19 June 2008

Facing Pages

This article was originally published in a fine line, the magazine of the New Zealand Poetry Society.

Facing Pages

Translation is a strange business. Take these two translations of a four-line poem by Osip Mandelstam:

Into the distance disappear the mounds of human heads
I dwindle — go unnoticed now
But in affectionate books, in children's games
I will rise from the dead to say: the sun!

(quoted as an epigraph to Gene Wolfe's novel The Sword of the Lictor)

Mounds of human heads are wandering into the distance.
I dwindle among them. Nobody sees me. But in books
much loved, and in children's games I shall rise
from the dead to say the sun is shining.

(from Osip Mandelstam, Selected Poems)

The first version is my favourite poem. The second – well, it’s OK. Yet they are both translations of the same four lines of Russian poetry.

What’s so special about poetry in translation? Well, for one, only the best poetry from other languages tends to be translated into English, so in picking up a volume of translated poetry, there’s a reasonable assurance that there will be some good stuff inside. For another, I like poetry to surprise me, and I’ve found that there’s more chance of being surprised by poets and poems from languages other than English. This isn’t to claim that poets in English are unimaginative; but the poetic tradition in other languages differs from the poetic tradition in English, and a good translation will preserve the “otherness” of the source poem. Beauty and strangeness — the perfect combination!

When the Iraqi poet Basim Furat lived in Wellington, I attended several readings at which he read in Arabic, and Mark Pirie then read a translation of the Arabic poetry into English. Arabic poetry is about as far removed from the unrhetorical, conversational tone of most New Zealand poetry as it is possible to get: Arabic poetry is rich in extended metaphor, imagery, and rhetoric. I couldn’t get the hang of it at all at first, but after hearing it a few times together with the translations, I have grown to appreciate the style. (Many of the translations into English of Basim’s poems are included in his collection Here and There.)

My favourite format for books of translated poetry is to have the original and the English translation on facing pages. This goes both for languages that I can puzzle my way through armed with a dictionary and dim memories of language lessons (Russian, and to a lesser degree French, Spanish and Maori); and those I’m completely out of my depth in (German, Norwegian). It’s like opening one Christmas present and finding another one inside: the poem in English on the right and, its riches less accessible, the original poem on the left.

Two of my favourite poets are Anna Akhmatova and Paul Celan. While Celan is notoriously cryptic, Akhmatova writes in clear, classical Russian. Nevertheless, her poetry presents the same problem for the translator as does most Russian poetry: to rhyme or not to rhyme. Russian is a very regular language, every bit as declined and conjugated as Latin, and sense does not depend on word order. This means that the rhyming resources available to the Russian poet are much greater than those available to the poet writing in English.

Many translators of Russian poetry attempt to preserve the rhyme scheme, or at least come up with an equivalent scheme. In even the most highly skilled hands, however, this creates the risk that the translation will stray too far from the sense of the original for the sake of finding rhymes. On the other hand, unrhymed translations are inherently less “Russian”. It’s a choice with no obvious right answer, and the translators of my Akhmatova Selected Poems have rhymed, or not rhymed, as seems best to them for each poem. It’s a fine collection and a good introduction to a wonderful poet.

But if the translator of Akhmatova faces problems, these pale beside those faced by the translator of Celan, a poet who exudes difficulty and breathes paradox. Michael Hamburger’s introduction to the Celan Selected Poems is a testament both to the difficulty of Hamburger's task as translator, and to the zeal and commitment with which he pursued this task.

The previous paragraph reads like a “Danger-Keep Out!” warning posted on the approach to Celan's poems, but I'm not trying to put you off. Despite their difficulty, these poems are wonderful: fascinating, endlessly inventive. I don’t speak German, but as I look between the translation and the original, the German roots of English words start popping out at me, and I can begin to see why the translator has made the choices he has, and how he has attempted to translate what many would regard as the untranslatable.

I was given book tokens for Christmas. I've just used some of them to buy a copy of Jorge Luis Borges' Selected Poems (read my subsequent review). Facing pages again, this time Spanish and English. I open the book and my eyes flick from right to left and back again. In the space between the facing pages, a new poem grows.

- Tim Jones

Books cited

Gene Wolfe, The Sword of the Lictor, Volume 3 of The Book of the New Sun (Arrow, 1992)

Osip Mandelstam, Selected Poems, translated by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin (Penguin, 1977)

Basim Furat, Here and There, edited by Mark Pirie (HeadworX, 2004)

Anna Akhmatova, Selected Poems, translated by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward (Collins Harvill, 1989)

Paul Celan, Selected Poems, translated by Michael Hamburger (Penguin, 1990)

Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems, edited by Alexander Coleman (Penguin, 2000)

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