FROM TRANSLATION TO IMITATION
Why translate? Kenneth Rexroth, one of the most influential translators, writes in his essay, “The Poet as Translator,”-- “The writer who can project himself into exultation of another learns more than the craft of words. He learns the stuff of poetry.” Translation is at the heart of poetry-- a poet like Rilke writes in his “Ninth Elegy” that when the poet
returns from the mountain slopes into the valley,
he brings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead
some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue
gentain. Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window--
at most: column, tower....But to say them, you must understand,
oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves
ever dreamed of existing.
Rilke’s notion that words only metaphorically stand for ideas, sensations and feelings suggests that they are themselves a form of translation. Of course, this could lead us quickly into a maze of problems and suggest that even a poem in our own language must be “translated.” What is at issue in translating poetry is the very nature of poetry, and the very nature of language. The main problems and debates that arise concerning the translation of poetic works occur when one realizes to what extent the essence of a poem lies, as Rilke and Rexroth suggest, beyond the words per se.
First, I want to point out that literary translation differs in many important respects from the kind of translation that is usual in a language class. Literary translation, for one, involves a good deal of interpretation about intent and effect. For another, it is often not so interested in a literal “transliteration” as much as finding a corollary mood, tone, voice, sound, response--any number of issues can be raised here. John Dryden, the great neoclassical poet, wrote in his “Preface to Pindaric Odes,” that translation should be “not so loose as paraphrase, nor so close as metaphrase.” A poet such as John Nims feels that the most important thing to translate is sound; for him, the pure music of the poem is most crucial. James Wright in translating Hesse’s poems aims to duplicate their emotional effect more than any technique such as sound per se. Robert Bly’s translations are extremely loose yet often capture the essence of Neruda’s and Rilke’s spirits.
Or take the question of Dante’s Inferno. John Ciardi’s translation of Dante strives to duplicate the colloquial effect of the language as well as the rhyme; on the other hand, Robert Pinsky’s translation strives to capture more of the Miltonic aspect of Dante’s language, also with rhyme. Ciardi’s takes quite a few liberties; Pinsky’s actually condenses some of the poem: his version is shorter. Mark Musa is fairly literal and uses a kind of terza rima, but is unrhymed and while it tries to capture the varied pace of the poem’s rhythms it is woefully deficient in music-- one of the most important aspects of the poem. To read Musa is to get an accurate sense of the poem’s meaning and scope, even the play of its metaphors, and yet to be totally ignorant of the “feel” of the poem. The same is true of Singleton’s very literal prose translation.
One could say that in all these translations one is not reading Dante but only a translator, but of course that is also true for an Italian of today who must not only cope with archaic words and word forms, but also the different force and even connotative meaning of images and metaphors. One answer is simply to not read any version because it is not the author per se, but that would lead to a pretty narrow view of our literary heritage. (What would happen if the same principle were applied to the UN where speeches are given and translated but cannot translate nuances of meaning, tone, voice, rhythm, etc.?)
“Poetry is what is lost in translation,” wrote Robert Frost, a notion we have probably all heard. “Poetry is what is gained in translation” wrote Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel prize winning Russian poet who also spoke several languages. Or as Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel prize winning poet says, “poetry is what gets transformed.” Ezra Pound, in “How To read,” describes three aspects of the language of poetry: melopoeia, its music; phanopoeia, the imagistic quality; and logopoeia, “the dance of the intellect among words.” It is this last aspect that Pound says is the essence of poetry, Rilke’s unsayable. What Brodsky, Pound and Paz were driving at was that there are intangible things, that the realm of the wordless and visionary, as Dante himself says in Paradiso XXXIII , is both untranslatable while also being the essence of poetry. Brodsky may be echoing Boccaccio’s notion in Genealogia Deorum Gentilium, X,7, where Boccaccio says that in listening to the Greek Iliad in Latin translation “some passages I came to understand very well by frequent interpretation.” And the renowned Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer, writes that a poem is a manifestation of an invisible poem that is written beyond languages themselves. “Languages are many but poetry is one,” says the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky.
Where does this leave us? Yang Wan-Li, a Chinese poet, once wrote about poetry and translation: “If you say it is a matter of words, I will say a good poet gets rid of words. If you say it is a matter of meaning, I will say a good poet gets rid of meaning. ‘But,’ you ask ‘without words and without meaning, where is the poetry?’ To this I reply: ‘get rid of words and get rid of meaning, and still there is poetry.’” It is that intangible that is left that is the object, I suggest, of good translation. That is why the contemporary poet and translator, Jane Hirshfield, says: “A literal word-for-word trot is not a translation. The attempt to recreate qualities of sound is not translation. The simple conveyance of meaning is not translation.” She is perhaps echoing the great Latin poet Horace who writes in his “Art of Poetry” (Ser. II,iii)that a good translation of Homer can exist only:
if you don’t try to render word by word like a
slavish translator, and if in your imitation you do not
leap into the narrow well, out of which either shame
or the laws of your task will keep you from stirring a step.
The step image, by the way, is a pun of the use of “poetic feet,” a way to measure rhythm. Horace’s and Wan-Li’s notions have been echoed through the ages. In our own day Octavio Paz says: “After all, poetry is not merely the text. The text produces the poem: a sense of sensations and meanings....With different means, but playing a similar role, you can produce similar results. I say similar, but not identical: translation is an art of analogy, the art of finding correspondences. An art of shadows and echoes....of producing, with a different text, a poem similar to the original.” This leads us to an essential irony: Stephen Mitchell, the well known translator of Rilke, says that “with great poetry, the freest translation is sometimes the most faithful.” And the great English poet, translator and critic, Samuel Johnson, who was one of the most conservative critics of the neoclassical period, wrote: “We try its effect as an English poem; that is the way to judge the merit of translation.”
In recent years translators have taken to collaborative efforts, often translating language they do not know or know very little. Such collaborations, usually between a good linguist or native speaker and a good poet have resulted in some stunning translations. Usually the poet is provided with a literal translation, then works with the translator over phrases and words with colloquial, historical or metaphoric resonance, and then the poet comes up with a poem that is a version, imitation (fairly close) or adaptation (loose). This, too, is an old practice: Johnson, for instance, describes it in his description of Pope’s work on The Iliad. When Pope or any translator poet felt himself “deficient” in understanding, he would make “minute inquiries into the force of words.” Chapman, for example, besides Pope, clearly worked this way. The aim of these efforts is to provide, as Johnson, sought, the best poem in English. The result of translation in the context I have been discussing is, as Johnson notes, a way to enrich both languages just as Pope’s translation of Homer “tuned the English tongue.” Pond puts it this way: “it is in the light born of this double current that we look upon the face of the mystery unveiled.” Pound says that his translations of Cavalcanti are not line by line by rather “embody in the whole of my English some trace of that power which implies the man.” Clearly the notion of translation here is far different than what the average person thinks.
The French poet, Paul Valery, in his The Art of Poetry, writes that in translating Virgil he wanted to change parts for he felt a merging with the author: translating was creating, he felt. In a similar way, in our own time, Pulitzer Prize winning poet and translator Charles Simic writes: “translation is an actor’s medium. If I cannot make myself believe I am writing the poem I’m translating, no degree of aesthetic admiration for the work will help me.” Judith Hemschemeyer, who translated perhaps the greatest poet of the century, Anna Akhmatova, describes a slow process of first getting a basic sense and then working to duplicate various effects depending upon what she felt the main strength of a particular poem to be. And well known American poet Galway Kinnell describes, in his preface to Villon’s poems, how “one can be impeccably accurate verbally and yet miss the point or blur the tone quite badly....I wanted to be ‘literal’ in another sense. I wanted to be more faithful...to the complexities of the poetry, both to its shades of meaning and its tone. At the same time I wanted the English to flow very naturally. Therefore I avoided transferring ‘meanings’ from one language directly into another.” Kinnell goes on to say he attempts to “internalize” the French: I would not merely be changing language into language but also expressing what would have become to some extent my own experiences and understandings.” If that seems strange, remember that whenever we read a poem in our own language we bring our own experiences, contexts, and notions to the text, and they interact to form a unique experience called the poem. One could argue-- and many critics and linguists today do so-- that we translate even as we read within our own language. reading Kinnell’s poems and Kinnell’s translations involves similar activity, and not unlike what we would do when reading Villon in the original. So what is Villon’s poem? As read by a French scholar? a French poet? a good reader of French? a bad reader? Do the poems exists in some absolute Platonic place where all the meanings and effects are intact? Do they exist in individual reader’s responses? Somewhere in between? These are precisely the issues a translator and a reader of translations must face. “It is because it is impossible that translation is so interesting,” wrote William Matthews who has translated Ovid, Horace and Martial.
In a letter about the nature of poetry to his brother, Gherardo, Petrarch wrote of the Biblical poetry that they “never have been, or could be, easily translated into any other language without sacrificing rhythm and meter or meaning. So, as a choice had to be made, it has been the sense that has been more important. And yet some trappings of metrical law still survive, and the individual pieces are what we still name verses, for that is what they really are.” Still, unsatisfied finally with that, Petrarch wrote his own sequence of Salmi Penitenziali in a single year in imitation of the Biblical psalms, but using phrases and ideas from the originals. In the “Preface” to his “Familiar Letters” Petrarch wrote that “The first care of the poet is to attend to the person who is the reader; this is the best way to know what to write and how to write it for a specific audience.” In a sense he prefigures Johnson’s concern, cited above, that the purpose of poetry is to be read.
How, then, to restore poetry’s original sense of freshness, of movement, and yet take into account a modern audience is always the issue. Translators like David Slavitt, with Ovid and Virgil, and William Matthews, with Martial and Horace, have magnificently transplanted these poets to our own times so that they seem to come alive, filled with their own concerns, but as they would speak in our own age, as Johnson had wanted. Matthews, for instance, adds current references, Slavitt’s Virgilian Eclogues are as much interpretations as translations. In other words, they have considered the contemporary reader, as Petrarch urged, along with the meaning and rhythms. This is precisely the example of Horace and of Pope. As Johnson wrote of Pope’s Homer: “To a thousand cavils one answer is sufficient: the purpose of an author is to be read, and the criticism which would destroy the power of pleasing must be blown aside.”
Literary translation comes close, as Pope suggests in a letter about his Imitations of Horace, to the notion of imitation. One anonymous wrote that Pope’s versions were “bound hand and foot and yet dancing as if free.” Earlier, Ben Jonson had defined imitation in his Timber as merely a poem loosely based on another poem. Dryden in his “Preface” to his translation of Ovid, then defined three kinds of relationship a poet could have to a prior text. “Metaphrase” for Dryden was a slavish, “word by word” account. “Paraphrase” was a “translation with latitude” that kept the original meaning but often with “amplification.” “Imitation,” on the other hand, meant, for Dryden, a process where the “translator (if now he has not lost that name) assumes the liberty, not only to vary words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion; and taking only some general hints from the original, to run division on the groundwork, as he pleases.” This is precisely the sort of thing Robert Lowell does in his Imitations from various poets, and what Pound does in his “Homage to Sextus Propertius,’ a sequence of loosely translated lines rearranged into a sequence of totally new poems. And it is related to what Stephen berg does in gathering images, tones and lines from Anna Akhmatova in his With Akhmatova at the Gate . Dana Gioia has written an essay describing how Donald Justice makes use of various lines, poems and forms of previous poets in over a fourth of his own poems.
We’ve become so used, in our own time and place, to valuing the new and the different above all else, that we have lost sight, in our own art of poetry with its rich tradition, of, as Roethke says in the title of a revealing essay, “How to Write Like Someone Else.” Indeed, poets through the ages have learned to write by imitation, from Catullus adaptations of Callimachus, Horace’s borrowings from Lucilius, Petrarch’s use of Dante and Cino di Pistoia, Wyatt and Surrey’s use of Petrarch, and so on. Pope in fact said he turned to imitation to tighten his own verse and to find a voice to say things he was not ready to speak in his own voice. Petrarch, an early champion of learning from the past, writes in a letter to his friend Boccaccio: “An imitator must see to it that what he writes is similar, but not the very same; and the similarity, moreover, should not be like that of a painting or statue to the person represented, but rather like that of a son to a father, where there is often great difference in the features and members, yet after all there is a shadowy something-- akin to what the painters call one’s air--hovering about the face, and especially the eyes, out of which there grows a likeness.... [W]e writers, too, must see to it that along with the similarity there is a large measure of dissimilarity; and furthermore such likeness as there is must be elusive, something that it is impossible to seize except by a sort of still-hunt, a quality to be felt rather than defined.... It may all be summed up by saying with Seneca, and with Flaccus [Horace] before him, that we must write just as the bees make honey, not keeping the flowers but turning them into a sweetness of our own, blending many different flavors into one, which shall be unlike them all, and better.” Imitation, in other words, is creation: just taking a glance at what Samuel Johnson does to Juvenal in his “Vanity of Human Wishes” or what Frost does with Virgil’s Georgics in his North of Boston the Greek Anthology in A Witness Tree ought to show us how one can learn from the past and still be original. Curiously, Frost gave a January 1916 lecture called “The discipline of the Classics and the Writing of English” which extolled imitation. One can see how James Wright’s middle poems were influenced by his reading of Lorca, Jiminez, Neruda and various imagistic poems from China and Japan. In fact, a glance at W.S. Merwin’s poems in The Lice (1967) and the translations he was doing at that time show an incredible similarity of the type Petrarch describes. Of course, sometimes imitation is very close to the original: in fact, one translation of Merwin’s , “The Creation of the Moon” derived from a South American Indian tale is almost rendered step by step in in The Lice but with a different ostensible subject.
Even more loosely, we can see a number of influences: Kunitz, Horace and Robinson on James Wright; Greek and Roman epigrams on Linda Gregg and Jack Gilbert; Vallejo, Rimbaud and the beats on Tomaz Salamun. Longinus, the Roman critic wrote: “Emulation will bring those great characters before our eyes, and like guiding stars they will lead our thoughts to the ideal standard of perfection.” Perhaps one of the greatest examples is the way Petrarch borrows the idea of creating an evolving self in a sequence of poems from Horace’s Odes and his sense of how to address the reader from Cicero’s letters. Ultimately the point here is that poets learn to advance their craft by reading other poets from other ages and other cultures, adapting impulses, lines, forms and ideas to their own times. Not to read, not to “emulate,” is to isolate one’s art, to leave it static.