Redefining Translation

July 6, 2009

Beyond Words has a post today about translating poetry that references that old Johnson (via B.J. Epstein) quote about how poetry is impossible to translate. I hesitate to make grand statements about translating poetry since I’m a prose translator myself, and I may irritate some poetry translators with the following proposal, but it seems to me that the difficulties of translating poetry are not generally much different than those of prose. It’s just that most of the problems that crop up in literary prose — allusions, idiom, double entendre, culture-specific metaphors, etc. — are much more concentrated in poetry, showing up a few times a line, maybe, rather than a few times a paragraph. On the whole, except when talking about specific issues of musicality like rhyme and meter (which even so can also appear in prose), or of issues like voice (which do appear in poetry, as well, if not as often post-19th century), the challenges are largely the same.

And if that’s the case, then poetry as a genre is no more impossible to translate than prose. This is not to say that there aren’t individual works that are impossible to translate — in prose, for example, I gave up on Andrés Caicedo’s ¡Que viva la música!, and didn’t even attempt Luis Humberto Crosthwaite’s “Sabaditos en la noche.” But thinking in terms of “perfect” translations capable of capturing every nuance is absurd. If that’s how we’re going to define translation in order to declare it impossible, there’s not much I can argue about because the translator has been set up for failure. But to me it seems analogous to declaring it impossible to really learn a language — even for native speakers — because you can’t possibly learn the definitions and etymologies and usages for every single word.

The post’s author, Jes, does a good run-through of some basic translation theory and uses Beckett’s self-translations to consider the function of translation:

Beckett realized that a translation of Godot was actually a new version of Godot, and in order for him to maintain artistic authenticity (note: not accuracy but authenticity) he himself needed to translate the work (i.e. rewrite the play in the requested language).

But while I agree with the idea that a translation is a new version of a work, the conclusion that follows, that therefore poets must translate their own work in order for the translations to be “authentic,” just puts the author right back up on a pedestal of untouchability. I think the problem is not translations themselves but our widespread cultural conviction that translations must be perfect. If we could accept that translation will not capture every detail of the original without having that be inevitably linked to a condemnation of translation — if we could accept, in other words, what translation is instead of harping on what it should be — we wouldn’t have these tedious hand-wringing debates about whether translation is possible or not.

One major flaw in the debates, besides that they’re eternal, boring, and unresolvable given the parameters as they have traditionally been set, is that they focus only on what is lost in the translation process. I would argue that translations can also enrich an original, not just in the abstract way posited by Benjamin, for example, but also in concrete details. People often think of “additions” to translation as springing from a Hofstadterian approach (see a previous post on that topic here), born of an arrogant translator meddling with a work and forcing it to conform to his or her own literary vision. (That kind of manipulation, of course, is part and parcel of translation anyway, if not usually in as noticeable a way as in Hofstadter’s work.) I’m not thinking of those intentional alterations, however, but of something even more inevitable: the ways in which transfer to a different language and culture transform a work of literature. One of my fellow Iowa translators, for example, translated a story from Japanese in which a hug received from a bear suddenly acquired an entirely new aspect because of our idiomatic “bear hug.”

In any case, this definitely seems to me one of those cases where the perfect is the enemy of the good. As long as we are convinced that translations are inevitably failures, literary translators will continue to be marginalized and their art eyed with suspicion. What I hope is for a less hidebound, more complex vision of translation that privileges a work of literature and its power, rather than privileging the specific set of words composing the original itself or, worse still, the author who arranged them. What, too idealistic?