on translating poetry

I’ve been thinking again about translating poetry, partly because it’s a pet subject of mine, and partly because I’m hoping to run a course on the subject next year and have been preparing the course spec.

One of the recurring questions is “when does a translation cease to be a translation and become a derivative work?”.

I’m not actually sure there is an answer and it didn’t occur to me to ask the question when I was at the Hay Festival in Segovia a couple of weeks ago. There was a session where Mario Merlino, Carme Riera and Juan Cerezo were “in conversation” with Juan Mollá on the subject “From original to reader: The challenges of literary translation.” Perhaps one of them could have told me.

Certainly Mario would have had some ideas on the subject. From among the notes I scrawled during the session, I find the phrase, “de un original puede salir varios originales” – one original work may form the basis for a number of original works.

Translating poetry is difficult. I also think it can be what a poem needs in order to become complete.

Think how we draft and re-draft our poems until we have the best version we can come up with.

as many arches as there are drafts to reach the perfect poem, perhaps?
Segovia aqueduct: as many arches as there are drafts to reach the perfect poem, perhaps?

I wonder if that “best” is sometimes limited not only by our personal ability as poets, but also by the language we are working in. Anyone who speaks more than one language knows that certain ideas are better expressed in one than in another, whether it be due to the vocabulary available or the underlying thought processes that grammar and structure encourage.

Might it be possibe – even if only occasionally – for the translator to take the poem a step closer to the “ideal poem” that we are aiming for?

Again, I don’t really know whether we should count this version as a translation or a derivative work, or, simply, a further draft.

Author: don't confuse the narrator

Exploring the boundary between writer and narrator through first person poetry, prose and opinion

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