but he felt confident in saying that it was a bad translation. The reason was that even a phonetic reading of the Spanish was beautiful and fluent, while the English was lame, halting, and ugly to the ear.

Peter is well able to speak for himself, but what I took him to mean about judging the translation of the Paz poem was this or something like it: Here we have the work, in Spanish, of a renowned and revered poet. Even a phonetic reading of the poem, independent of its literal meaning, reveals sonic beauty, musicality, the incantatory power of words purely as sounds. Then we have the translation in English, which is a deadly clunker, an affront to the English speaker's ear. He concludes that it is a bad translation.

Even without having either text at hand, I bet he's right. A good poem should not spawn an ugly translation, and the original is reliably reported to be praiseworthy. And I believe we can trust Peter's judgment about the quality of the English version as an English-language poem.

A disclaimer about my own skills before we go on: I am not a particularly good linguist. I studied Latin, Homeric Greek, and German in high school and college. I am no longer proficient in any of them. I "learned" Spanish and Italian late in life by spending time in Spain and Italy, trying to make myself understood in stores, bars, restaurants, on the street, asking directions while driving—and by reading local newspapers. I certainly don't think I am very fluent in either language, but I got well past the phrasebook stage. (In French I can sort of puzzle out the written word if the subject matter is familiar and the style is simple. And in my brief stay in France many years ago, I did make myself understood and conducted some mildly complex business, for instance in a bank. I remember an hilarious French lesson from the proprietress of a campground where we stayed. She was teaching me to use the coin-operated laundry machines, telling me how to sort le linge and insert le jeton in the coin slot and so on.)

All this is by way of saying that nobody would hire me as a translator, but I can find my way around in a few languages and have some feeling for the sound (and for the "sound" on the printed page) of these languages.

If there is ever a compelling example of the saying that "The map is not the territory," it is translation. The literal word-for-word meaning is so often different from the original intent as to be a joke. Famous example: When the Washington to Moscow Hot Line was set up, various automated translation programs were tried to prevent misunderstandings. Someone in Washington tested it by sending the Biblical quote, "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." The Russians dutifully translated it, then re-sent it in Russian. The American program translated it as "The ghost is eager but the meat is soft."

When you add the difficulty of intensely metaphoric language, not meant to be understood literally in the original language, as in poetry, then the chance of a literal translation being "accurate" diminishes sharply. Someone else on the literary mailing list mentioned a dreadful translation of a Rilke poem in which the translator committed the idiocy of following the German rhyme-scheme in the English version, forcing himself to adopt an awkward, stilted diction that nobody would like in any language. This is an extreme example of literality carried too far.

I have occasionally employed translators, by the way, to translate the technical document that I write and edit. I learned that the doctrine among professional translators is that one translates only into one's native language. In other words, I would never hire a native English speaker to translate into Spanish, nor vice versa. [Interpreters, who mediate in real time between speakers of two different languages, are a different and special case.] In the relatively rare case of multilingual translators, the best of them always translate into their strongest language. Fluency in the target language is more important than skill in the original language. Another doctrine among these professionals is that nobody is equally fluent in any two languages [!].

So: How good do you have to be at the original language before you can attempt to translate from it? In my view, not very. You need to be able to make literal sense of the words, and to recognize when you are dealing with slang, idiom, a proverb—a metaphor, in other words. You ought to have some sense of how it sounds. This isn't always easy. For instance, who knows how Homer pronounced his vowels? Nobody, that's who, so you do the best you can.

The only academic creative writing course I ever took was a poetry workshop from the late Paul Carroll, the least known of the Black Mountain poets, but a fine teacher and a reasonably good poet for all that. One of the exercises he gave us was to translate some Horace from Latin. ("Diffugere nives," Odes iv 7, for you Latin scholars.) He gave us the Latin text with an interlinear literal translation. I can't find my translation, and don't trust my memory to reconstruct it, but that's not the point. What we learned was that the way to translate a poem is to write another poem in your own language, on the same theme and where possible with the materials of the original. That is, if the images and forms of the original work in your own language, use them. If not, use new ones. For instance, A. E Housman translated this poem into quatrains which rhymed a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d. Horace, of course, did not use rhyme. Housman's poem is an "accurate" translation, of course (he was a distinguished Latin professor), but he chose a structure that he could use as gracefully in English as Horace had done with a different form in Latin.

This kind of translation is entirely different from the kind you do in a language course. When I studied (say) Greek, I had to translate what Homer said quite literally, in order to demonstrate that I understood the grammar and vocabulary of the passage I was translating. Fair enough. But (and my teachers stressed this, to their credit) that was only the beginning. The teachers steered us to many different translations in English, not to increase our understanding of Greek grammar (it didn't), but to understand that the poetry was something more than the sum of the parts of speech.

After I finished my formal study of Greek, I remained curious about the language and tried to go further on my own. Homer's dialect is different from the Classical authors—the great playwrights, philosophers and historians of the time we think of as the Golden Age of Greek literature. I tried to read some of Sophocles on my own and didn't get very far. But I learned a very valuable thing. I started reading long passages aloud without even trying to translate them. I deliberately chose "difficult" passages, like the choruses, which are highly "poetic" compared to the (relatively) simpler dialogue that comprises the main part of the plays. I would memorize a whole strophe of a chorus—twenty or thirty lines, say—and recite it aloud, over and over, letting the sound work on my senses. Please believe me when I say that I understood scarcely a word that I was saying. This is extremely dense language, and I made no effort to "translate" it word for word.

To me it was pure incantation, quite literally magic words. Its power was immediate and profound. I learned that the literal meaning of the words is only one of the elements of poetry. I learned that words can indeed aspire to the condition of music.

This is why I become impatient with discussions of poetry that insist on being able to make a prose paraphrase of a poem. That, by the way, was a frequent assignment in my college courses in literature, and I got reasonably good at pleasing my teachers, but I knew even then that they were missing an important point. The prose paraphrase is not only not the poem, it can interfere with "getting" the poem. In fact, I came to believe that there are poems that you do not "get." Those poems are incantations, magic words, and they "get" you.


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