kaberett: Photo of a pile of old leather-bound books. (books)
[personal profile] kaberett posting in [community profile] poetree
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,
tu substancia
la luz vital
los alimentos.


Polvo del mar, la lengua
de ti recibe un beso
de la noche marina...
And then on every table
on this earth,
your nimble
pouring out
the vigorous light
our foods.


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.







La Huelga

Extraña era la fábrica inactiva.
Un silencio en la planta, una distancia
entre máquina y hombre, como un hilo
cortado entre planetas, un vacío
de las manos del hombre que consumen
el tiempo construyendo, y las desnudas
estancias sin trabajo y sin sonido.
Cuando el hombre dejó las madrigueras
de la turbina, cuando desprendió
los brazos de la hoguera y decayeron
las entrañas del horno, cuando sacó los ojos
de la rueda y la luz vetiginosa
se detuvo en su círculo invisible,
de todos los poderes poderosos,
de los círculos puros de potencia,
de la energía sobrecogedora,
quedó un montón de inútiles aceros
y en las salas sin hombre, el aire viudo,
el solitario aroma del aceite.
Nada existía sin aquel fragmento
golpeando, sin Ramírez,
sin el hombre de ropa desgarrada.
Allí estaba la piel de los motores,
acumulada en muerto poderío,
como negros cetáceos en el fondo
pestilente de un mar sin oleaje,
o montañas hundidas de repente
bajo la soledad de los planetas.
The Strike

The idle factory came to seem strange.
A silence in the plant, a distance
between machine and man, as if a thread had been cut
between two planets, an absence
of human hands that use up time
making things, and the naked
rooms without work and without noise.
When man deserted the lairs
of the turbine, when he tore off
the arms of the fire, so that the inner organs
of the furnace died, and pulled out the eyes
of the wheel, so that the dizzy light
paused in its invisible circle,
the eyes of the great energies,
of the pure circles of force,
of the stupendous power,
what remained was a heap of pointless pieces of steel,
and in the shops without men a widowed air
and the lonesome odour of oil.
Nothing existed without that fragment
hammering, without Ramirez,
without the man in torn overalls.
Nothing was left but the hides of the engines,
heaps of power gone dead,
like black whales in the polluted
depths of a sluggish sea,
or mountain ranges suddenly drowned
under the loneliness of outer space.

I have an awful lot of feelings about the infelicities in this translation, starting with the first word. The entire balance of the first line is changed by moving "strange" from its place at the opening to the end: I don't understand why that piece, at least, of word order was destroyed. Or the final word of line 6, "desnudas", rendered by Bly as "naked": why not "denuded", with the sense of bleakness and violence? Or the repetition in line 14, los poderes poderosos? Or "oleaje", line 26, translated as "sluggish": why not "oleaginous", the sibling-word that contains both the sense of viscosity and the industrial metaphor of oils?

My absolute least favourite thing he's done with the poem, though, is how he's handled the word planetas. In line 4, he renders it a thread had been cut/between two planets; in the final line, bajo la soledad de los planetas, he renders it outer space.

I don't understand this decision. I don't understand it at all. Having brought in the superfluous specificity of two planets (Spanish does not have the dual form), why then cut the thread that runs through the poem - why divorce the planets from each other, why translate it differently and lose the recurring - the duplicate - image?

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!

Date: 2014-11-25 04:27 pm (UTC)
aoifes_isle: (Default)
From: [personal profile] aoifes_isle
I have a similar issue with reading Persian poetry; I'm not bilingual Persian-English, but I'm fairly good and while there are a lot of translations available, many of them lose something in the translation. It can be the metre or word play or even an allegory that makes no sense without context. My rule of thumb when reading these days is to have an excellent dictionary, a notepad and mute than one translation so I can cross-reference ...

Date: 2014-11-25 07:04 pm (UTC)
alexseanchai: Blue and purple lightning (Default)
From: [personal profile] alexseanchai
I think translation inherently loses something? Just because the only way to render the poem exactly as the poet intended is in the language and cultural context the poet originally wrote in?

Not so much when the translator is the poet—there's a lot in Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands / La Frontera that she translated from Spanish to English (or possibly vice versa) herself. While I haven't read any of those poems with quite the attention to detail [personal profile] kaberett gives Neruda and Bly above, I don't think anything significant is lost in translation there. But usually the translator is not the poet, just ("just") someone trained in both languages, and (hopefully, when translating poems) also in poetry in both languages.

And I get the impression that translation is an art form in itself, but that itself is doubtless why [personal profile] kaberett is complaining that it's done poorly!

Date: 2014-11-25 06:58 pm (UTC)
alexseanchai: Blue and purple lightning (Default)
From: [personal profile] alexseanchai
You are making me (again) want to go back to Ovid and Catullus and see what happens.* The hell did I do with those books?

Also: it has been forever since I saw this comm in action. I should probably ought to ask slash offer to host a theme week!

* ...probably the suck fairy, since someone else I know with Latin knowledge and experience of Ovid has recently been complaining that Ovid's poems keep going "tra la la I am a rapist".

Date: 2014-11-25 07:01 pm (UTC)
highlyeccentric: Sign on Little Queen St - One Way both directions (Default)
From: [personal profile] highlyeccentric
Interesting. I am *not* under the impression that Armitage's SGGK is highly regarded by people who are intimately familiar with the original as well as having opinions on modern poetry. The response I recall (and with which I concur) is that it is a pretty weak translation and artistically wishy-washy, neither matching up to Heaney's Beowful in artistic quality nor giving a reliable translation or really doing the alliterative structure any justice (in order to write alliterative-syllabic prose he has opted to vary wildly in formality and register, which IMHO is adorable but not either artistically impressive as a piece of modern poetry nor a good tribute to the original).

Date: 2014-11-25 07:08 pm (UTC)
highlyeccentric: Sign on Little Queen St - One Way both directions (Default)
From: [personal profile] highlyeccentric
I mean, I applaud Armitage's methodology, although I can understand why Heaney did not go that way (translating into blank verse = into a form of similar respectability and tradition to modern audience). But I don't think he pulled it off well. I think I would prefer an alliterative *prose* translation, and I do generally prefer prose translations of narrative poetry.

Although it *is* possible to write alliterative verse which doesn't fly wildly about the register of language. This piece of SGGK fanfiction does it reasonably well. I would pay good money for an SGGK translation by that author...

ed: and the first verse quoted there is from the Gardner translation, 1965. His rendering of the wirral stanza is at least as good as Armitage's. I'd have to examine more closely to say if it was better by my priorities, but the other thing that bugs me about Armitage's translation is the literary world acting like he was "Heaney for Gawain", saving a piece of lost poetry, doing something no one else had done... Pfft.
Edited Date: 2014-11-25 07:13 pm (UTC)

Date: 2014-11-25 07:30 pm (UTC)
lnhammer: girl in yukata kissing a surprised boy on cheek - caption: "buh?" (gobsmacked)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
Uh, flabbergasted here. But I will say that to do SGGK justice, I would have to seriously level up my Middle English, beyond reading Chaucer in regularized spelling. It took forever to pick though a couple stanzas of Pearl, even with annotations.

I cannot say Gardner does the best translation, but of all those I've poked at, his reads the best aloud in Modern English. Which is why I had it on hand to pillage.


Date: 2014-11-25 07:38 pm (UTC)
highlyeccentric: Sign on Little Queen St - One Way both directions (Default)
From: [personal profile] highlyeccentric
I must say, I liked Armitage's translation when it came out and was shocked to find that my teachers, and the medievalist academic blogosphere, did not. So I may have over-corrected in my opinion - it's possible academic opinion has mellowed a bit.

I don't think an accurate verse translation of SGGK is possible. Chaucer one could do, but that would be very light work indeed, more 'modernisation' than translation proper. If you want a *poetic rendering* you have to sacrifice a lot of accuracy and a lot of the richness of allusion and repetition in the original.

Oh *I* remember the one I like. The Oxford World's Classics translation, which is in verse and alliterated but doesn't observe such a rigid form as Armitage's, to much better effect. I've never actually owned a copy, though...

Date: 2014-11-25 07:56 pm (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
Glancing at the opening stanzas of the OWC edition, it certainly isn't bad poetry. A similar flexibility of line to what I was trying for, at any rate.


Date: 2014-11-25 07:42 pm (UTC)
highlyeccentric: Sign on Little Queen St - One Way both directions (Default)
From: [personal profile] highlyeccentric
And I'd pay good money and then probably criticise it to hell and back, because that's my job... the other yuletider i thought of was irisbleufic, and I know she *does* have an extensive knowledge of Middle English. But probably better things to do with her time...

Date: 2014-11-25 07:56 pm (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
irisbleufic could indeed do the dirty deed well ...

Date: 2014-11-25 08:00 pm (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
And you'd better criticize it to hell and back, if I ever do something like that. That's the right and proper response to a poetic translation.

("If ever" is very unlikely, I should say, because right now I'm concentrating on translating Japanese. And feeling the need for criticism.)


Date: 2014-11-25 07:20 pm (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
I've never been happy with anything Bly has touched. Even aside from what strikes my ears as clunking, when I've had the chance to compare the original, I've found all sorts of mischoices like the ones you note.


Date: 2014-11-25 11:04 pm (UTC)
luzula: a Luzula pilosa, or hairy wood-rush (Default)
From: [personal profile] luzula
Oh, interesting post! So what is the best Neruda translation? He's on my to-read list. I think Spanish is a beautiful language, and I do appreciate having it alongside so I can enjoy and halfway understand it along with the translation, even if I couldn't have understood it on its own.

I ran into translation issues myself recently when I read Halldór Laxness' Independent People (prose, not poetry, but still). The English translation left me cold, but I absolutely loved the language in the Swedish one. I think part of the trouble is that Swedish has specific words for landscape features especially in the Nordic countries. Like "fjäll" for mountain and "älv" for river, whereas if you use the words "berg" and "flod" instead, I get a very generic image of anywhere in the world. So the Swedish translation was so much richer in meaning for me (plus it was just better overall). OTOH, I did not like the Swedish title, which was "Fria män" = "Free Men". I think it should've been translated "Självständigt folk" which is much closer to the Icelandic "Sjálfstætt fólk" (and for that matter, to "Independent People"). Literally "Self-standing Folk" in English, I suppose? But apparently the translator felt obliged to preserve the title of the first Swedish translation, so people wouldn't get confused.

Er, sorry, tl;dr about this book that you probably don't care about...

Also, I am tempted to post a Swedish-to-English translation of a folk song that I did.

Date: 2014-11-26 08:16 am (UTC)
luzula: a Luzula pilosa, or hairy wood-rush (Default)
From: [personal profile] luzula
My library has only got Twenty love poems and a song of despair in English, translated by W.S. Merwin. Know anything about that one? Or I guess I could check out the Swedish Neruda translations.


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