Translation and Its Discontents

March 3, 2009

The Poetry Foundation‘s blog Harriet has an ongoing series called “Translation and Its Discontents.” Worth checking out for the most part. In the latest installment (part quatre), Don Share asks, if poetry tends toward music, does poetry in translation tend toward world music? Cleverly put. The implied critique of poetry in translation is, of course, that it can come across as just vaguely foreign, without giving the feeling of belonging to a particular place. (What are those Andean pipes doing in this Ukrainian folk dance?)

Johannes Goransson, translator of Henry Parland, Aase Berg, and others (from Swedish), raises some great points in the comments section, though it’s worth noting some of his best zingers are a result of misreading a couple of Don Share’s original points.

One of the best points JG makes I think (this one on his own blog) is that when writers interact across borders, it really is across borders. There’s no translation, and no reading of translation, and no reading of foreign literature at all, without the actual crossing of borders, actual movement through physical and cultural space. If you envision yourself floating above the borders, able to take in foreign literature without leaving not only what is comfortable, but also your comfortable ideas about what is uncomfortable, you don’t end up with any sort of meaningful exchange… You end up with world music. “Oh, that must be foreign, it has those Andean pipes… Where’s it from? Siberia?”

I think in the case of the Don Share’s original post, this feeling that all translation was just so much world music was probably a problem with the reader of the translations (C. K. Williams) rather than a problem with the translations themselves.


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