Sinister Experiments?

Jamie McKendrick on why the translator's knowledge of language is more important than their knowledge of languages...

In one famous episode of Alan Bleasdale's Boys for the Blackstuff, the head-the-ball case Yosser paces alongside a groundsman who is marking the lines of a football pitch. After some grim reflection, he announces "I can do that. Gi'us a job". The starting point for translating a poem is often a Yosser-like confidence: the lines are already marked out – even in the faintness of another language – and it can't be that hard to follow them with lines of, and in, your own.

The first unhappy lesson of translation is that a literal translation is a dead duck. It's not just that idioms and wordplay often resist translation, that rhythm and rhyme may be unavailable but that the entire pace and economy of a poem, its subtlest interconnections and internal shaping risk being lost in the process.




Osip Mandelstam speaks somewhere of writing a poem as being "work in the dark". The same goes for translating a poem, except that in this case the dark is faintly lit by the glow of the original – there's at least a shape and a direction to follow. But for a translated poem to work the same fortuitous discoveries of sound and of alignments of image need to occur. Nothing much is guaranteed to the new poem by the force of the original; and whilst it's irresponsible to jettison the original, it's lazy to mimic it.




I usually begin trying to be as faithful to the original as possible, and then find myself looking for excuses for my infidelities. But when I see the infidelities of other translators, my inclination is to be morally outraged. Who gives them permission?

Questions of fidelity may be beside the point – all that tradurre=tradire stuff we've heard so often. Anyone would choose fidelity if it was the happiest condition; if it worked. It's when it doesn't and it isn't that the translator starts looking elsewhere.




There's a kind of brutal empiricism about the process – does this work or not? There's also something fatuous about it. If a poem already exists why bring it into re-existence? To help those who can't read the original or to help the new language by including something from beyond (– a kind of philanthropy)? Or to help oneself (in both senses)? Maybe the impulse is other than either: rather a question of seeing if the poem can resonate in different circumstances – cultural and linguistic – than those into which it was born; of seeing what survives even such a radical transition. A sinister experiment in language: to find out if some shivering essence can be uprooted and then transplanted, evicted and then relocated.




Does it help to know the original language well? At least it saves the translator from unnecessary gaffes and misprisions. If you can't hear the sound of the original (however impossible it is to reproduce in the target language) how on earth, short of some unearthly promptings, are you going to know by how far you've missed it or what you need to do to move your own version closer?


Though compared to many translators my experience is small, I've translated poems from languages I know and those I don't know well, from poets living and dead as well as from languages living and dead. In the end, no one set of conditions has made the process much easier for me, although the chance to confer with the poet over any ambiguity is welcome – so as to avoid unforced errors, as they're called in tennis. The translator's knowledge of language is more important than their knowledge of languages.




In translation, often as not, there's a vandalising imbalance in the equation – the sad likelihood is that the original poet will have a markedly superior gift to that of his or her translator. But this gradient of talent isn't always disastrous; something good may be salvaged from the wreckage of an inferior talent. And it doesn't always work to have an attitude of humble reverence (however appropriate that would be) towards the original. A temporary blindness to the glaring inequalities might even help.





Following from this, we all acknowledge the inevitable losses. Where for example the nuance or secondary meaning of a word in one language has to be sacrificed in the other. We tend to be more sensitive to these losses in our own language. I remember reading an Italian translation of Hardy's 'An Afterwards':



When the Present has latched its postern behind my tremulous stay,

And the May month flaps its glad green leaves like wings

Delicate-filmed as new-spun silk…



in which the first line became: "Quando il Presente avrà chiuso la sua porta dietro il mio tremulo soggiorno" which gives the gist of the idea (the present will have shut its door) but loses at a stroke all the intimacy and particularity of "latched" and the slightly antiquated, provincial quality of "postern" – all this damage done before the second line's monosyllables and the third's compound adjectives were irrecoverably lost to sight.

This doesn't discount the possibility of certain gains. Even excellent poems may have weak moments or connections (Homer nodding) which the translator could profit from, and it seems to me legitimate for the translator to turn the poem in the direction of his or her own strengths. Again, the legitimacy of this will depend not on any aprioristic theoretical position adopted but on the efficacy of the result. Most readers would prefer a good poem in the new language than a static and slavish translation. That said, certain kinds of merely careless or would-be virtuoso inaccuracies are unnecessary and dispiriting. Perhaps blind hubris and excitement at the outset and more humbled reflection in the reworking are the best conditions for translating.




Rhyme and rhythm are areas in which the losses are most often encountered, and the skills, or lack of them, in the translator are most apparent. There's so much luck involved in finding a rhyme that works in your own language that finding a rhyme for a rhyme in another language would seem to make the odds even more dizzyingly against. There are also structural differences in rhyme from language to language. In Italian and Spanish, for example, the rhyme of the finale or final vowel alone doesn't count as a rhyme.

I've twice put an unrhymed Montale poem into rhyme. This might appear labour-intensive and at best redundant, and yet recognizing how much of the internal rhyming and acoustic play of the original was being lost in my own version I felt that rhyme might somewhat repair the loss, even if by substituting a more obvious sound device for a subtler one.

As regards rhythm, even if it were possible to follow a rhythmic pattern in certain languages, there may be nothing more than a technical equivalence: a dactylic rhythm in English would not necessarily have the same effect, say, as a sdrucciolo in Italian.

I was once given a helpful crib as well as a rhythmic breakdown for a Brecht poem by a German scholar. The original sonnet was in terza rima and a trochaic meter, quite possible to reproduce in English, and the rhyme scheme had the additional significance of a nod towards Dante's form and his Paolo and Francesca. So no excuse really, but still I felt that I had a better chance of making something worthwhile of the poem if I gave myself a freer hand. I used a more random rhyme scheme and abandoned the metre for looser iambics. The question is whether something worthwhile has been salvaged. Likewise in translating Dante's Ulysses Canto, I've kept a ghost of a rhyme scheme going, but let it disappear wherever I felt I was stretching too far or abandoning something I thought more important. In that sense there is an audible acknowledgement of failure, a kind of "modesty topos" in the effect. A more rigorous view might state that it should go one way or the other – either full terza rima or no rhyme at all. My own view is that flexibility of strategy is more use than rigour.




After considering translation as "like viewing Flemish tapestries from the wrong side, when, although one can make out the figures, they are covered by threads that obscure them, and one cannot appreciate the smooth finish of the right side", Don Quixote cheers up the translator he meets by saying that "there are worse and less profitable things that a man can do" – or at least he says this in John Rutherford's distinguished translation.



Poetry News, Winter 2003-4