Last week, in the post Coast to Coast, I briefly mentioned transcreation. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s a portmanteau word derived from translation and creation.
Translation is seldom easy and, depending on your definition of the word, translation of poetry may be considered impossible: should you focus on form or content? on sound, on patterns of metre or rhyme, or on meaning?
Without the clues added to spoken language by intonation and body language, meaning in any text can be slippery, but poetry in particular makes use of multi-layered language, playing on homonyms and homophones, on allusion and ambiguity, most of which can’t be reproduced in the target language.
There’s also the fundamental problem of incomplete comprehension on the part of the translator. Several times I have started out fully intending to produce a faithful translation of a poem in Spanish but found myself incapable of doing so: although I speak Spanish fluently, the phrasing was too obscure and while I thought I’d understood the text, on close reading it became clear that I really didn’t understand it well enough.
So the “translations” I make of poems are, as often as not, actually transcreations: they aren’t faithful to the original, but they are inspired by it.
Of course, you don’t need to understand a language at all to use it as a jumping off point for creation: there’s nothing to stop you taking a text in a foreign language and seeing if the words have a familiar shape of any kind and whether you can grasp an idea, an image, a concept from the original, and see where it leads. You may be entirely mistaken, but it can be interesting to try.
Similar to the creative potential of a Mondegreen – the mishearing of a song lyric as an entirely new phrase – misinterpreting a foreign phrase can produce serendipitous images and ideas.
In the post Coast to Coast I also posted a series of pictures of a fisherman gutting and washing a conger eel. It wasn’t until after posting that I remembered a phrase from Raymond Chandler:
It was early evening when I reached Puma Point and I was as empty as a gutted fish.
I actually first read Chandler in Spanish, when my Spanish still wasn’t very good, and I remember the phrase como un pez destripado.
Now I recognise that this is a fish with the tripe torn out, but at the time I simply clutched at the familiar pattern of letters in the middle of the word destripado and went with the flow: for years afterwards, in my house we used the expression “as hungry as a striped fish.”