Friday, September 26, 2008

Translated Poetry

Poetry depends to such a large extent on the sounds of the words that to speak of translating it almost seems to be an oxymoron. Robert Frost once even defined poetry as "that which is lost in translation."

Yet people persist in translating it, and I read a great many poets in translation. Some translations work, some don't. I find that some Russian poets (Yevtushenko and Pushkin spring to mind) survive translation well, although the musical quality is lost or distorted. French poetry might as well remain French. Little comes through translation.

What would we have if Dr. Seuss were translated into German? Spanish perhaps he could survive in, but not in German. Dr. Seuss' poetry depends absolutely on the sounds, to translate it one would have to simply carry his sounds over as "borrowed words" into the other language. But his sounds are decidedly on the softer lilting palate, and his vowels will not carry the same playfulness at all when fronted with the German umlaut.

But two types of poems in particular survive quite well the stripping of translation, one from the far east and one from the far west of the Orient. Japanese haiku and Hebrew Psalms both survive rather intact in any language, although there is still much lost along the way.

This seems to be because the two build their sense not only (although partly) on the play of sounds but more so on the interplay of images and ideas.

Yet they are very different. Haiku works its magic by setting images next to eachother and letting our minds fill in the gaps. It's goal is to make available to us a sensation that the author felt. It gives us that with which to recreate the sensation for ourselves. The author will attempt to share with us the hint of what lead to the sensation, and then leave us to ourselves to either share in the sensation or to ignore it.

I need not say that this is a markedly non-Western approach to poetry.

Hebrew poetry, in particular the Psalms, appeals to us on a different level. Rather than seeking to share a sensation that the author had experienced, Psalms generally seek to open our imaginations to ideas greater than we had previously conceived. Psalms are as full of images as haiku, yet they work by setting concept against concept, rather than image against image as in the haiku. Thus the Psalmist will repeat a similar image or idea two, three, even four times in a row, each time with little variations.

The heavens tell out the glory of God,
heaven's vault makes known his handiwork.
One day speaks to another,
night to night imparts knowledge,
and this without speech or language
or sound of any voice.
Their sign shines forth on all the earth,
their message to the ends of the world.
(beginning of Psalm 19)

What is at work here is that through the images we are being asked to open our imaginations to play with the images on the way to forming concepts that are really quite unrelated to the images themselves. The many images of the sky in day and in night are supposed to open us up to new realizations of the glory of God.

That is something that could not happen in haiku. The images in haiku are themselves and point to the reality of themselves. A crow in a haiku should lead us to ponder a crow in our minds. It does not lead us to ponder concepts. Rather the two or three images in a haiku work together to enable us to feel a sensation that might resonate with the sensation that prompted the poem in the author.

Buson (17th century Japan)

Around the small house
Struck by lightening,
melon flowers.

To seek deeper concepts behind the images is counter productive here. We are invited simply to envision the house, the lightening damage, and the flowers. Really doing this takes time. And silence. And a willingness to be led. And a willingness to experience the sensation that springs from this contemplation. My sensation may or may not duplicate the poet's sensation. Doesn't really matter, although Buson's goal was to help me feel it with him.

The Psalmists never seek to simply recreate a personal experience in the hearer. The goals of the two forms are miles apart. Yet they begin in ways that are strikingly similar.

Many people have said (I wish I knew who said it first) that while English poetry rhymes sounds, Hebrew poetry rhymes ideas. I would add that haiku rhymes images. It is from this heavy reliance on the interplay of images with images, and of concepts with concepts, that haiku and Hebrew poetry gain their ability to withstand translation so well. Much is always lost, but very much remains.


Calligraphy of geese
against the sky--
the moon seals it.


Cynthia Hallen said...

In his book, After Babel, George Steiner wrote that a good translation balances that which is lost from the original language with that which is gained in the target language. I think that good translations of poetry are not only possible but desirable. Thank you for visiting my poetry blog.

Doug P. Baker said...

Yes, good translations from many languages certainly do exist. Yet even in the best translation there is always some alteration, some loss. I am familiar with the concept although not with the particular quote to which you refer from Steiner. To ballance what is lost with what is gained is a noble goal, but poems are not quanities. We can't say that we lost six points so we need to gain six points and then we will be even. We lose some and gain some, but it is not the same some that are lost and gained. To the extent that we lose and gain, we are creating a new poem in the new language.

This is not bad! Often it is possible for a good translator to exceed the original poem in the translation, in terms of poetic excellence. I think Seamus Heaney may have accomplished this in his translation of Beowulf.

My point was not at all to denegrate the work or success of translating poetry. It was merely to call attention to two disparate forms of poetry that seem highly translatable, and to ponder the reasons why.

By the way, I really enjoyed some of your poems, especially Prompting.