THE ART OF FAILURE: POETRY IN TRANSLATION
by Okla Elliott
“Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments that make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another.”—Paul Auster
The historical importance of translation for English language poetry is undeniable. Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, invented blank verse in order to translate Virgil’s Æneid in 1554, because the Latin original was unrhymed yet metered, and no equivalent existed in English. Blank verse, brought to us by a translator’s ingenuity, allowed for Shakespeare’s plays to be written as we know them. The sonnet (sonetto or “little song” in Italian) was created by Giacomo da Lentini and enjoyed a boom among Italian poets such as Calvalcanti, Dante, and Petrarch in the mid-13th and early 14th centuries. It was not until the 16th century that sonnets began appearing in English, in translations from Italian and from French. And the list of gifts translators have brought English poetry goes on—couplets, villanelles, sestinas, and, some have argued, even free verse via attempts to translate Chinese poetry. The question now is: What is the cultural and artistic place of translation in the age of globalization?
According to a Center for Book Culture study on the number of books translated into English between 2000-2006, it’s a pretty dismal place. Most countries had fewer than one book per year translated into English, and literary heavyweights such as France, Italy, and Germany had fewer than ten books per year translated into English—and this includes novels and nonfiction as well as poetry. The percentage of books in translation tends to be estimated, by such organizations as the NEA and PEN, at about three percent of the total published in America. (Incidentally, there is an excellent blog about translation, out of the University of Rochester, called Three Percent.) Does this mean the effort of translation is hopeless or unimportant? Not necessarily.
Translation is very complex; the process, the need, and the market for it are not so easily summed up. To understand the landscape, we have to look at the differences between publishing translation as books or in journals, translating contemporary or older work, working alone or collaboratively. Likewise, the politics and ethics of translation play a role. And perhaps most importantly, the process and joys of translation need to be understood.
The Process of Translation
The primary goal of translation is to recreate the effect of the original poem in the target language (the language into which you are translating). The problem, of course, is that if the poet did her work properly in the original (or source) language, then she made use of every available trick and tactic, thus making the job of recreating the poem almost impossible. This is why Umberto Eco calls translation “the art of failure.” But while perfection is perhaps not possible, there are thousands of excellent translations in existence. So, how were they done?
You have to determine whether you want to transport the source text into the target language or transport the reader of your translation to the source culture. If you are translating, for example, a contemporary Mexican poet, and the word buñuelo appears, you have to decide whether to replace this very specific Mexican sweet bun made with orange juice with some American equivalent (a honeybun perhaps) or to simply leave the Spanish word in the English translation and hope the reader knows what a buñuelo is. A third option is to retain the Spanish word and footnote it, though footnotes can ruin the effect of a poem if there are too many of them. The general rule is to avoid them when possible. Of course, the problem with replacing a Mexican pastry with a traditional American pastry is that—forgive the pun—you damage the original flavor of the poem, though you do not run the risk of losing or confusing your reader. But both tactics lead to problems, as nearly everything in translation does. I don’t mean to suggest that a translation can’t do both. In fact, most good translations do, but each successful translation, in order to have its singular effect as the original had its singular effect, ought to privilege one effort over the other.
Depending on the source text, your level of mastery of the source language, and whether there are pre-existing translations, the first stages of working on a new translation of a poem will differ wildly. When translating Latin and Greek literature, David Slavitt uses pre-existing literal prose translations of the poems as well as his personal knowledge of Latin and Greek “to turn the prose translations back into poems.” Slavitt says, “When you translate prose, you are the original author’s clerk, but when you translate poetry, you are his partner.”
Frequently, translation is also done collaboratively. Likely the most famous contemporary duo is Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who have redone many of the Russian prose masterpieces. A notable team in poetry translation is Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro, who collaborate on translations of ancient literature. The make-up of the team is frequently a scholar of the source language/text and a poet who knows the tricks of English verse and who might have some knowledge of the source language.
But no matter your tactics or whether you work alone or with a collaborator, tough choices will have to be made. My translation of Jürgen Becker’s poem “Oderbruch,” which appeared in the Indiana Review, offers a simple example of the issues a translator runs into in nearly every line. I had translated “[g]elb graue Dämmerung” as “[g]old gray twilight” which caused the faculty member consulted about the accuracy of my translation to suggest that I change it to the more literal “[y]ellow gray twilight.” In one sense, he was right—“gelb” means “yellow.” But I felt that “gold” was close enough to the literal meaning, but it had the added poetic benefit of retaining the consonance and the number of syllables in the original. Ultimately, the poetry editors at the Indiana Review agreed with me, but not because I was unquestionably right. We were both right about how to translate the line. It was simply that I was willing to make a small sacrifice in literalness to retain the music, whereas he was willing to make a small sacrifice of the music to retain a more exact meaning. Every poem will present a dozen or more moments where the translator must sacrifice one thing for another. Only rarely does a poem submit easily to transfer into a new language/culture. That, however, is also part of the joy. Nearly every translator speaks of the joy of finding an elegant solution to a seemingly insoluble problem.
Slavitt says, “I didn’t take a Hippocratic Oath when I signed on to be a writer. I feel no obligation to the literal meaning of the text whatsoever.” It’s the pleasure of the original he is after. Does that mean Twinkies show up in Ovid? Well, fine, let it be so. Or so Slavitt says. But the business of translation is a highly contentious one, and one where opinions are unusually strong and criticisms often bitter.
One of the joys of translation is what you can learn by doing it. Slavitt went to the Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil in order to learn how to make a paragraph work in verse. Matthew Zapruder, author of The Pajamaist and translator of the Romanian poet Eugen Jebeleanu, reports, “I also had a sense right away that it would be a good thing for me, a poet just starting to find his way, to be inside the seriousness of the voice and the directness and implacable structure of the poems.”
The report on the market for poetry in translation is mixed. A recent New York Review of Books article points out that Iran publishes more literature in translation than the United States does—as do all European countries and most Latin American ones. That said, however, it has been my experience that original poetry and fiction are comparably hard to place in journals, whereas translation and nonfiction are much easier to place. This has, predictably, to do with the volume and quality of submissions in each genre, as well as current demand. Brett Fletcher Lauer, a poetry editor at A Public Space and an advisory editor at Columbia University’s Circumference, a journal dedicated largely to poetry in translation, offers the following theory on why translations tend to be better and therefore more likely to be accepted: “A Public Space receives a relatively small number of submissions of poetry in translation compared with the thousands of submissions of English-language poetry. That being said, the overall quality of translations submitted is very high. I’m not sure how to account for this fact.” He goes on to speculate, “The process of translating and the dedication it requires makes it so that it cannot be casual work, but, instead, a sort of over-time, and what we receive reflects this.”
“Generally journals were happy to publish the poems,” says Zapruder of his translations of Jebeleanu. “I had more difficulty publishing the book; in fact, I finished the translations in 1998, and it took almost ten years for the book to eventually come out with Coffee House Press.”
Slavitt says, “If you translate a standard classic and are lucky enough to get it adopted as a text in enough courses, it will do much better than original poetry.” But he adds, “If you translate someone who needs translating—Ausonius for instance—it’s about even [with sales of original collections of poetry].” Given the generally poor sales of poetry collections, this might not be very heartening, but it ought to be. Either a book of translation will sell about the same as an original collection or considerably better, especially if you can recast a classic poet in a new translation.
Some of the journals most supportive of poetry in translation are Absinthe, The Bitter Oleander, Circumference, Indiana Review, International Poetry Review, The Literary Review, Natural Bridge, New Letters, Poetry International, and A Public Space. There are others, of course, but these are journals that are dedicated to translation solely or that publish some translation in nearly every issue. And presses that publish translation regularly include Dalkey Archive Press, Northwestern University Press, Red Hen Press, Sheep Meadow Press, and Ugly Duckling Presse. If a new translator wants to discover what is happening in translation today, she would do well to peruse these publications.
Advice for Getting Started
If you’re a first-time translator, it is unlikely that you’ll get the rights to translate and publish the work of a major author whose work is still under copyright—e.g., Günter Grass or Pablo Neruda. Mark Smith-Soto, the editor of International Poetry Review and a poet/translator in his own right, advises that a new translator find an author who enjoys a good reputation in his/her home country but who hasn’t yet been translated into English. “If you ask a poet whether he’d like to be translated, the answer is generally going to be yes,” Smith-Soto says. And here is where the unfortunate state of literature in translation can actually be a plus. Since there is so much excellent literature that has yet to be translated, you’ll have plenty to choose from. But since you’ll be spending many hours living in the poet’s work, it’s important to find work you admire. Otherwise, what should be a joy will become a chore. Once you’ve established yourself, then the larger gigs will come.
It’s also worthwhile to have a working knowledge of translation theory, which sounds daunting but which in fact can be attained by reading two excellent books out from University of Chicago Press, The Craft of Translation and Theories of Translation, both edited by John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte. These two reasonably sized volumes will bring you from Dryden’s thinking on translation through Goethe’s and up to Gregory Rabassa’s with excellent stops at Nietzsche’s, Benjamin’s, and others’.
So, read the journals that publish translations, read these two seminal texts on the theory and craft of translation, find poetry you admire, and get to work. It’s rewarding for both the translator and for the literary culture as a whole.