Letter to Anne Carson: Work of Remembrance and Mourning

By | 1 February 2019

I have always wondered why the erasure of strangeness in my poem translated by Viktor made me sad. It may sound strange but each time I read a poem in translation the same feeling of sadness enters my mind. I try to ignore it but it never completely abandons me. I hope you don’t mind that I have allowed myself to believe that you too might experience something similar.

Fortunately I am able to find some comfort in the words of Paul Ricoeur who in his essay, On Translation, assures us that this is the fate of all translators, and especially of those who dare to translate poetry. I like the Freudian embellishment with which he reads the task of a translator espoused by Benjamin. Translation, Ricoeur suggests involves both the ‘work of remembering’ and the ‘work of mourning’. Like your translation of Catullus’s poem, the work done by a translator advances the original piece by ‘salvaging’ it for new readers, but is also associated with ‘some acceptance of loss’. This loss, he notes, is where the seeds of mourning begin to sprout.

Because translation reclaims and recoups the original piece, it adds a breath of fresh oxygen so that it can endure the onslaught of time. Thus salvaged, the poem is ready to enjoy the hospitality of its linguistic kith and kin. This idea of linguistic hospitality delights me. The house in which the translated poem begins its new life, notes Ricoeur, is a place, ‘… where the pleasure of dwelling in the other’s language is balanced by the pleasure of receiving the foreign word at home, in one’s own welcoming house.’

Remembrance, salvaging, and survival of the original echo what Benjamin wanted a translator to aim and hope for. It is nothing but good fortune that the original finds a translator because the encounter between the two creates the possibility for the original to live and survive. However the encounter creates a tricky situation for the translator; the position she assumes isn’t one of privilege but of precarious uncertainty, because as Jacques Derrida, rather sternly, notes in The Ear of the Other, she is ‘… immediately indebted by the existence of the original,’ and hence obliged to ‘… submit to its laws,’ and remain ‘… duty-bound to do something for the original; the translator must assure survival, which is to say the growth, of the original.’

Although I agree with Derrida’s strict imposition, and as a translator I accept the responsibility, once the translation is ‘finished’ I barely ever feel any sense of achievement; the sense of pride is always overwhelmed by a feeling of melancholy often tinged with scraps of joy. This makes the melancholy pleasurable. Unfortunately the pleasure persists only briefly because each time I read my translation I want to change this or that word; the so-called ‘finished’ version doesn’t stop teasing and tormenting me.

Michael Hamburger, Paul Celan’s astute translator confesses: ‘I am by no means sure that I have “understood” even those of his poems – a small proportion of his output – which I have been able to translate over the years.’ ‘Much of Celan’s later poetry,’ he explains, ‘can be intuitively grasped, but not rendered in another language, without as much knowledge as possible of his sources; and any help a translator can get from scholars makes it that much more penetrable.’

This separation between ‘intuitive grasp’ of a poem and its ‘understanding’ attracts me. It occurs to me that this separation is true of almost all poems I have come to like and love. I can never say with confidence that I understand a poem fully. It took Hamburger decades to translate some of Celan’s poems and I appreciate the honesty with which he accepts defeat: ‘Celan is more difficult, and my working time is running out. So is my patience with the intricacies of scholarship and research …’

The sense of defeat is a common experience of many translators, especially of those who work with poetry. In spite of this mixed sense of defeat, mourning and melancholy, most translators keep going. Why? I wonder what is your secret? What is the source of the tenacity with which you continue to translate?

Because I am too impatient to wait for your reply I decide to return to your Nox, a book unlike any other book that has fallen my way, hoping that reading and writing about it may provide me some insights into the way you work.

You and your designer Robert Currie have placed the book in a grey cardboard box of the size of a book. The box reminds me of a similar container in which my teenage Massi, the younger sister of my mother, used to keep her collection of bric-a-brac. For each piece housed in the box she had a story to tell and each time she told the story it would undergo a little transformation. I loved her stories and the unexpected embellishments she added to them.

Inside the cardboard box of your book sit the unbound, accordion-folded pages without page numbers. I take them out and spread them on the floor of the hallway to walk along them. To read the text I have to bend down on my knees. I walk, crawl and read. The effort, although interesting, tires me and I return to my table and decide to read it as a normal book unfolding each page.

On the first page of the book I find a yellowed piece of paper glued on it; on the paper I see the lines of Catullus’s Poem 101 in Latin. The poem reappears in your English translation on the last page of the book, where it also sits on a yellowed piece of paper glued on the page. The writing is smudged. It isn’t meant to be read; its presence is symbolic. Like mileposts on a road, it and its Latin companion on the first page of the book mark the narrative distance traversed by you and your readers.

I find a readable print of the English translation (also glued on a yellowed page) around two-thirds of the way into the book. The translation is on the right-hand side of the page whereas on the left side I read your explanation of the Latin word prisco, the fifth word in the seventh-line of Catullus’s Poem 101. The explanation follows the style used in dictionaries. It summarises grammatical and etymological information about the word and ends with a list of English equivalents. This is how most translators work, unravelling each word putting together a list of synonyms knowing that each synonym is both equivalent and different from the one it follows; it brings us close to the original as well as moves us away; each word is shadowed by gain and loss, remembering and mourning.

Your search for English words similar in valency to the Latin prisco lists words and phrases such as, ‘belonging to a former time’; ‘ancient’; ‘men of old’; ‘the ancients’; ‘having existed a long time’; ‘old ancient’; ‘old-fashioned’; ‘old as night’; ‘archaic’; ‘conforming to a past standard of morality’. I like ‘old as night’ but in your translation you settle for the word ‘distant’, which, I concede, works better in the poem perhaps because it isn’t burdened by the metaphoric baggage of ‘old as night’.

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