I reckon I started writing poetry some fifty years ago.
Since then, there have been periods when ideas have flowed thick and fast. There have also been times when I have forgotten about poetry, perhaps for years on end.
And then there have been times when I have not forgotten about poetry, but it seems to have forgotten about me.
Even at those times, though, don’t think I’ve ever thought that I’ve been suffering from “writer’s block”: I am fairly sure that I could write if I decided that was what I should be doing and made a conscious effort to do so, but I haven’t because no particular idea, image or phrase has demanded my attention.
That’s been the case recently, so it was with delight that I read the post Road Movie on the Quaderno de Notas blog and felt a compelling urge to translate the poem.
When I read the Spanish original, I “recognised” the idea: the final line La luna tendrá el color de tus huesos. – “The moon will be the colour of your bones” – captures what I have failed to say in my many moon poems.
The phrase reminds me of the “nicotine-stained fingers” of the moon in “Moonshine”, while the general ambience of the poem reminds me of the way I felt when I started to write “Night drive”. (There’s an early draft in the post dissecting a moon dream and a later version right at the end of squaring the circle).
I’ve long believed that the best translations happen when you feel an empathy for the original, which I clearly did in this case. I posted a first draft of a translation in the comments almost immediately and, since last weekend, I’ve been fiddling and tinkering to see if I could improve on it.
This is where I am with it now:
I shall make a poem of your bones: music and sand.
When everything is done, we shall start over
someplace else. The journey is long and we will never
reach the end. But that can wait. Nothing matters
to that bird who flies into the wind, seeking a slipstream
going his way; he keeps flying. The sun shines
indifferently in the rearview mirror and the afternoon
rolls away behind the mountains. There is nothing
to say. Silence, our chaperon, travels with us in the back seat.
It will soon be night. The moon will be the colour of your bones.
The problem is, though, that I have appropriated the poem: although there can be no doubt about where it came from, I have added my own voice and emphasis and included a few of my own ideas: and it is now very much a transcreation not a translation.
Thinking about this has reminded me of a short piece on “otherness” that I wrote when we were crowdfunding the “Castles in Spain” anthology.
The importance of otherness
One of the concepts that translators struggle with is that of “otherness”.
Obviously one important reason for translation is to make a text accessible to new readers. Since we want people to understand the translated text, we not only choose words that our new readers will be familiar with, but we may also be tempted to adapt ideas and concepts to make them more recognisable in the target culture. The changes we make may not be big – after all, we want to remain faithful to the original – but sometimes we feel a need to explain something, or somehow alter or adapt the text, in order to help the intended meaning get through.
Just how much we change is, to a degree, a personal choice. Some translators aim to smooth the way for the reader to such an extent that they produce a text that reads so naturally that the new readers aren’t aware it’s a translation: they can enjoy it as much as any original written in their own language.
The problem with this, though, is that the reader loses all sense of the “otherness” of the original: the unique qualities of the language and culture have been glossed over; the translator has appropriated the text and assimilated it into the target culture.
Robert Bethune has said that a translator “must check [his] ego at the door” and allow the voice of the writer to be heard; if we work too hard to make the translation fit seamlessly into the new culture, we risk drowning out this voice. Perhaps rather than removing all the stones from the reader’s path, our aim should be to recognise the otherness and preserve it in some way when we translate.
With fantasy and science fiction writing there is a second type of otherness to consider: as well as that of the language and culture of the writer and their individual voice, there is the otherness of created worlds and civilisations. In the original story, these new worlds are working in conjuntion and in juxtaposition with the writer’s home language and environment. So in these genres, the translator has yet another element to juggle with: we need to preserve the otherness of the writer’s voice and language and also that of his creation. It makes the translator’s task even more challenging, but it also adds to the fun.
Whatever genre or style the original, even when trying to be as faithful to it as possible, no two translators are likely to produce identical texts. And that’s why I chose all these different versions, perspectives and interpretations of the single concept of “bluebell” to illustrate this post.