Ghost Flowers in the Word Machine: Poetry, Pessimism and Translation in the Age of Technology

1 February 2018

The translation of poetry, perhaps more than any other genre, requires a significant degree of creative interpretation and transformation. In a 1971 essay entitled ‘Literature and Letters,’ the Mexican poet and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz argues that poetry translation is a radically re-inventive process, itself analogous to poetic creation. In prose, he writes, words are mobile and, to a certain degree, interchangeable, whereas the morphology of poetry is ‘unique and irreplaceable’; Paz thus recognises poetry’s indissoluble tension between form and content, but unlike the Modernist aesthetician he does not see this as a stumbling block for translation. The task of the translator, he explains, is to dismantle and interpret the diverse elements of the original text and thus free its constituent signs into circulation. The act of reconstruction that follows is essentially an ‘inverted parallel’ of poetic creation – what John Felstiner has termed a ‘re-enactment’ of the poet’s creative process. The resulting poem is as close to an original work of art as it is to a reproduction. In Paz’s words, it is ‘less a copy than a transmutation.’1

With a little insight, then, it become clear that the pessimism of translation naysayers like Shelley and Nabokov depends as much upon methodology as it does on philosophy: Nabokov insists that the only acceptable method of intralingual transfer is literal translation (in fact, he goes so far as to claim that that the very term ‘literal translation’ is tautological, ‘since anything but that is not truly a translation but an imitation, an adaptation or a parody’)2; Paz, on the other hand, would argue that Nabokov’s definition is not only ‘offensive’ but fundamentally misguided, based upon ‘an erroneous conception of what translation is’ – literal translation, which Paz describes as ‘servile’ and inadequate, is mere mechanism, yielding nothing more than a glossary of terms. True translation, Paz argues, is a kind of human magic, an inspired variation on a theme, not unlike the improvisation of music.

The attitude that allows us to believe in the impossibility of poetry translation, in other words, is the same one that presumes translation can, and will, eventually be replaced by technology. The key to unlocking this apparent stalemate is the uncovering of a different understanding of translation; one that sees it not as mechanism but as art, a creative process analogous to that of poetry writing itself. If poetry is intensely, excruciatingly human – too human, indeed, to be transposed by the mechanics of ‘servile’ translation – then the re-writing of poetry in translation, when done well, is equally human. That this may be so is no more impossible than that a poem should spring, coaxed or unbidden, from a mindseed, or that an artist should create, from a selection of severed blooms, a floral arrangement capable of silencing onlookers with its beauty.

  1. Paz, Octavio. ‘Translation: Literature and Letters.’ Translated by Irene del Corral. Theories of Translation, edited by R. Schulte and J. Biguenet, U of Chicago P, 1992, p.160.
  2. Nabokov, Vladimir. ‘Problems of Translation.’ p.134.
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