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Source: (consider it) Thread: Poetry in translation
Adeodatus
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Following on from a comment I made in "How was it for you?", I thought I might put up a quick thread about poetry in translation.

First of all, has anyone any experience of translating poetry? How do you actually do it? Do you try to preserve metre and form? And if not, then do you somehow try to hold on to the "feel" of the original?

What are the great achievements of poetry translated into (or out of) English? What are your favourites?

My own favourite translated poetry comes under the heading of "Classics": Robert Fagles's assertive translation of Aeschylus's Oresteia; Paul Roche's translation of Sophocles (especially Antigone); and A.D.Melville's clever and witty translation of Ovid's Amores.

I'm utterly in awe of these people. To write poetry at all is one thing; to translate someone else's - and still have it be good poetry - that's in a whole new league.

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"What is broken, repair with gold."

Posts: 9779 | From: Manchester | Registered: Sep 2003  |  IP: Logged
Ariel
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# 58

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quote:
Originally posted by Adeodatus:
First of all, has anyone any experience of translating poetry? How do you actually do it? Do you try to preserve metre and form? And if not, then do you somehow try to hold on to the "feel" of the original?

Latin at school; about 15 years ago, modern Greek and medieval Italian. I wanted to be able to quote some translations on a webpage, but ran into copyright issues so decided to translate them myself. Not that I'm completely fluent in either language but with what I knew and the help of a good dictionary got there.

There is a certain je-ne-sais-quoi (indefinable something) about translating out of a foreign language that anyone who's done this will recognize. Some simply don't translate exactly, you lose the metre or can't reproduce the rhyme scheme. I've generally aimed for a literal translation, but an eloquent one that expresses what the poet said without wandering some distance from the bare bones of it.

quote:
What are the great achievements of poetry translated into (or out of) English? What are your favourites?
Fitzgerald's translation of Omar Khayyam's "Rubaiyat". In fact, he made several translations, but the third is the most popular and most often quoted ("Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night/Hath flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight") but also the one that's the least literally accurate compared to the original Persian.

I also discovered Mavrogordato's wonderful translations of Cavafy's poems. Cavafy was a fin-de-siecle poet who lived in Alexandria, and wrote in Greek, and I discovered him through a reference in Lawrence Durrell's works. There is a beautiful, haunting melancholy about Cavafy's poems; many deal with gay love and/or are set in classical times, some have lines that come back to you again. From what I've made out the translations are fairly accurate.

One of my biggest thrills was after I'd had a few introductory lessons in Chinese, and opening a book of Chinese poems, picking the shortest and simplest, finding that I could read the first two lines of this poem that was written three thousand years ago. The Chinese characters stood for symbols and concepts, and recognizing each one, a wealth of imagery sprang up; the English translation on the opposite page filled in the gaps between the bones, made it a poem as we would know it. But that moment, being able to touch this ancient poem directly in its original form, was magical.

Posts: 25445 | Registered: May 2001  |  IP: Logged
Firenze

Ordinary decent pagan
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Bar the Rubaiyat, I can think of any substantial body of translated poetry I'm familiar with. (I read the Sayers translation of The Divine Comedy many years ago, but just for the plot as it were). Mostly I meet it as occasional poems in magazines or anthologies, usually in rather elliptical free verse.

I suppose, if you don't know the original language, then you can only judge the version you read, and if that strikes you as a good poem, how much of that is down to the translator?

Probably, if you don't have the necessary fluency, the best appreciation of 'translatedness' is a poet who has been deeply influenced in their own work by another culture. That plangent little elegy They told me Heraclitus, they told me you were dead was, it says here, influenced by Callimachus - so it probably going to be, for me, as near as I'll get to that particular writer.

Posts: 17302 | From: Edinburgh | Registered: Jun 2001  |  IP: Logged
EloiseA
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# 18029

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Some favourites:

Lucian Stryk and his translation of the Chinese poetry collection Notes on the Mosquito by Xi Chuan. Stryk is an internationally acclaimed translator of Japanese and Chinese Zen poetry, an acclaimed Zen poet himself, and former professor of English at Northern Illinois University.

Pierre Joris' German-English translations of Paul Celan's poems. I'm thinking especially of his essay and glosses on the poem Celan wrote about his meeting with Heidegger, Todtnauberg.

Rosemarie Waldrop's translations from the French of the poems of Edmond Jabès, densely referential poems with many arcane references to Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah.

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“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” Flannery O'Connnor

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Lamb Chopped
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# 5528

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The Psalms are probably the best known collection of translated poetry. But they have the advantage of using parallelism as their main poetic device, and that can be translated into zillions of languages (unlike, say, rhyme).

I've just touched on trying to translate poetry--hymns, actually--out of Vietnamese into English. It's a bear. Not only trying to fit the tune and the meter while conveying the content, but trying NOT to get the emphases wrong. Which you can do by rearranging the sentences to try to get the rhyme right, but then the new word positioning puts all the emphasis on something that wasn't highlighted in the original. Grrrr.

And it would take a near-miraculous gift IMHO to translate in reverse, since then you have to do all of the above AND choose words with the proper pitches to fit the rise and fall of the tune!

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Er, this is what I've been up to (book).
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!

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Adeodatus
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quote:
Originally posted by Ariel:
Latin at school; about 15 years ago, modern Greek and medieval Italian. I wanted to be able to quote some translations on a webpage, but ran into copyright issues so decided to translate them myself. Not that I'm completely fluent in either language but with what I knew and the help of a good dictionary got there.

I envy you. Struggling through Book 1 of the Aeneid at school was torture for me. I think the main problem was the discovery that poetic Latin is totally different from prose Latin. And Virgil's interminable sentences ... yech! All that remains in my memory now from those days is an extended simile about bees.

I think that may have been when I decided I'd rather let other people do the translating for me. In fact, I've never yet made it though the Aeneid. I got as far as the end of Book 4 in Fitzgerald's translation, and thought that it would have been a lovely place for Virgil to stop.

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"What is broken, repair with gold."

Posts: 9779 | From: Manchester | Registered: Sep 2003  |  IP: Logged
Ariel
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# 58

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quote:
Originally posted by Adeodatus:
I envy you. Struggling through Book 1 of the Aeneid at school was torture for me. I think the main problem was the discovery that poetic Latin is totally different from prose Latin. And Virgil's interminable sentences ... yech! All that remains in my memory now from those days is an extended simile about bees.

I loathed the Aeneid, and struggled with every line of it. I even had remedial Virgil lessons at school where my long-suffering Latin teacher took me through it line by line and patiently untangled Virgil’s tortuous syntax for me. I blame the Cambridge Latin course: we were the first year to have this new, experimental course and the fatal flaw for me was that you were only required to translate out of Latin into English, not translate back in, which would have meant having to think instead of coast through by guessing from the similarities of the Latin words to English. Calling the grammatical forms A, B, C, etc didn’t help as I could never remember which was which.

There is still a pleasure in translating other things for oneself, though. I always wonder when reading other people's translations just how close they are to what the poet originally intended.

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