Exploring and Renegotiating Transparency in Poetry Translation

By | 1 May 2015

To read poetry in translation, no matter how ‘close’ the rendering is to the original text, is to necessarily involve another figure in the reading and interpreting process. Readers of translations are not only receiving the work of the original poet, but also the adaptive skills and internalised views of the translator or translators involved. When we review or consult others’ feedback on published poetry translations, one of the most common assessments is whether or not the rendered text is ‘good’ or ‘accurate’. Central to these often highly subjective perceptions are a notion of ‘equivalence’, and the question of whether or not this translation appears, prima facie and upon closer examination, to closely replicate the themes, techniques, and language applied by the original poet. At the same time, this assessment is generally performed with awareness that there can never be ‘complete’ equivalence across all parts of the text.

Historically there has been some ambivalence towards this awareness. Early English-language translations of the ancient Greek poet Sappho, for example, were often praised for their adherence to popular perceptions of the poet herself, rather than her work and the translator’s accuracy.1 Similarly, Ming Xie observes that Chinese poetry in the nineteenth century had a habit of being ‘appropriated and transferred, often in a much diluted form, from mainstream Victorian ‘poetic’ treatment’, resulting in publication and circulation of Chinese poems that appear to be ‘a typical product, and often a second-hand rehashing, of the reassuringly familiar and conventional ‘poetic’ staple of the Victorian era’.2 In both instances, translations are made to fit predetermined aesthetic and biographic models. A ‘good’ translation, in such contexts, may simply be a translation that appears ‘familiar’ and therefore readily accessible to its new readership, rather than a dedicated reproduction of the original poetry and the poet’s intentions.

However, strong efforts are regularly made to recognise original source poems when publishing translations. It is certainly not uncommon to find original and translated poems published side-by-side, along with explanatory notes and introductions. In these cases, such translations allow readers with the necessary linguistic background to observe where the two poems converge, and possibly even dispute the translator’s assessment. Non-speakers are able to visually assess the poems’ structural similarities, if not their tonal and linguistic connectivity, when presented with both texts, and are also given indications of where to begin their assessments with aid from explanatory notes. Some excellent examples of this kind of inclusive translation can be seen in more recent versions of Sappho’s fragmentary poetry, particularly that of Anne Carson, and also in the English-language publication of Japanese poet Seiichi Niikuni’s Zero-On, a collection of concrete poetry, which will be discussed in this paper.

However, a myriad of issues can abound when translating poetry, including issues of appropriation and ‘colonising’ a text. An immersive and potentially misleading translation style, such as that used by Ezra Pound in Cathay, which engages with the poetics of classical Chinese writer Li Bai, will be demonstrated as an example. However, should this mean that only translations that provide full renditions of the original text, as well as detailed academic references, can be viewed as inherently sensitive and appropriate?

Alternative approaches will be endorsed in this discussion and also demonstrated in my production of two translated poems, focusing on the potential for creative adaptation to tell another story for readers and open up other avenues for interpretation, analysis, and discussion. These translated pieces will ideally balance many translation techniques examined in this paper, and also demonstrate ‘transparent’ translation, in the form of detailed, acknowledged creative adaptation that offers room not only for the original text, but also acknowledges the subjective nature of meaning transference and replication in poetry translation. Where complete fidelity to the original text may be difficult, full acknowledgement of the translator’s own creative voice and analytical role in the rendering of poetry becomes even more important, not just for the benefit of academic readers, but also a broader reading public, encouraging not only greater creativity, but also more respectful negotiations and recognition of cultural, historical, and linguistic diversities.

Issues of ‘Transparency’ in Poetic Translation

Central to this discussion is a desire to promote greater ‘transparency’ in poetic translations, referring specifically to the separation or lack thereof between original poet, translator or translators, and the reader. In particular, greater understanding of the level of creativity adopted by the translator should be facilitated. However, the term ‘transparency’ interacts with more difficult implications in translation practices and theory.

Lawrence Venuti acknowledges a long historical tendency in Western publications of perpetuating ‘an illusion of transparency’, referring to when a translated text is apparently absent of ‘any linguistic or stylistic peculiarities’ which make it ‘seem transparent, giving the appearance that it reflects the foreign writer’s personality or intention or the essential meaning of the foreign text’, or in other words, make it appear as though ‘the translation is not in fact a translation, but the ‘original.’’3 Not only is this a problematic process of erasure, for both the original poet and the translator’s own adaptive skills, but Venuti observes potentially colonising effects of such translations, quoting from reviews of translations to illustrate the issue:

Fluency also depends on syntax that is not so ‘faithful’ to the foreign text as to be ‘not quite idiomatic,’ that unfolds continuously and easily (not ‘doughy’) to insure semantic ‘precision’ with some rhythmic definition, a sense of closure (not a ‘dull thud’). A fluent translation is immediately recognisable and intelligible, ‘familiarised,’ domesticated, not ‘disconcerting(ly)’ foreign …4

A ‘transparent’ text, in this context, is therefore ideally bereft of identifying cultural markers, including tonal and linguistic nuances. Instead, Venuti criticises the overarching authority of ‘plain styles’ in English, achieved over several centuries, and cites Bernstein’s analysis of this historical movement as evidence of a drive ‘toward uniform spelling and grammar, with an ideology that emphasises nonidiosyncratic, smooth transition, elimination of awkwardness … anything that might concrete attention on the language itself.’5 There are considerable issues with such an approach. Though arguably a streamlined translation of this nature will facilitate dissemination and understanding of an original text amongst a wider range of readers, the text itself does not represent a full account of the original writer’s work, nor in fact of the translator’s potential abilities to produce a much closer rendering.

In addition, such translations come into conflict with the source text. Gayatri Spivak addresses the risk of ‘violence to the translating medium’ when a translator attends to the specificity of language, particularly when addressing the ‘rhetoricity of the original.’6 Spivak refers to the complex relationship of the source text with its intended meanings, and dismisses any argument of convenience as justification for ‘quick and easy and slapdash’ translations that skim over the full nuances of rhetorical engagements and challenges in the original language.7 In order to do full and respectful justice to a piece, Spivak asserts that a translator ‘must surrender to the text’:

She must solicit the text to show the limits of its language, because that rhetorical aspect will point at the silence of the absolute fraying of language that the text wards off, in its special manner. Some think this is just an ethereal way of talking about literature or philosophy. But no amount of rough talk can get around the fact that translation is the most intimate act of reading.8

It is this sense of intimacy that must be given more attention, and attached to the term ‘transparency.’ The translator’s immersion in the source text, examining its linguistic nuances and rhetorical, theoretical, and artistic intentions, should not be divorced from the highly subjective nature of these interpretative processes. ‘Intimacy’ is not a criticism, but an important feature of translation, which should be clearly recognised and stated for readers. In so doing, Spivak’s notion of ‘surrender’ would not result in either the source text or the translator’s version being disadvantaged; rather, the artistic and interpretive link between the two texts could be more fully acknowledged by more readers, and understandings of the relationship between both pieces enhanced.

In light of these considerations, the term ‘transparency’ in current translation theory reflects not transparency of the translator’s motivations and the original writer’s text, but a false sense of immediacy to the original work, as though the translator played no part in the work’s production of meaning and form. Henri Meschonnic’s consideration of the need to ‘break away from the form/content binarism stamped on source language/target’ (translated by Pier-Pascale Boulanger) is appropriate, not only in considering the ethics of translation, but also in reshaping an understanding of ‘transparency’ in translation.9 Such breakages, swerves, and accommodation for the translator’s individual choices in adapting the source material for reception in another language can be ethically achieved as long as it is acknowledged, and not presented as the ‘transparent’ work of the translator. Transparency should be given to the translator’s own machinations, and published in broader forms beyond the accepted conventions of introductory section and footnotes, in accordance with creative means that better suit the individual translator’s own processes and what may better justify the source text.

It is tempting to argue for convenience’s sake that such translations would be too cumbersome and confusing for readers to follow, but this is where transparency, in another sense of the term, can be of assistance. The value of linguistically sensitive and diverse texts, rendered into other languages and circulated more broadly, should not be downplayed. It is not necessary, nor even advisable, for texts to only be translated into means and terms that are immediately palatable for the recipient audience. Diversity of thought, language, and experiences should not be masked. Marcel Detienne refers to ‘the shock of the incomparable’, when a large group of language specialists were brought together to attempt to identify some unifying ‘founding’ feature shared by all languages, resulting in discovery that no such common ground existed, and that to endeavour for such a goal was to strive for an artificial ‘creation of a territory’ and ‘misleading transparency.’10 Stemming from this refusal of territorialisation, a lack of common ground and equivalence, new thinking is required. In the case of poetry translation, new techniques, themes, ideas and prosodic approaches can be learned, examined, and negotiated. But without acceptance of this need for difference, such changes may not be made, or even introduced. Stylistically diverse translations can and have historically introduced new poetic structures and ideas to English-language poetics. By clearly acknowledging these diversities, translators can not only facilitate these styles’ dispersal and popular acceptance or engagement in another language, but also more openly recognise their own position as mediator of a text, rather than its mouthpiece.

In the sections to follow, closer examination of ways in which translators have already made their roles as active creative adaptors, rather than passive purveyors of a domesticated rendering, to use Venuti’s term, will be compared. The scope of these translations for inspiring future research and poetic works will also be highlighted, emphasising this need for respectful treatment not only of the source text poet’s intentions, innovations, and structures, but also those of the translator.

  1. Edwin Arnold, for example, laments over Algernon Charles Swinburne’s version of Sappho’s work due to the beliefs behind it, rather than its production: ‘A young English poet, perhaps the only one who could translate Sappho worthily – although he stoops to repeat the untrue and unnatural scandal against her sweet name which gossiping generations have invented – does brilliant justice to her deathless genius’: Edwin Arnold, The Poets of Greece, London: Cassell, Petter and Galpin, 1869, p. 106.
  2. Ming Xie, Ezra Pound and the Appropriation of Chinese Poetry: Cathay, Translation, and Imagism, New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1999, pp. 4-5.
  3. Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, London and New York: Routledge, 1995, p. 1.
  4. Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, p. 5.
  5. Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, p. 6, citing Charles Bernstein, Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984, Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1986, p. 27.
  6. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘The Politics of Translation’ in Outside in the Teaching Machine, New York: Routledge, 1993, pp. 180-181.
  7. Spivak, ‘The Politics of Translation’, p. 181.
  8. Spivak, ‘The Politics of Translation’, p. 183.
  9. (translated and edited by Pier-Pascale Boulanger) Henri Meschonnic, Ethics and Politics of Translating, Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2011, p. 42.
  10. Marcel Detienne, Comparing the Incomparable, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008, pp. 26-27.
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