This morning I decided I needed to own some Tomas Tranströmer — in whatever way one can imagine such ownership — and began to shop around for translations. I came across this blog post on Robin Robertson‘s versions of Tranströmer. The writer of the blog post speaks to the problem of translating Tranströmer and to the problems of the English versions themselves. It’s a short and quite interesting piece and it made me think of why people write versions in the first place. What does ‘version’ even mean?
Much like deciding what is ‘good’ in a poem, there is hardly ever agreement about what a translation should do. Aside from some very strange and pedantic people, though, I think almost everyone agrees that literalness and blind copying of formal aspects of the original are poor techniques of translation. And if a translation is necessarily going to be more than a transliteration, why use a term like ‘version,’ which seems to imply greater freedom than a translation already does?
There are two more or less obvious reasons for this:
One, that the translator has already taken up a defensive position against presumed readers who will demand why this new text isn’t ‘faithful’ to the original. Such strange and pedantic people do exist after all and answering questions that have to do with why a certain rhyme scheme was abandoned or why a certain word was made more general or more specific is an unpleasant business. But so is this defensive position. It seems to suggest a lack of desire to take responsibility for the creative decisions one has made in rendering this text in a new language, a lack of faith in one’s ability to translate even, a throwing up of one’s hands to say, ‘You’re going to fight with me anyway, so why should I bother at all? If I call this a version, you can’t quarrel with me.’ In this process, has a meaningful conversation about translation been lost? I think so, yes, a little. We need people who will stick up for their translations as translations (which I think, for example, Paterson’s ‘versions’ of Machado, are).
Two, that the versions really are versions in that they treat the original text almost as one would found material; that erasures and experiments are acted upon it and something totally new is produced, that a linguistic approach has given way to some other one. Perhaps a good way to think of these works is as poems that are ekphrastics of other poems and the difference in media is language. The relationship between such a version and the poem it was based on is therefore different from the one between a poem and its translation (or a translation claiming to be a version).
But a third reason might also exist and I think it has something to do with what the author of that blog post says in a comment:
But I suspect he [i.e., Robertson] wanted to make stuff that looked like recognisable English poetry of a particular style. And that’s not good translation — at least I think you should preserve the strangeness.
and something Walter Benjamin quotes Rudolf Pannwitz as saying:
The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue.
(‘The Task of the Translator,’ tr. from the German by Harry Zohn)
These two thoughts, which are very similar, made me think that when a version is written not entirely for the first two reasons mentioned above, perhaps it is the intention with which one uses English that matters. That if one is writing versions the way Robertson does (I am not making definite pronouncements here, because I haven’t read the book, just a small excerpt), maybe the intention is to render Tranströmer in an English more or less unaffected by the process of negotiating between two languages, an English that hasn’t expanded to accommodate something new. The version is then merely an English poem and a translation would be a poem in English that can exist on its own terms, but that isn’t necessarily an ‘English poem’. That is to say, the version has attempted to normalise the foreign work into English.
Another way to look at this whole situation is to say there are merely good and bad translations and maybe Robertson is producing the latter. In either case, the whole of the Pannwitz quotation is fascinating and brilliant:
Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English. Our translators have a far greater reverence for the usage of their own language than for the spirit of the foreign works. . . . The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. Particularly when translating from a language very remote from his own he must go back to the primal elements of language itself and penetrate to the point where work, image, and tone converge. He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language. It is not generally realized to what extent this is possible, to what extent any language can be transformed, how language differs from language almost the way dialect differs from dialect; however, this last is true only if one take language seriously enough, not if one takes it lightly.
Benjamin himself reinforces this with:
It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work. For the sake of pure language he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.
and perhaps the most stunning of all translation metaphors:
Unlike a work of literature, translation does not find itself in the center of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering, aiming at that single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one.
Speaking of Hölderlin‘s translations of Sophocles, Benjamin writes this sentence (translated, of course) that gives me chills:
In them the harmony of the language is so profound that sense is touched by language only the way an aeolian harp is touched by the wind.
When I read I like to keep a pencil with me to underline passages I like. After Benjamin, my pencil is a stub.
I am, by the way, still looking for good translations of Tranströmer, if anyone has suggestions.
I feel somehow that I need to say something about my life.
As you may know, for the last six months I have been living in St Louis, studying at Washington University in the MFA program. Before I came here, I was naturally very excited and thrilled to be accepted into such a prestigious program. But a part of me was also cautious. I thought, ‘If the workshops and classes turn out to be less useful than I hope for, I can consider this simply two years of funded time in which I can write and read as much as I want.’ It’s normal to worry about these sorts of things, especially when one is travelling so far to a place that could be anything really.
I also thought that I would blog about ‘my MFA experience’ as it were, something a lot of people seem to do.
After coming here, I decided not to. And those thoughts of caution began to very quickly disappear and I began to want to learn from my teachers and fellow poets as much as possible.
I don’t want to write about ‘my MFA experience,’ much less argue for or against MFA programs. I just want to explain my excitement a little.
One of the many, many things with which MFA programs are faulted is the idea that they are institutions that manufacture poets, who, in turn, manufacture carefully crafted, yet somehow (perhaps emotionally) deficient poems that no one wants to read. Related to this idea is that those who teach in MFA programs force their students to adhere to a certain poetics/politics. I suppose this could be widely true, though my tendency (even before I came here; else why would I even apply to such programs?) is to reject such notions, which are reached probably by considering poets who aren’t exciting to us and then discovering that they once when through an MFA program. I think if you looked at poets who are exciting (in the United States anyway), you’d more often than not find that they too went through an MFA program at some point, and that they are just as exciting as one’s favourite poets who did not go through an MFA program.
What this means, essentially, is that every program is different, every student and teacher has her own ways; that these things must be judged on a case-by-case basis.
In my case, the whole thing so far has been an unequivocal success. My teachers are wonderful, kind, generous human beings; my fellow poets (or fellow fellows) are also wonderful, kind and generous, besides being insanely talented, intelligent and great fun to be around. I’m constantly challenged and always learning in a classroom — which is strange to me. I think I went through most of undergrad deeply questioning my teachers’ (barring a few who remain my favourite teachers of all time) right to say the things they were saying. I lived for probably one class each semester; if I was lucky, maybe two. Most of the learning I did happened outside of class, desperately hunting books on my own or finding things on the internet. In many ways, I started writing this blog to learn. There’s nothing like someone arguing with you in a useful way (or even flaming you) to make you think critically and innovatively.
In a weird way, this is an explanation for why I haven’t been blogging as much. Most of my thoughts happen in class and get discussed (sometimes trashed, sometimes not) there and it’s too much of an exhaustion to rewrite them here. And then I just don’t have time for it.
This brings me to what’s happening to the blog. I’m trying to redesign and restructure it. I haven’t worked out all the kinks yet (as you can probably tell from the home page) and still need to reorganise my categories and tags. One thing I know is that I want to work with a white background — a better visual context for images and for general reading, of course. I am, however, ambivalent about the magazine style (i.e., if you look at the home page, there are multiple columns, instead of just two). I haven’t decided entirely what I want, so responses are useful to me (by email, preferably): is the new design confusing? Too boring? Difficult to navigate? Are there important widgets that you feel are missing?
Another thing I want to do (while recategorising and retagging) is to put many posts into hiding. One of the reasons I started to enjoy blogging is because a sort of trajectory began to be noticeable: how I was thinking and writing and how I kept changing as I grew older (it’s shocking how much you can grow in three years). It’s like a document of your own education as a human being — a strange kind of bildungsroman of your own life. If anyone bothered to look (please don’t) you’d probably find widely divergent opinions and much bad writing. And this is just going to keep happening. Who knows what I’ll be like in another three years?
I suppose there’s something to be said for keeping all of this public, but what’s the point? Most of it is irrelevant and uninteresting. So I’m going to be taking a lot of things down, but I’ll also probably leave a lot of things up (for sentimental reasons) that should’ve been taken down.
Another thing that may or may not interest you about my life (if we’re not ‘Facebook friends’) is that I am deeply in love with cooking and am constantly trying new things, things that frightened me before. I’ve even started baking my own bread, which I won’t pretend is easy or time-efficient. I love making my own pizza — that is surprisingly easy, though a little time-consuming. It’s a wonderful, relaxing way to punctuate the day. It is also a great stress reliever for me, which means that some days I will bake furiously in order to escape some more pressing task. But what’s the harm in a few extra cookies? Other than enormous weight gain.