(Self)Translation and the Poetry of the ‘In-between’

By | 1 February 2016

Negotiation: the self-in-translation

The terms self-translation and auto-translation are often used interchangeably, though Cordingley points out that ‘In English, the ‘auto’ of auto-translation may even suggest … the negation of the self – as if a text was on autopilot, performing automatic or machine translation, transporting itself into another language code,’ whereas ‘the term ‘self-translation’ concentrates on the presence of the translator’ (2013, p. 1). In my own practice it is fair to say that some poems-in-translation seem to ‘flow’ automatically, born of my familiarity with the two languages across which I write. However, many other works evolve over time and, I would argue, both depend upon and highlight the subjective qualities I bring to the process of writing / translation.

I am a bilingual poet. In practical terms bilingualism means that some of my poems are written exclusively in English, others in Italian. On occasion I combine the two, while at other times I translate an English poem into Italian or an Italian poem into English. I sometimes take things further and incorporate words from my family’s northern Italian dialect or from the Italo-Australian-English I share with bilingual friends.

However, the type of self-translation I practice most often is referred to as consecutive self-translation or simultaneous self-translation (Grutman 2008, p. 259). That is, when doing self-translation I tend to write the same poem in two different languages at the same time. When developing drafts I work on two pages sitting side by side, teasing out two versions of the same poem, one predominantly in Italian and the other in English. In this way, a poem-in-translation can be ‘built up’ by moving back and forth between two versions – one in Italian, the other in English – until completed.

Below is a short poem written using this technique, titled ‘L’imbarcadero di Mondrian’ / ‘Mondrian’s Pier’:

In una stanza ampia e buio dorme 
un quaddro di Mondrian, dipingendo
un molo, un imbarcadero, visto in alto.
I rami di legno sono semplicemente 
brevi passaggi di carboncino.
È un campo visivo, una baia senza limite,
liquidandosi finché le linee galleggiano 
come isole tutte sue.
In a spacious, dark room sleeps 
a painting by Mondrian, depicting
a jetty, seen from above. 
The wooden pylons are simply 
brief passages of charcoal. 
It is a visual field, a bay without limits, 
liquefying itself until lines float 
as islands of their very own.

In many respects this poem / these poems appear to be ‘straight’ translations, in so far as both form and semantic meaning remain very similar, retaining what Eco refers to as its ‘deep story’: a reasonably fixed and believable shared meaning across texts-in-translation (2003, p. 71). If the poems do indeed share this ‘deep story’ they can also be read independently from one another, as separate poetic works. This is particularly true for audiences who are not bilingual. At the same time, those who do read and understand both languages may agree or disagree with the choices I have made in the process of translation.

This is because all translators, the self-translator included, face certain challenges and choices as they work, as part of the ‘poetic potential’ of translation mentioned at the outset of this paper (Bush 2004, p. 194). For example, in terms of form, the use of punctuation and line-length are tools that the poet-translator may use to create a relationship between versions, although the use of accented words and the various differences in stressed and unstressed syllables in English and Italian sometimes make this difficult. Where sound is concerned, the creation of simple rhymes is much easier and natural in Italian than English, in so far as the vast majority of Italian words, in the standard vernacular at least, end in a vowel.

Where intended meaning is concerned, the self-translator may have the advantage of knowing what they wish to convey across the two works. However, knowing and being able to share this part of its deep story across languages are two different things: the ability to translate one’s own work, or that of another poet, relies on a range of variables to do with linguistic and poetic skills that will differ from individual to individual. Recognising this, I would welcome others to attempt translations of my work, all the better to uncover the ‘labyrinth of competing interpretations’ mentioned above (Eco, 2003, p. 102).

That said, having an intuitive or even explicit understanding of the semantic meaning I wish to communicate means that in the case of self-translation it is less a practice of interpretation and more a collaboration between myself and the texts-in-translation as I produce them. In the cade of simultaneous self-translation, elements of form and content are not so much transferred from an original text to a secondary counterpart but established in the process of moving backwards and forwards between the works as they are created. This means that even a single word or element of punctuation changed in one version requires consideration of and potential change to its counterpart in the other.

The drafting and redrafting of poetry written in this manner reveals the degree to which notions of source and target text blur when writing and translating simultaneously. Neither version precedes the other: in this case there is no ‘original’ poem. As such, this sort of translation practice has clear implications for traditional approaches that seek to establish and maintain a division between the source and the translated texts. Even in those cases when a poem is, in part or whole, first written in one language or another, I tend to complete the poems using the kind of collaborative building up / revising I have described above. Take for example the ekphrasic poem ‘Terramoto / After Beuys’. The six, four-line stanzas (three in each poem), with their uneven line-lengths, mimic the ‘shards of glass’ described in the poem:

In piazza, dopo il terramoto, 
frantumi di vetro creano
una copertina di cristallo
che brillava nel sole.

Qui a fianco sono arrivati
i mobili dal piano nobile
dal palazzo che ormai, 
non esiste più.

Come può essere che un ouvo, 
ancora intatto, si bilancia
pericolosamente sull’orlo di
una tavola di quercia?
In piazza, after the quake, 
shards of glass make
a blanket of crystal
that glitters in the sun.

Here to the side furniture
has arrived from the first floor 
of the palazzo that now
no longer exists.

How can it be that an egg,
still intact, balances itself 
precariously upon the lip
of an oak table?

This poem did not arrive in the ‘automatic’ manner Cordingley associates with auto-translation (2013, p. 1), but rather was developed over time. It was inspired by standing in front of an installation by the artist Joseph Beuys in the Stanze di Vetro in Venice and supplemented by the memory of being present in Italy during the destructive Umbrian earthquakes of 1997. The poem was initiated by a small number of word-images in Italian, scribbled in my notebook shortly after viewing the artwork. That the poem began in Italian was most likely due to the context in which I encountered the artwork that inspired it, and yet at the same time as I was making notes for a poem in Italian I had already begun to think of its counterpart in English. True to the process of working on two poems simultaneously, as described above, drafts of each were then developed as a kind of symbiotic process, rather than as two separate events / texts.

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