I'm bilingual in German and English, and I'm terrible at translation, and still I look at Der Vorleser
being translated into English as The Reader
and I cringe, because there probably isn't
a way to do it better, but you're still losing important information: the German actually means The Reader
-Out-Loud, and if you're familiar with the book or the film, well...
... and that's a two-word prose title. I also happen to live 30 minutes away from the Saison Poetry Library
, and am working my way slowly through a subset of its contents. Most recently I acquired a volume of the selected works of Neruda, with choices and translations by Robert Bly, and I am now pretty certain I am never going to pick up anything he's translated ever again.
On the one hand is that he decided to make a selection of Neruda's early work that demonstrates that during his early twenties, the poet went through a phase of thinking that imagery like waterfalls of sperm and anemones
were a good idea (from the complete absence of raining spermatozoa in his later output I deduce that he changed his mind on this subject).
On the other, which I consider far more damning, is the quality of translation. I don't speak Spanish; I have an A-level in Latin (with significant Latin-to-English poetry translation component), and I've just about got enough French to navigate public transport and buy vegetarian food. And yet.
There is the simple, the potentially arguable, as from Ode to Salt
|Y luego en cada mesa
de este mundo,
la luz vital
Polvo del mar, la lengua
de ti recibe un beso
de la noche marina...
|And then on every table |
on this earth,
the vigorous light
Dust of the sea, the tongue
receives a kiss
of the night sea from you...
"Polvo" I would be inclined to translate as "powder" rather than "dust"; it's the same root found in a wide variety of Indo-European languages
(e.g. German Pulver), and "powder" for me keeps more of the mouth-shape, the taste, of the word than "dust"; and I prefer the connotations and nuance suggested by powder. But, hey, this I recognise as personal preference, rather than technique.
But to render sal,/tu substancia/ágil
as salt,/your nimble/body
? No. I'd argue very strongly that Neruda chose to place ágil
(nimble, agile) on a line of its own, separate from and following "your body", for reasons to do with poetry; I don't see any reason that Bly couldn't have rendered the English salt,/your body--/nimble--
or similar: preservation (... ha) of both the poetic and the literal.
That's a long-standing argument, of course -- whether translations should be faithful to the letter or the spirit. This is some of why Simon Armitage's parallel translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
(which he writes about in the Guardian
; excerpts of praise are available on his website
) is so highly regarded: he has attempted to preserve both in a new piece of poetry, recognising that poetry resides in alliteration and meter as much as in imagery.
I submit that Bly fails at both.( Read more... )
In sum: I have been reminded once again that I adore parallel translations for all sorts of reasons, even when I don't speak the source language; and I have convinced myself that Robert Bly is someone whose work I wish to actively avoid. And: for all the somewhat woeful and strident tone of this post, I would love
for us to talk more about priorities in poetry translation - how we prioritise for ourselves, and how that shifts with context - and about favourite translators. Thoughts decidedly welcome!