Exploring and Renegotiating Transparency in Poetry Translation

By | 1 May 2015

Control and Equivalence

Even where translators have been scrutinised for accuracy rather than creativity, techniques have arisen to accommodate for swerves from original source text’s meaning, structure, or linguistic nuances. Translators retain a relatively high degree of control over the source text when it comes to shaping a new version for distribution to a non-speaking audience, and to profess that a translation is simply ‘accurate’ does not appropriately recognise this scope of influence. By embracing more open and overt forms of creative translation, these technical approaches need not be abandoned, but can instead continue to develop.

Translation is a process of breaking and rebuilding the text; the translator dismantles a source poem to better understand its grammatical and poetic components, then re-imagines and rebuilds these for a new audience. However, it is not always abundantly clear to a reader who is a non-speaker precisely how closely the translator has adhered to the original, hence a need for greater acknowledgement of translators’ creativity, as well as their critical credentials, in accompanying introductions, footnotes, and additional materials in published translations that the translator may consider useful or in accordance with their interpretation. The translatability of the text can be masked by the poetic or critical agenda of the translator, but Walter Benjamin asserts that this need not be problematic if the ‘task’ of the translator is met:

The task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original. This is a feature of translation which basically differentiates it from the poet’s work, because the effort of the latter is never directed at the language as such, at its totality, but solely and immediately at specific linguistic contextual aspects.1

I would strongly contest this delineation, and in fact encourage production of translations that bridge Benjamin’s perceived divide. It is not enough that a simple, limited and formal linguistic equivalent is reached in a translation, particularly if the translator in question is equipped to produce a more in-depth analysis and rendering. Structural and stylistic innovations, as well as contextual considerations of these, need to be acknowledged, even if this is only possible in the form of accompanying explanatory notes. Such requirements call into question the skills of poet as translator, and translator as poet, and invite creative adaptors, rather than strictly formal equivalent translators, to step forward.

Paul de Man interprets Benjamin’s commentary as having an inherently ‘regressive’ character, since this ‘notion of poetry as the sacred, ineffable language finds perhaps its extreme form already from the beginning, in the categorical way in which Benjamin dismisses any notion of poetry as being orientated, in any sense, toward an audience or reader.’2 de Man refers to Benjamin’s dismissal of receivers: ‘Art… posits man’s physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response. No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.’3 While it is possible that some translators may hold this consideration in mind when producing particular, highly stylised translations, it is very difficult to view this as a popular mind-set for publishers of translators, particularly considering the strong historical and contemporary tendency of reviewing translations based on their ease of accessibility and ‘transparency.’ Translations are marketable when their new audiences can easily read them. de Man notes that a failing in Benjamin’s approach comes from his decision to address a translator, rather than a poet who is a translator, resulting in the conclusion that:

The translator can never do what the original text did. Any translation is always second in relation to the original, and the translator as such is lost from the very beginning … he is per definition the one history will not really retain as an equal, unless he also happens to be a poet, but that is not always the case.4

In accordance with Paul de Man, I concur that such a conclusion is both inegalitarian and deceptive, especially in the case of creative adaptors who translate a text not only literally, but also dynamically, with consideration not only of the original poet’s intentions and artistic manoeuvres, but also of their own.

Decisions to embrace or limit the scope of particular features of a poem, in order to best replicate the original poet’s intentions for the piece, shape that poem’s transmission and preservation in its new linguistic form. To not acknowledge these processes openly in the accompanying notes of a translation, or in another creative form in the body of the translation, potentially obscures this fact from readers. The implications of this are particularly clear in the varied receptions of ancient poets, whose works have been moved between multiple geographies and historical periods, perceptions of ‘fashionable’ poetic styles, contextual values, and social permissiveness with regards to content. Sappho’s themes of lesbian love, for example, have been alternately celebrated and masked in English-language translations over the years.5 In addition, some poets’ structural and thematic content has been almost overwhelmingly conflated with the styles of the translator, particularly evident in Ezra Pound’s rendition of Li Bai’s ancient Chinese poetry in Cathay. While these translations cannot always be said to be faithful to the original poet’s intentions or techniques, it would be unfair to dismiss these entirely. The value of these works as creative pieces in their own right should be recognised, along with their complex relationships with the source materials, opening up broader avenues for responses to and discussions of newly accessible works.

When dealing with poems with physical lacunae and inherent ambiguities, or structural complexities, translation becomes additionally complicated. Many translations of Sappho’s work are dynamically rather than formally equivalent for this reason.6 The Japanese concrete poet Seiichi Niikuni must also be similarly addressed. Maria Tymoczko succinctly details the issues central to this, observing that some of the most appealing characteristics of formal equivalence are that:

They are prima facie obvious, that they are logically direct or logically simple, and that they are somehow more objective than dynamic-equivalence translations.7

These attributes are intended to minimise interaction of the translator with the text, but do not prevent the translator from ‘interfering’ where literal translation would be nonsensical in the language to which the piece is being translated, and substitution of a logically synonymous equivalent is appropriate.8 Tymoczko asserts that in some poems there may be evidence that the poet aims for a certain logical construction, in which case the translator may be inclined to emphasise particular ideas in order to reveal such constructions.9 She states that is not dynamic equivalence, since a consistent thread has been identified and articulated in the closest linguistic equivalent. Tymoczko notes that formal equivalence sometimes must become dynamic in order to accommodate for linguistic turns of phrase that would be incomprehensible if translated literally.10 There is a reasonable expectation of adaptation, acknowledging that there must be some latent ‘distance’ between the originary and derived texts, identified and negotiated by the translator, then presented to the new readership. In light of such transience even within these terms, a push for greater clarity of a translator’s critical and creative processes is even more appropriate.

Issues of control result from this process, and ought to be highlighted so that even readers who are not familiar with the complexities of translation can be aware of the nature of the product they are reading. A translator can be as dynamically or formally equivalent as may be deemed necessary to produce a new version, but does not always outwardly declare this in the text of the translation, resulting in intentional or unintentional obscuring of the relevant creative and critical processes. If the reader is not presented with the original poem and translated version side-by-side, nor offered any explanatory comments, footnotes or highlights to accommodate for the translator’s adjustments and assessments, then the translated version may exacerbate the existing distance between the new reader and the original text. It is possible for poems to become almost completely unrecognisable from one another in these renderings. A clear of example of this can be found when comparing early and more contemporary translations of Sappho. The original Greek of Sappho’s ‘Fragment 31’, one of her most famous and physically complete poems, reads as follows:

Φαίνεταί μοι κήνος ἴσος θέοισιν 
ἔμμεν ὤνηρ, ὄστις ἐναντίος τοι 
ἰζάνει, καὶ πλυσίον ἆδυ φωνεύ-         
σας ὑπακούει  

καὶ γελαίσας ἰμερόεν, τό μοι μάν 
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόασεν· 
ὡς γὰρ εὔιδον βροχέως σε, φώνας         
οὺδὲν ἔτ' εἴκει·  

ἀλλὰ κὰμ μὲν γλῶσσα ἔαγε, λέπτον δ' 
αὔτικα χρῷ πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμακεν, 
ὀππάτεσσι δ' οὐδὲν ὄρημ', ἐπιρρόμ-         
βεισι δ' ἄκουαι.  

ἀ δέ μίδρως κακχέεται, τρόμος δέ 
παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίας 
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ' ὀλίγω 'πιδεύης         
φαίνομαι (ἄλλα).  

ἀλλὰ πᾶν τόλματον, (ἐπεὶ καὶ πένητα).11

My own translation of the poem appears below, taking into consideration the recorded structure of the poem, and attempting to place Sappho’s words in more or less the same places that they appeared in the original:

To me that man appears as the gods’ equal,
he whoever sits opposite to you and
to your sweet speaking nearby
listens,
and to your charming laughter, doubtless my
heart in my breast did become agitated,
truly when I look upon you, even briefly, it is not possible
for me to speak,
my tongue has broken, a swift fire has raced up
immediately beneath my skin, with my
eyes I see nothing, I hear
only pounding
sweat has poured down me, trembling takes the whole
of me, greener than grass I am, and I seem
to myself
to be only a little way from dying
but all must be endured, since even a poor man ...

My translation acknowledges several subtle references to bodily manipulation, strong notions of self-control and identity, and expressions of desire that I have identified in my reading of Sappho’s oeuvre, but which are not universally recognised amongst other readers or scholars of Sappho. Many translations that have accumulated popularity in English appear exceptionally different to this version. Sir Philip Sidney’s 1555 equivalent is structurally and linguistically disparate from the terseness of the previous translation, shaped by fashionable poetic language of the time:

My muse, what ails this ardour?
Mine eys be dym, my lymbs shake,
My voice is hoarse, my throte scorcht,
My tong to this roofe cleaves,
My fancy amazde, my thoughtes dull’d,
My head doth ake, my life faints
My sowle begins to take leave,
So greate a passion all feele,
To think a soare so deadly
I should so rashly ripp up.12

In contrast to Sidney’s structurally contracted, yet linguistically expansive version, John Addington Symonds produced a much longer and more florid interpretation in 1883:

Peer of gods he seemeth to me, the blissful
Man who sits and gazes at thee before him,
Close beside thee sits, and in silence hears thee
     Silverly speaking,
Laughing love’s low laughter. Oh this, this only
Stirs the troubled heart in my breast to tremble!
For should I but see thee a little moment,
     Straight is my voice hushed;
Yea, my tongue is broken, and through and through me
’Neath the flesh impalpable fire runs tingling;
Nothing see mine eyes, and a noise of roaring
     Waves in my ears sounds;
Sweat runs down in rivers, a tremor seizes
All my limbs, and paler than grass in autumn,
Caught by pains of menacing death, I falter,
     Lost in the love trance.13

Different time periods, geographies, and societal contexts promote different approaches to translating poetry. The style of one age may prove marketable to one generation of readers, but come across as contrived and artificial to another. These translations of Sappho’s ‘Fragment 31’ seem almost entirely unconnected when considered side-by-side, due to selectively applied poetic techniques, fashionable language, and emphasis on particular images. These translations offer multiple different readings of the same source material, demonstrating the high degree of fluidity in transmission between languages and time periods, and also signalling the value of explanatory, contextualising materials being presented alongside translated poetry, when considering the broader dissemination of Sappho’s body of work, its reception, and potential poet and critical engagements that may emerge in response. I would argue that rather than arranging these translations into hierarchies of accuracy or poetic merit, they should be aligned instead with particular agendas, and presented to readers as creative adaptations that stem from certain contextual motivations, unique to each translator. Not only would result in a much more accessible reading experience, but it would also work towards establishing and consolidating a broader definition of ‘transparency’ in translation. These translations offer multiple different readings of the same source material, demonstrating the high degree of fluidity in transmission between languages and time periods, and also signalling the value of explanatory, contextualising materials presented alongside translated poetry. I argue that rather than arranging these translations into hierarchies of accuracy or poetic merit, they should be identified as aligned with particular agendas, and presented to readers as such, offering a much more accessible reading experience, as well as facilitating recognition of the translator’s engagement with the text.

While the difficult history of Sappho’s translation is a relatively extreme example of variations that can appear in English-language renditions of one source poem, these poems are excellent signposts for how translators’ contexts, and critical as well as creative opinions can shape a text. In Sappho’s case, there are some terms in Aeolic Greek that require more intensive negotiation in order to find a close is English equivalent. In addition, Sappho’s poems are notoriously fragmented, so translators are often mindful that text may be missing, even from her more substantial poems. When addressing other poets, with less obvious or more apparently intentional, stylised physical lacunae in their work, these issues do not disappear entirely, but require further sensitive treatment by the translator. By encouraging translators to engage openly with the reader, as well as the original material, via footnotes and other explanatory features or creative insertions, these issues can be more accessibly addressed. A broader range of readers is also supported, in that wider research is invited and directed. This potentially encourages greater appreciation for the source poet, as well as showcasing the translator’s own skills as a critic, poet, and interpreter. By encouraging translators to engage actively and transparently with the reader as well as the original material via footnotes and other explanatory features, these issues and sophisticated considerations can be made clear to a wider audience, and invite further research among more readers. This is potentially a means of encouraging greater appreciation of the source poet, as well as showcasing the translator’s own skills as a critic, poet, and interpreter, rather than recognising the translator only in a brief assessment of their ‘accuracy’ in critical reviews.

  1. (translated by Harry Zohn) Walter Benjamin, ‘The Task of the Translator’ quoted in (ed.) Lawrence Venuti, The Translation Studies Reader, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 3.
  2. Paul de Man, The Resistance to Theory, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p. 77.
  3. de Man, The Resistance to Theory, p. 78, quoting Walter Benjamin in Harry Zohn, Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 1969, p. 69.
  4. de Man, The Resistance to Theory, p. 80.
  5. In ‘Fragment 31’, the beloved female persona mentioned in the Greek is usually downplayed in favour of the male figure in the poem, subtly heterosexualising Sappho’s text. See for example John Addison’s 1735 translation.
  6. In Sappho’s work, lacunae appear in two states: the physical decomposition of her poems, resulting in loss of vital words, lines and stanzas; and the poetic technique of consciously withholding or leaving out words, lines and stanzas. In both cases, issues of control are created, since the poet essentially ‘evades’ readers and threatens to destabilise readers’ certainty of the poem’s messages and meanings.
  7. Maria Tymoczko in (ed.) Theo Hermans, The Manipulation of Literature: Studies in Literary Translation, London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1985, p. 63.
  8. Tymoczko, The Manipulation of Literature, p. 66.
  9. Tymoczko, The Manipulation of Literature, p. 73.
  10. Tymoczko, The Manipulation of Literature, p. 79.
  11. Sappho’s ‘Ode to Aphrodite’ or ‘Fragment 1’, quoted in Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, USA: Vintage, 2002, pp. 2-5.
  12. Sir Philip Sidney’s 1555 version, quoted in (ed.) Margaret Reynolds, The Sappho Companion, New York: Palgrave, 2001, p. 39.
  13. John Addington Symonds’ 1883 version, quoted in Reynolds, The Sappho Companion, pp. 42-43.
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