Wednesday, 23 April 2014

A 'back-translation' experiment

I actually wrote this one yesterday, but hesitated to post it. I'd wanted to try a 'back-translation' (in this case, translating a French translation of a poem back into English, the language in which it was originally written) for a while. I imagined the result would be very different from the original poem, and that my post would compare them and speculate on why they were so different. I was surprised: they are very similar.
In order to do the exercise, I needed to find a French translation of a poem I didn't know. I didn't want to choose something obscure, so I looked for translations of some famous American poets, since my knowledge of American poetry is pretty limited. I found this:

De la seule existence

Le palmier aux confins de l'esprit
Au-delà de la pensée ultime, se dresse
Dans le décor de bronze

Un oiseau au plumage d'or
Chante dans le palmier, dépourvu de sens
Et de sentiments humains, un chant étranger.

On sait alors que ce n'est pas la raison
Qui nous rend heureux ou malheureux.
L'oiseau chante. Ses plumes brillent.

Le palmier se tient sur le bord de l'espace.
Le vent remue doucement dans les branches.
Peinturlurées de feu, les plumes de l'oiseau pendillent

Translated by Anne Wade Minkowski in L'Autre, n° 3, déc. 1991

I didn't recognise it. Here is my version:

Of Mere Existence

The palm tree at the border of the mind
Beyond the last of all thoughts, rises
In the bronze scene.

A bird with gold feathers
Sings in the palm, devoid of sense
And human sentiment, a foreign song.

We know, then, that it is not reason
That has us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers gleam.

The palm tree stands at the edge of space.
The wind stirs softly in the branches.
Daubed with fire, the bird's feathers dangle.

The sharp-eyed amongst you will have identified this poem as 'Of Mere Being', by Wallace Stevens.
Here is the original:

Of Mere Being

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor.

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Remarkably little seems to have really changed in the poem's passage from English to French and back again. The two most interesting differences seemed to me to be the change from "the reason" to "reason" (French uses the definite article for abstract concepts, so from the French it could have been either), and the last line, which I have butchered, but no more, I would argue, than has the French translation. This richly alliterative line seems to me the most attractive thing about the poem; I couldn't get very interested in the rest of it. And this brings me to what struck me as most interesting about the whole exercise: you might expect it to be reassuring for a back-translation to resemble its original - it suggests that poetry is translatable after all, that we can read poems translated from other languages and understand them as their original readers would. Instead, I felt disappointed, and not only because I'd lost the imagined subject of my blog post. We expect poetry to do interesting things. We need it to be complex and ambiguous, to challenge us; there is little reward in reading poetry that does not do so in some way. It is these complexities - of sound, structure, meaning - that make translating poetry so extremely difficult. It is often said that a translation of a poem is a new poem, a different one; so when I compared my translation to the original Stevens poem, the similarities made me suspicious. Either the French translator hadn't done a very good job, or the original poem itself wasn't doing much (or both). Looking at the French version again, it is semantically and syntactically very close to the original. I don't think it is very interesting, but then I have concluded that I don't much like the original either. Stevens is often called a "poet of ideas"; perhaps this makes his work easier to translate.
What do you think? Is the French any good? Why is the back-translation so similar to the original?

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Day 19: 'Disobedience' by A.A. Milne

Ever a slave to the whims of my friends, I have produced a French translation of A.A. Milne's 'Disobedience', because for some reason one of them needed that in his life. The rhymes were not too difficult; more of a challenge was constantly reminding myself that French poetic metre counts syllables, not stresses, so the bouncing dactylic rhythm of this poem in English is hard to recreate. English can easily slip in an extra unstressed syllable without really altering the metre, which French can't do. I found it hard to read my translation aloud without lapsing into a sort of Anglophone lollop. Some of the lines are still perhaps a bit unwieldy, but I had fun doing the translation and I hope you'll have fun reading it. The original can be found here.

La Désobéissance

James James
Mauraison Mauraison
Westminster Georges LeBlanc
S'occupait bien
De sa Maman
Malgré son âge (trois ans).
James James
Dit à Maman
Dit-il « Maman, » il dit,
« Faut pas que tu files jusqu'au bout de la ville, sans m'emmener, moi aussi. »

La Maman
De James James
Mit une robe de soie
La Maman
De James James
Jusqu'au bout de la ville alla.

La Maman
De James James
Se dit, lorsqu'elle y conduisait
« C'est bon. Si je file jusqu'au bout de la ville, je rentrerai pour le goûter. »

Le Roi Henri
Mit une affiche
La Maman
De James James
s'est - parait-il – égarée. 

La dernière fois
Qu'on l'a vue
Elle errait à son gré.
Elle voulait filer jusqu'au bout de la ville – et toute aide sera recompensée ! »

James James
Mauraison Mauraison
(On l'appellera J.)
Dit aux autres
De sa famille
De ne pas l'accuser, lui.
James James
Dit à Maman
Dit-il « Maman », il dit,
« Faut jamais filer jusqu'au bout de la ville sans demander mon avis. »

La Maman
De James James
N'a pas été vue depuis.
Le Roi Henri
Se dit désolé
La Reine et le Prince aussi.
Le Roi Henri
(Selon un monsieur)
Dit à sa conseillère,
« Si des gens filent jusqu'au bout de la ville, il n'y a rien à faire. »

(Encore une fois, à voix basse)
J. J.
M. M.
W. G. LeBlanc
S'occupait bien
De sa M****
Malgré son âge (3 ans).
J. J.
Dit à M****
Dit-il « M**** », il dit,


Friday, 18 April 2014

Day 18: A short poem by Paul Eluard

Today's offering is a snippet of Paul Eluard, from Capitale de la douleur. Eluard's poetry is difficult to translate partly because it seems so simple. This poem uses very ordinary, generic language - arbre, voix, bouge, etc. - which makes it hard to play around with much. There aren't many possible ways to translate 'arbre' without stretching the original quite a long way; this makes it tricky if the equivalent words in English don't create the same sound patterns (and they are not likely to do so). The slow drawl of the words ending in 're' in line 2 is not there in the translation, but the commas also serve to slow the line down, and the repetition of 'sh' in "shadow, shows" at least creates another repetition of sounds in that line. 

'Les petits justes', VII

La nature s'est prise aux filets de ta vie.
L'arbre, ton ombre, montre sa chair nue: le ciel.
Il a la voix du sable et les gestes du vent.
Et tout ce que tu dis bouge derrière toi.

Nature is tangled in the net of your life.
The tree, your shadow, shows its bare flesh: the sky.
It has the sand's voice and the movements of the wind.
And everything you say stirs behind you.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Day 17: 'Rhinight' - an experimental version of Apollinaire

As promised, here is a more experimental translation of the Apollinaire poem I attempted a few days ago. I have not retained the original rhyme scheme or lineation, but have instead tried to capture something of the musicality and artistry of the original through assonance and a bit of wordplay here and there. In French, 'verre' (glass), 'vert' (green) and 'vers' (verse/line of poetry) are all pronounced the same, which creates a lot of possibilities for poetry-themed wordplay.


My glass is filled with wine that flamelike quiverse
            to the boatman songslow
      oh he saw says he saw seven women sous la lune
twine their envygreen hair
                        that cascaded

Up up sing up dancing rings around
me and drown
                       the boatman's song

       Bring me the blonde girls
       the unmoving stare
       the tightcoiled plaits

the Rhine the Rhine drunk
        where the vines admire their reflection
all the gold of the nights flitters down
                                   to be mirrored there too
           the voice still singing            till breath's exspiral
those green-haired faeries whose spells
                             draw the summer to song

I right my glass shattered like a shard of laughter

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Day 16: 'Le Peu d'Eau' by Yves Bonnefoy

A highly unseasonal poem about snow for today.

Yves Bonnefoy, 'Le Peu d'Eau'

À ce flocon
Qui sur ma main se pose, j’ai désir
D’assurer l’éternel
En faisant de ma vie, de ma chaleur,
De mon passé, de ces jours d’à présent,
Un instant simplement: cet instant-ci, sans bornes.

Mais déjà il n’est plus
Qu’un peu d’eau, qui se perd
Dans la brume des corps qui vont dans la neige.

The Bit of Water

To this flake
that perches on my hand, I wish
to grant what is eternal
by making of my life, of my warmth,
of my past, of these days of just now,
a moment simply: this moment, here, and boundless.

But already it's no more
than a bit of water, losing itself
in the fog of bodies passing in the snow.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Day 15: Sapphic fun

Hi, new readers. If you were led here by the title of the post, you might want to try elsewhere on the internet. Today's translation is an essentially pointless but enjoyable exercise, involving two assistants of varying glamorousness. The first is my friend Rachel, who helpfully responded to my request for poem suggestions by sending me this fragment of Sappho:

γλύκηα μᾶτερ, οὔτοι δύναμαι κρέκην τὸν ἴστον
πόθῳ δάμεισα παῖδος βραδίναν δι᾽ Ἀφροδίταν.

I don't speak Greek, and neither does Rachel, so this was always going to be translation in the very loosest of senses. This is where I enlisted the help of my second friend, Google, whom some of you may know.

First, I got Google to translate the fragment into English. It said this:

glykia Matera, This I am able krekin the tissue
pothῳ dameisa children dinner by Venus.
Glad to have got the matter cleared up, and reflecting that Sappho was somewhat overrated, I decided to try a 'Chinese whispers' style approach, passing this baffling piece of text through Google-approximations of various languages before bringing it back into English. The non-words in the first 'English' translation stayed the same throughout, so before trying again, I accepted Microsoft Word's suggestions as to what I/Sappho/Google meant to say. That produced this:

glycol mother, this I am able cretin the tissue
pithy demise children dinner by Venus.

It wasn't John Ashbery, but it was something I could work with. Here is the result: French, German, Welsh, Chinese, and (why not?) Zulu, via English each time.

glycol mother, This I am able cretin the tissue
pithy demise children dinner by Venus.

glycol mère, je suis Ce crétin mesure le tissu
enfants de dévolution lapidaire dîner par Vénus.

glycol mother, I am moron This measure tissue
children devolution lapidary dinner Venus.

Glykol Mutter, ich Idiot diese Maßnahme Gewebe
Kinder Devolution lapidar Abendessen Venus.

Glycol mother, I idiot this measure tissue
Children Devolution succinctly dinner Venus.

GLYCOL mam, yr wyf yn idiot mesur hwn meinwe
Mae plant DATGANOLI gryno cinio Venus.

ACID mother, I am an idiot this measure tissue
Children DEVOLUTION compact lunch Venus.


Mother acid, I was an idiot this measure tissue
Children decentralized compact lunch Venus.

Umama acid, ngase isilima lokhu izicubu isilinganiso
Izingane usabalalise kwasemini compact Venus.

Acid mother, I had this stupid muscles to measure
Children distribute lunch compact Venus.

All the languages were a bit distracting; what I wanted was an English text. I tried again, this time straining the text through five languages (in alphabetical order of what Google offered me) before coming back to English. I did this three times, and produced this gem:

glycol mother, this I am able cretin the tissue
pithy demise children dinner by Venus.

Home glycol, I can sum idiot
Children's lunch Hot Venus.

Home glycol, can be summed up with the slogan and
Pre-lunch Hot Venus.

Home glycol, can be summed up in the slogan,
Hot Venus before lunch.

Thrilling though this activity was, and despite the considerable satisfaction afforded by the very last version, I still wasn't convinced I had produced a work of art. I decided to consult a translation of this fragment (Fragment 102) by an actual person. It was a revelation:

Sweet mother, I can no longer weave at the loom
conquered by desire for a boy, because of slender Aphrodite.
(Andromache Karanika's translation)
What was I to do with this? I had two equally valid translations, produced by surely foolproof methods, but they seemed to be telling me quite different things. Which could Sappho have meant? I decided to get closer to the truth by combining the two.

Sweet glycol, I, no longer summed up, loom
conquered by desire for Hot Venus before lunch.

I feel I have gained a significant insight into life in Ancient Greece. Either that, or Google Translate is for purely pointless purposes and not to be used for actual translation. You decide.. 

Reference: Karanika, A. (2014) Voices at Work: Women, Performance and Labor in Ancient Greece, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, p186.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Day 14: 'Nuit rhénane' by Guillaume Apollinaire

Tangled up in rhyme again...This one definitely needs several more drafts. It was difficult to capture much of the music without twisting the sense considerably. My version currently uses a rather unsatisfactory mixture of rhyme, half-rhyme and no rhyme. I feel this is one of those translations you read with a strong sense that much has been lost; but I do think with more time to analyse the original and see how it works, my effort might be improved. I might use the same poem tomorrow, or another day when I have more time, and try a totally different approach to see if I can make any more of it!

Nuit rhénane

Mon verre est plein d'un vin trembleur comme une flamme
Écoutez la chanson lente d'un batelier
Qui raconte avoir vu sous la lune sept femmes
Tordre leurs cheveux verts et longs jusqu'à leurs pieds

Debout chantez plus haut en dansant une ronde
Que je n'entende plus le chant du batelier
Et mettez près de moi toutes les filles blondes
Au regard immobile aux nattes repliées

Le Rhin le Rhin est ivre où les vignes se mirent
Tout l'or des nuits tombe en tremblant s'y refléter
La voix chante toujours à en râle-mourir
Ces fées aux cheveux verts qui incantent l'été

Mon verre s'est brisé comme un éclat de rire

Rhine Night

My glass is filled with a quivering flame of wine
Listen to the boatman’s slow song
As he tells of seven women seen beneath the moon
Twisting and twining their hair, so green and long

Stand up, sing louder, dancing in a ring
So I no longer hear the boatman’s song
And bring beside me all the girls with golden hair
With the tight-coiled plaits and the unmoving stares

The Rhine the Rhine is drunk where the vines admire themselves
All the gold of night flutters down to itself in that mirror
And still the voice sings on to the death-rattle
These green-haired faeries who bewitch the summer

My glass has shattered like a burst of laughter

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Day 13: from 'Le Bleu et la poussière' by Jacques Izoard

Here is today's translation, from Le Bleu et la poussière ('The Bruise and the Dust') by Belgian poet Jacques Izoard (1936-2008). This is an extract from a longer poem. Not much time for commentary today, so feel free to provide your own, or just enjoy it as it is!

All will fall silent, all
will make of itself a misty quiet.
Chance, somewhere,
will don its dunce’s cap
for a final farewell.
For us who were the living
the flies will die.

After your proverbs and sayings,
your moons and your whims and your dreams,
your bare voice will emerge
like a rumbling sea
in the deepest of the deeps.

Life does not mean to say
that living is an absence.
But if life demands
armfuls of flowers –
also that flowers all die –
then leave you may.

What will be left to you
of your childhood tossed back and forth,
of your brawls, your negligible deaths,
of your self-forgetting,
is the bruise
we fashion poems from.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Day 12: A translated cut-up poem

My MA dissertation is (or will be) on the poetry of André Frénaud. Rather than translating any actual Frénaud here, though, I have tried a different tack. I took an extract from Bernard Pingaud's rather flowery introduction to Frénaud's collection Il n'y a pas de paradis, created a cut-up poem from it (I used all the words from the extract, rearranging them to make a poem), then translated that into English. Poetry is everywhere! Hooray!

"L’écriture, toutefois, n’est pas la cure. Alors que la parole analytique tend à s’abolir dans un silence final qui serait celui de la guérison, la parole poétique se fixe, au contraire, dans ces objets de forme et dimension diverses, ces petits monuments verbaux qui garantissent au poète que l’événement ne s’est pas produit en vain."

(Bernard Pingaud, Preface to André Frénaud, Il n’y a pas de paradis. Paris: Gallimard, 1967, p.10)

The cut-up technique produced this (with alterations made so that verbs are correctly conjugated and adjectives agree in gender and number. Punctuation has also been added.):


dans l’écriture, toutefois,
qu'un silence final
qui serait parole
dans ces petites dimensions

poètes-monuments se fixent en vain
tendent ces objets divers

à l’événement

la poétique de celui-là est contraire
à s’abolir

la parole qui garantit, verbale et analytique
ne se produit pas
la cure n’est que forme, alors :
pas de guérison

The next stage was the translation:

To the

in writing, all the same,
nothing but a final silence
which would be speech
in these small dimensions

poet-monuments establish themselves in vain,
hold out these various objects
to the event

that one's poetics is opposed
to self-suppress

the word that guarantees, verbal and analytical
does not happen.
the cure is only form, then:
no healing


Friday, 11 April 2014

Day 11: 'Symphonie en gris' by Marie Krysinska

Today's translation is the first half of a poem by Marie Krysinska. Krysinska was a 19th-century French poet who wrote some of the first French poems in free verse. Although Rimbaud, Laforgue and Gustave Kahn all published their free-verse poems after Krysinska, her role in this poetic innovation is rarely acknowledged. She is no Rimbaud or Laforgue, but her poetry deserves to be remembered for its role in the development of French free verse. Here is some information about her along with two poems translated by Sandra Sokowski.

And here is 'Symphonie en gris', in the original and then in my translation:

Symphonie en gris

(À Rodolphe Salis)

Plus d’ardentes lueurs sur le ciel alourdi,
Qui semble tristement rêver.
Les arbres, sans mouvement,
Mettent dans le loin une dentelle grise. -
Sur le ciel qui semble tristement rêver,
Plus d’ardentes lueurs. -

Dans l’air gris flottent les apaisements,
Les résignations et les inquiétudes.
Du sol consterné monte une rumeur étrange, surhumaine.
Cabalistique langage entendu seulement
Des âmes attentives. -
Les apaisements, les résignations, et les inquiétudes
Flottent dans l’air gris. -

Les silhouettes vagues ont le geste de la folie.
Les maisons sont assises disgracieusement
Comme de vieilles femmes -
Les silhouettes vagues ont le geste de la folie. -
C’est l’heure cruelle et stupéfiante,
Où la chauve-souris déploie ses ailes grises,
Et s’en va rôdant comme un malfaiteur. -
Les silhouettes vagues ont le geste de la folie. -

Près de l’étang endormi
Le grillon fredonne d’exquises romances.
Et doucement ressuscitent dans l’air gris
Les choses enfuies.
Près de l’étang endormi
Le grillon fredonne d’exquises romances.
Sous le ciel qui semble tristement rêver.

I have translated only the first two stanzas, at least for now:

Symphony in grey

No more burning glow on the burdened sky,
Which seems in mournful dream.
The trees, unmoving,
Cast grey lace into the far-off.
On the sky which seems in mournful dream,
No more burning glow.

In the grey air float pacifications,
Resignations, disquiets.
From the stunned sun a strange sound rises, superhuman.
Cabalistic language heard only
By attentive souls.
Pacifications, resignations, disquiets
Float in the grey air.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Day 10: 'The Walk' by Thomas Hardy

Time for a change of direction: today I'm translating into French. This being as much of a first draft as any of my other NaPoTraMo efforts, and also being in my second language, I'm a bit nervous about posting it, but here we go...

The original:

The Walk

You did not walk with me
Of late to the hill-top tree
By the gated ways,
As in earlier days;
You were weak and lame,
So you never came,
And I went alone, and I did not mind,
Not thinking of you as left behind.

I walked up there to-day
Just in the former way:
Surveyed around
The familiar ground
By myself again:
What difference, then?
Only that underlying sense
Of the look of a room on returning thence.

And the translation:

La Balade

Dernièrement, tu
Ne venais plus
Te promener avec moi
Jusqu’à l’arbre du sommet
Par les petits sentiers
Comme autrefois ;
Faible, tu boitais,
Donc ne m’accompagnais jamais,
Et j’y allais tout seul, n’y réfléchissant guère ;
Je ne te croyais pas laissée en arrière.

Aujourd’hui je m’y suis promené
Comme j’ai si souvent fait ;
J’ai regardé la vue
Qui m’est si bien connue
Tout seul encore :
Quelle différence, alors ?
Rien que ce qu’on ressent, l’impression dérobée,
En retrouvant une pièce que l’on avait quittée.

The rhythm is inevitably different, and the French cannot always reproduce the concision that makes the original so poignant. ('Not thinking of you as left behind' was a line I found difficult to render elegantly in French!) I have had a go at the rhyme, though...
Comments welcome, as ever.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Day 9: ' Autorretrato a los veinte años' by Roberto Bolaño

Two days of the challenge missed, oh dear. My excuse is that I was in London, which, as everyone knows, doesn't have the internet. Better do some extra-good translating in the next couple of days to make up..

Buoyed by my success (judged solely by me) in translating from Italian, I am moving on to a language I have never learnt at all: Spanish. This poem by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño was sent to me, with a literal translation, by my brother (who is in Chile - it pleases me to think of the poem as freshly sourced). One of the difficulties I find in working from a 'literal' is that sometimes it becomes difficult to move away from it. I read a line of it, think 'yeah, that sounds about right', and the challenge is then to imagine it differently. I try to do this by listening to the original, reading it before and after reading the gloss (I'm yet to attempt a poem where I can't even read the script the language is written in), and constantly going back to it to check the sound and rhythm of the words.

Here is the original:

Autorretrato a los veinte años

Me dejé ir, lo tomé en marcha y no supe nunca
hacia dónde hubiera podido llevarme. Iba lleno de miedo,
se me aflojó el estómago y me zumbaba la cabeza:
yo creo que era el aire frío de los muertos.
No sé. Me dejé ir, pensé que era una pena
acabar tan pronto, pero por otra parte
escuché aquella llamada misteriosa y convincente.
O la escuchas o no la escuchas, y yo la escuché
y casi me eché a llorar: un sonido terrible,
nacido en el aire y en el mar.
Un escudo y una espada. Entonces,
pese al miedo, me dejé ir, puse mi mejilla
junto a la mejilla de la muerte.
Y me fue imposible cerrar los ojos y no ver
aquel espectáculo extraño, lento y extraño,
aunque empotrado en una realidad velocísima:
miles de muchachos como yo, lampiños
o barbudos, pero latinoamericanos todos,
juntando sus mejillas con la muerte.

And my translation: 

Self-Portrait at 20

I let myself go, I set it going and I never knew
where it might take me to. Full of fear,
my gut loosened, my head was pounding:
I think it was the chill air of the dead.
I don’t know. I let myself go, it seemed a shame
to finish things so soon, but then again
I heard that mysterious convincing call.
You hear or do not hear. For me, I heard it
and it almost made me weep: a sound so dreadful
born in air and sea.
A shield and a sword. And then,
despite the weight of fear I let myself go, touched my cheek –
junto – to the cheek of death.
With eyes shut, I could not but see
that strange spectacle, slow and strange,
though racked in swift reality:
countless lads like me, smooth-skinned
or bearded, but latinamericans all
together, juntando, cheek to cheek with death.

I have made a few translation choices that I know are those of a non-Spanish speaker. This struck me as an interesting conundrum: is it acceptable to deliberately translate a word or phrase in a certain way when this comes from a lack of knowledge of the source language? With poetry, I think it can be: there is no perfect translation of any text, let alone of a poem, and sometimes the perspective of someone with an imperfect knowledge of the language can shed new light on the sound or origin of a word. As I have said before, I think translation should be playful - this was certainly a fun game.

The instances I'm talking about are:
1) the word junto, which is an extremely common word meaning 'joined', 'together', or 'next to'. Not speaking Spanish means that for me, the primary association this word brings is junta, the rulers of a military dictatorship. Bolaño was 20 years old in 1973, the year of the military coup that ousted the president, Salvador Allende; 'Autorretrato a los veinte años', where the presence of death is so strongly felt, is presumably a reference to this. The word 'junta', then, is not wholly out of context in my translation, even though junto is such an everyday word that in Spanish, I imagine these connotations would not be present.
2) "racked in swift reality" - empotrado means 'embedded', 'built-in', but these English words didn't seem very powerful or appropriate. The dictionary tells me that the root of this word, potro, also means 'rack', as in the instrument of torture. A rack where one stores things being not a million miles away from 'embedded' (well, OK, it's a stretch), I came up with this line and decided I liked it.
3) 'latinamericans' - latinoamericanos is Spanish for 'Latin Americans', so there was no real need to foreignise the word by joining the two English words together. However, doing so seemed to lend more weight to it, and also worked well with the two words that follow, todos ('all') and juntando ('joining').
What do you think? Is this an acceptable way to translate?

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Day 6: 'Merdrigal' by Léon-Paul Fargue

I am translating poems by Léon-Paul Fargue for a Masters assignment. He wrote a lot of beautifully musical, atmospheric prose poems which - after several weeks spent deeply absorbed in them - I now want to scribble all over, put in my blender and then feed to the local rodents. (I'm sure this is only a passing phase.) Luckily, Fargue also wrote things like this:

Dans mon coeur en ta présence
Fleurissent des harengs saurs.
Ma santé, c’est ton absence,
Et quand tu parais, je sors.

I have kept the title, since a) I think it can be understood by English readers, and b) I couldn't better it! I don't think the merdrigal has become an established form, but perhaps it should...


Within my heart, when you are here,
Pickled herrings bloom.
My health is your absence; when you appear
I swiftly leave the room.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Day 5: 'Agonia' by Giuseppe Ungaretti

Can we translate from languages we don't speak? My attempt today is a poem by Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, sent to me by my Italian translator friend Elena. (She is also my Italian teacher, so the pressure is on...) My command of Italian being as yet mostly imaginary, she also sent me a fairly literal translation. So to what extent is this translation mine? With the help of a dictionary, I think I could have gathered all the information Elena included. But I have already been guided by her thoughts - I might have made different choices had I not read her version.
It is fairly common practice for poets and (especially) playwrights to produce 'translations' from languages they don't speak, aided either by some poor unacknowledged translator who gives them a 'literal', or by comparing multiple existing translations. This obviously considerably broadens the range of texts we have available to us as translators; but I am not wholly convinced it is really a good way to translate. If you have five different versions to compare, you will get a very good sense of what the original is doing, but can you really get sufficiently 'inside the mind' of the text to translate it if you can't read it yourself?
Of course, it's one thing for me translate from Italian, which is similar to French and which I read well enough to have some sense of what the poem is doing; it would be quite another for me to attempt a translation-from-literals of a Finnish poem, say - or Arabic, Chinese etc, where I couldn't even attempt to read the poem aloud.
Whether or not you think I should be inflicting my translations from Italian upon the world, I hope you enjoy this one!


To die like parched skylarks
on the mirage

Or like the partridge
 – the sea passed by –
perched in the first branches
because of flight
has no desire now to fly

But not to live on lament
like a songbird grown blind