Years ago, after talking to the Catalán poet Joan Margarit, I wrote down in my notebook:
Form, metre, rhyme etc. are superficial elements of a poem. What gets translated is something more essential.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about poetry translation, and I’m trying to work out what that “more essential” something is.
It’s clear – to me at least – that the complexity of poetry, its inherent weaving of different linguistic techniques, makes it impossible to translate everything: the only way to get an exactly equivalent poem would be to repeat the original. (At which point, it is probably relevant to mention the Borges short story Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote.)
So how does the translator decide which elements to focus on and retain, and which elements can be omitted? How close does a translation need to be to the original – however you define “close” – before it is simply a derivative work?
Of course I’m coming at this from the point of view of writer, as well as translator, and I think it’s relevant to consider the writing process. Most poets don’t find poems come to them in a finished form, like Athena leaping fully armed from Zeus’ forehead; instead they go through a process of drafting and redrafting, and the final version can be very different from the first draft.
Sometimes a single idea or image can develop into a number of different poems, which may be written independently or may be produced during redrafting. I’ve been wondering if these different treatments of the same material can be compared to translation.
As an example, I’ve gone back to a poem I wrote years ago, which I posted for commentary on a newsgroup. This is the poem as it was back then, when I thought it was complete:
Whispering secrets into an empty cocoa tin,
string, taut, measuring the distance between us;
I was squaw to your brave,
target for your cap-gunned cop and cowboy.
We caught butterflies on the buddleia –
peacocks, tortoiseshells, red admirals –
and netted minnows (I caught mostly weed)
down in the brown brook in the park.
Jumpers for wicket, you taught me
to hold the bat and strike out firm and strong.
Staunchly, I held back the tears:
the leather ball struck hard.
Tins and pistols rusted into silence long ago;
nets rotted, bamboo handles split.
The butterflies have flown away;
their colours paint my dreams.
If I kept better records, I could find out which editor agreed with me, as I am fairly certain it was published in a magazine somewhere. But the other people on the newsgroup thought the piece could be improved. One of them suggested I tried what would happen if I changed it from free verse and attempted to rewrite it as a set form.
What happened was a sonnet, which won me a place at the Swanwick Writers’ Summer School back in 2007:
Do you remember how you used to tease,
kidnap my teddy, lock him in a drawer
or hang him from the banisters, ignore
my screams, my tears, my heartfelt ‘pretty please’?
You mocked me when I fell and scraped my knees;
mine was the losing side in every war
of cowboys, Indians, cops and robbers. Bored
you’d wander off and go and climb the trees
beyond my reach, and I’d be left alone.
Forgetting physical and mental pain
I’d wait impatiently beside the phone
until the next day, when we’d start again.
The years have passed but I still feel the same,
hoping against hope to join your games.
I’m not sure whether it’s relevant that the sonnet was in some way a redrafting of the earlier free verse poem rather than an independent creation, but in my mind, these two poems are really one and the same: in a way, they are both translations into English of a single idea. That idea was the essence I was trying to express, and the form, metre and other details are incidental.
I’m not really sure where I think this idea might take me; but working on the principle of “how can I know what I mean until I see what I’ve written?” it seemed a good idea to write something down. If anyone has any thoughts on the subject, I’d be interested in hearing them.
On an entirely different note, when I was trying to identify the “red peas in a pod” in the photo I took a few weeks ago, I came across this blog post with pictures of the iris foetidissima and then wasted another hour wandering around the gorgeous illustrations over there on the BotanicalSketches Blog.