Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Lost and Found in Translation

Day 56 of the “What are you reading, and why?” project.

Two charming and serious young men, and perfect strangers to me, are reading books I helped them find yesterday at Babbitt’s.

One was interested in Russian poetry, so we came up with the Collected Poems of Boris Pasternak, the Doctor Zhivago guy. In fact, one of the books we found was of all the poems included in that novel, but the other book, of course, has everything.

We also looked for the poems of Anna Akhmatova, who has a poem called “Boris Pasternak,” but we didn’t have her at the store. I have a copy of the Poems of Akhmatova, selected, translated, and introduced by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward, with facing-page Russian originals. I don’t read or speak Russian, but there is something nice about seeing the shapes there, the letters, the lines, the stanzas, the resemblances.

I also have Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems, which contains her Akhmatova translations, also published separately as Twenty Poems. It is fascinating to compare translations, and to mull over the act itself. I have read Jane Hirshfield’s comments on translation in The Ink Dark Moon and Nine Gates, and heard several theories on it over the years. Ezra Pound did loose translations of Chinese poets, and Robert Bly also favored the freer style of translation. “The poet as translator lives with a paradox,” says Stanley Kunitz, a poet and a translator of poetry. “His work must not read like a translation; conversely, it is not an exercise of the free imagination.”

Here is the opening paragraph of Kunitz’s Note on the Translations of the Akhmatova poems:

“Pasternak was once rebuked by a pedant who came to his door bearing a long list of the poet’s mistakes in translating Hamlet. The complaint was greeted with laughter and a shrug: ‘What difference does it make? Shakespeare and I—we’re both geniuses, aren’t we?’ As if to justify his arrogance, Pasternak’s Hamlet is today considered one of the glories of Russian literature.”

The other young man found The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann on his own (I did not note the translator) but also wanted some Barthes, so I located for him a book of interviews in our general literary criticism section. We had The Grain of the Voice: Interviews 1962-1980, Roland Barthes, translated by Linda Coverdale. (It was a darn good deal I see from checking prices, used and new, at Amazon Marketplace!)

I try not to press charming young men about the reasons for what they do, especially in spring, and especially as a shopgirl old enough to be their mother, but they had that studious look about them that suggested this was important stuff to be reading while studying comparative literature or being an English major in college. That is a pretty pedestrian exercise of the free imagination (on my part) in our two-university town. To get a little wilder, I can imagine they are going to write poems between the lines of Pasternak, or re-enact the Barthes interviews in a gallery installation, or read and chain-smoke on the quad while the tulips continue to open up, or that they are both geniuses along the lines of Shakespeare and Pasternak, but that is as far as I am going to go today, this 6th day of National Poetry Month and 56th day of the book blog project, Musings on What We Read and Why.


Kim said...

Translation is tricky. I read Like Water for Chocolate in Spanish, then in English. The English version seemed flat somehow after reading the original. Some words and ideas just don't translate well, as much due to cultural as to language. Poetry seems like it would be even more difficult than a novel. And then there's the Bible....

Julie Kistler said...

Scott found a copy of the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in English to compare as he reads the Swedish one. He has already reported that the English version cuts out whole sentences, and he doesn't know why. He said it was not info about, say, something incredibly Swedish that English speakers wouldn't get.

I do think translation is a huge skill, right up there with being the original genius. I remember being extremely impressed with Nabokov, because he wrote so beautifully in Russian AND English. I can't imagine how talented you have to be to pull that off.

nene said...

To follow on to what Kim said: Yes, I find that when reading or writing or expressing myself in Spanish(born in Mexico, D.F.)is lost in the translation to English.
Could it be that, linquistically speaking, the latin derived languages that are more inceptually conceived are derived from a more 'passionate' expression vs a Germanic derived language that seems to be incepted conceptually more 'cerebrally'? 'Just ask'n'