I've been sick in bed all week, so I decided to recycle an article that I wrote last January for Kate Ozbirn at California Quarterly. She wanted something that discussed the pleasures and challenges of literary translation for a general audience, and so I think it might just be appropriate to share here and now.
At the time I wrote the article, I had just finished two translations for The Translator's French Quarter... one of my own poems into French, which required more than editorial assistance, and an English translation of a short story by one of my favorite contemporary French writers, Hélène Cixous. I was in Paris for the winter break thinking only of my thesis and trying to take some time off before my last semester of grad school. Much to my surprise, Kate received the article without hesitation and published it in her "Poetry Letter & Literary Review" with minimal revisions not reflected below. Thanks to her quick work, it was my first publication.
I have since had the honor of receiving a prize in their annual poetry contest this past summer and the poem has been published in their recent volume, 33.4. For a copy, send a note explaining your request, and a check for $7.50 to: Membership Chair, 21 Whitman Court, Irvine, CA 92617.
Thanks for reading!
A Taste for Translation
Tonight the Paris rain falls—not in “ropes” like the French idiom says it does and like it does in August, but in tiny droplets that would make weightless snowflakes if it were February instead of January—nothing to catch a cold over, but enough to turn the streets wet and dark like Ezra Pound’s black boughs; and so the word “rain” does not suffice. I find a heated terrace and duck in with my groceries, “command” a cup of tea, and pick up a menu waiting on the table next to me for the dinner crowd.
Montmartre is a tourist friendly quartier, so each item on the menu is translated into English: The Pave de Rumsteck becomes a “Rumpsteak Paving Stone,” the Cote de Boeuf is an “Ox Coast” instead of a “side of beef,” or “spare ribs,” or whatever it is, and under Tartine de Maison the translator has written “Pot House.” Given the context, these are amusing mistakes that a native English speaker could not make, but as a second language learner myself, I admire the restaurant owner’s courage—though some would say haste or simply inexperience—to sit down with a dictionary and put such literality to print.
Because to translate into a second language often results in such folly, most of us stick to the target languages we know best—our native ones, but levels of fluency in source languages vary widely. Many translators maintain a certain distance from the original text hoping to most naturally replicate it by working in collaboration with others who have more instinctive facility with the source language—like Pound did, and like the owner of the restaurant should have. They may not even care to learn the source language. Others prefer to go it alone, dictionaries, thesaurus, and all their own interpretations on the table like the ingredients of a family recipe to be sampled and measured together until it tastes the way it is remembered. The main difference between the two extremes is that those who do speak the languages they translate may be more obviously under the influence of the source language than those who do not. This serves to stretch the boundaries of the target language. Furthermore, the more sharply the translator’s own voice is honed, the more likely it is to infiltrate the resulting translation.
To pretend that a translation is, can or should be free of such influence is also folly, because whatever aesthetics the translator assumes, there is always collaboration in translation, even if only between the author of the original text and the translator. Sounds of the language and their effects, the breaths and lengths of the lines, and the subtle implications of word choice and order are initially lost forcing the translator into inventions and manipulations that beg permission from the original authors. The art of translations is a process, an attempt to reconstruct the images and impressions of the source text in a language that did not give birth to them to begin with. This communication with another writer is the literary translator’s driving force, the raison d’être, the passion for slowly transforming a text’s every word, and it is as tantalizing to the poet translator as a Tartine de Maison would be to someone with the munchies.
More importantly, this exchange makes the process of translation an inevitably regenerative exercise that teaches us, word by word, the possibilities and limitations of our own languages. We must decide what strangeness can be stretched and still understood and what will take our readers too far away from the original, especially those readers who cannot penetrate the text as we can by having an understanding of both languages. We revel in the multitudinous gains and losses before deciding how best to recast the text to keep meaning from being lost or even only refracted taking the reader to places never implied while the meaning and music of the poem slip and slide between languages, cultures, and epochs. For example, the French word vrai divides itself into two English ones: “true” and “real.” How the translator chooses one or the other should have as much to do with the sounds and rhythms of the surrounding words as it will with theoretical debates about the differences between the two. The translator must look forward into the minds of the readers and back into the mind of the author being channeled, and the older the source text, the more complicated the questions.
Despite all this reader-writer-text interplay, ultimately, like an archer shooting arrows at a bull’s eye, the translator pursues the target language alone word by word finding it sometimes easy to hit the mark, sometimes impossible. If, for example, a native French speaker were to read this article, the image of a duck—perhaps dunking its head into a lake after tiny bits of food—would be evoked by my ducking into the café terrace. The verb “to duck” does not translate, but the resulting image is almost appropriate. On the other hand, the menu’s implication that a choice cut of meat is a paving stone is hardly a desirable one in a town so chock full of competing restaurants.
Still, I decide not to report the menu’s miscommunications to the server, pay for my tea, and head off into the evening. Perhaps the absurd connections will inspire some non-Franglais speakers to reconsider the assumptions of their relationships with English. Besides, the slight rain has stopped and the clouds are clearing. By the time I reach my apartment, I will have a different sky above me and a whole new batch of questions to try to answer. I will be up late tonight for there is much to be said, and re-said.
Unfortunately, not all poems can be translated, but we continue to try, to search for ways of conveying what can be said in other languages. After all, the main reason we translate is to share the foreign texts we so enjoy with others who do not speak the language, and, as with any collaboration, there will be compromises, but we believe the rewards of such gifts to be greater than the costs.