The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, January 21, 2008

Hot for Poetry (in translation)

By Tamara Lee

The thing about my relationship with books lately—and by lately I mean the past two years—is I put them places I forget to find them. I have bookshelves and places for books (and places not for books but I’ll put them there anyway), all through my apartment. There once was a sort of order. Then there was an attempt at ordered chaos. “Order” now can be removed from both those sentences. “Ordeal”, though, is a nice word.

Last night I needed poetry. What started as a slow brewing two or three days ago had finally erupted like an old percolator coffee pot, spewing and squelching. But where in this librarian’s nightmare had I decided to file the poetry books? Some I noticed sat way in back of one massive bookshelf in the study, but my favourites—including Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon, Pablo Neruda translated by Stephen Mitchell—had vanished. Only university-bought anthologies remained—not the sort you can really dig into, but the kind with notes in the margins that scream “shameless attempt at an A-grade.”

It boiled down to crime-drama visualization techniques: Where were you that last time you thought you’d read some Neruda? Summertime? If so, it would be in that pile over there? Was it night? So, then maybe it’s in the bedroom or hallway shelves. Or maybe… “Ah, Poetry,” I railed, “I have lost you, failed you even. Can you ever forgive me?” End scene. Go to commercial.

Jonesing and homesick for poetry, finally, nearly an hour later, I was able to get my hands on the Mitchell collection, and was sated by Neruda’s "Ode to the Artichoke.” I offer this link to the translated poem, with trepidation.

The thing about my relationship with translated poetry is, reading it can unleash a special kind of misery. No two poems are ever re-told the same way; something is always sacrificed. Finding a good translation can sometimes feel like a search for the Holy Grail.

Even if one Holy Googles Neruda’s “Ode to the Artichoke,” the three or four translations of the poem may disappoint. Some of the versions may feel decent, nearly capturing Neruda’s playfulness, or his form. But a fully satisfying collection was, for me, difficult to find. (Even before I lost it in my own home.) Mitchell’s translations seem to capture the spirit of Neruda’s language the best. And set next to the originals, the translations give the reader a greater visual sense of what Neruda was doing.

But I’m not sure if poets are always the best translators of others' poetry. Even Ezra Pound’s well-received collection—plainly called Ezra Pound: Translations—occasionally feels like Ezra Pound translations, like Pound channelled through the likes of Rimbaud and St. Francis.

And yet my own Spanish and French comprehension would surely stilt a reading just as much or more as may a poor translation. So, despite the Pandora’s box of complexities when considering translated works of any written genre—and poetry is especially fragile—I can’t imagine a world without Pablo Neruda or Jacques Prévert.

It's just the searching that near undoes me.

(Image credit: Thomas Hawk)


Blogger jsnider said...

I agree with you about translating poems. I write poetry myself but I don't think I'd ever even attempt editing other people's poetry never mind translating it. But, it's better that we have it in translated form, as you say, than not at all. Good luck with your search!

Mon Jan 21, 09:18:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

Thanks for dropping by, jsnider.

Editing and translating can be rather burdensome. I've edited other writers' work before; it does take some effort to step out of a writer's mind and into the editor's role. And some writers, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, only use one 'official' translator, opting for consistency across a group of works.

Mon Jan 21, 02:08:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger jsnider said...

I have read Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his magic realism, I really like his work. I would choose one translator too. It makes a lot of sense. Once you find a good fit then you know your work will be reproduced faithfully.

I can edit fiction and non-fiction no problem, but poetry I wouldn't feel comfortable tackling. There's something so personal about it and raw and passionate...I don't know...I'd have to be sitting right next to the poet all the time to ask questions.

Tue Jan 22, 09:14:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I enjoyed your librarian's nightmare, Tamara. About translations: how would you ever know if you had read a good one? The author and the reader put a lot of faith in a translator, don't they? While visiting last fall, Colin's nephew was thrilled to come across in Munro's a new translation of either The Odyssey or The Iliad I can't remember). He'd heard it was excellent. I guess the judgment of excellence can only come from someone fluent in both languages.

Wed Jan 23, 12:39:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger T. Lee said...

I agree, editing poetry has its own special challenges. My experience is more in the workshopping/review scenario, discussing with the writer what may or may not be working. But I've never edited a collection, and agree it would terrify me.

As for finding a translator, Tricia, since I became sort of obsessed with translation/translation theory, I've noticed an increase in translator information or bios offered on the book jackets. Some translators are quite famous in certain literary circles, and you eventually start to recognise them. Also, when the books are reviewed, there's generally a discussion about the quality of the translation, and it's fascinating to see how subjective it all is. In some ways, translation's a language all its own, with different dialects.

Wed Jan 23, 12:54:00 am GMT-5  

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