Davis is almost as well known for her translations (of, among others, books by Michel Leiris, Maurice Blanchot, and Marcel Proust) as for her fiction. William Gass has described translation as reading (“of the best, the most essential, kind”), but for Davis it’s the obverse, a kind of writing: “everything but the invention.” The work of translation is indeed, on one hand, very Davisian labor, a way of creating and engaging with entirely new problems of language as well as new solutions.
In the April issue of Poetry, Davis translates the traditional Catalan carol “The Song of the Birds,” which she first heard sung in Spain soon after the Madrid bombings in 2004. Here she discusses the specific difficulties of translating the poem, how her musical training informs her writing, and the pleasures of translation.
Jason McBride: To my untrained eye, “The Song of the Birds” seems as though it might have been a relatively easy poem to translate. How difficult was it actually?
Lydia Davis: Well, “relatively” is a relative term. It was definitely much easier than many other poems would have been, starting with the works of the most difficult poets, such as Mallarmé or Celan. But it wasn’t entirely easy, either. One problem being in fact that its narrative appears so simple, another being its religious content, given our present political context. Beyond those two problems, there were the usual questions: for instance, how to handle the rhyming “sight,” “light,” and “night” in the first verse so as not to come down on them too heavily (they are, unavoidably perhaps, just a little too prominent as it is); and how far to depart from the original, of course—in the original, the eagle flies through the air rather than soaring on the wind. In a longer prose translation, I would probably follow my usual practice, keeping closer to the original and also not “enhancing” the original, as I think “soaring” and “wind” enhance this. But one defense that is always useful to the translator, of course, is that since one is losing the force of the original in certain places, one has some liberty to make it up in others. Lastly, a major element missing from this poem is the melody of the song for which it served as lyric. There is hardly any way to supply that lack.
Is there any difference in technique when you translate from different languages? In this case, is translating from Spanish much different from, say, translating from French or German?
First of all, this poem comes from the Catalan and not the Spanish—that difference is very important to the Catalan people but tends to be confusing to outsiders. And in fact the languages are quite different, Catalan being closer to French than Spanish is. Take the word “amb”—a strange-looking one, to us, and very un-Spanish. It means “with”; compare French avec and Spanish con. It’s not really like either one. I’m guessing it’s from the Latin amb-, “ambi-” meaning “both.” But to answer your question—I think the greater difference is in translating a poem as opposed to a piece of prose. Beyond that, though the languages are different, once you understand what is happening in the poem or prose, you proceed the same way. (Right now I’m trying to read German, and I’m feeling almost physically how different it is from French—those long attributives!)
What is the difference, for you, between translating a poem and translating a piece of prose?
The more formal constraints there are, in a text, the more difficult it is to stay very close to the original. In a poem with line breaks, and especially, of course, in a poem with a regular meter and a rhyme scheme, you have to compromise right and left. If you’re going to keep some sort of a rhyme scheme and meter, something else will have to go. The translator has to do more inventing, substituting, creating equivalents. In a piece of prose, you’re much more likely to be able to stay very close to the original.
Why did you choose to translate this shorter version of the song, rather than the full 14 verses?
I was familiar with the shorter version and only discovered the longer one after I had embarked on the translation. I suppose I thought this presented enough problems as it was—but that is a good idea!
I know that you studied music quite seriously when you were younger. Do you still play piano or violin? How does that training inform your own writing, and how useful was it in translating this particular poem?
I still play both, although my violin playing is not something anyone should witness. It took me years to realize how studying musical structures—which I did in very good music theory classes in high school—must have laid down matrices in my brain that later influenced the forms of my writing. Structure is structure, whether in music or writing. I learned structural patterns, but I also learned to listen very closely. Again, although it was music that I was being taught to listen to, the close listening then became an ability that could be applied to texts, and to linguistic meaning. That awareness of structure, and of course sound, and the close attention, all come into play in translation.
Your translation of Du côté de chez Swann has been described as “understated” and “disciplined.” That is to say, you didn’t impose your own narrative voice but tried to hew as literally as possible to the style of the original text. Is that an ideal that you strive for in all of your translations? Does it apply here?
Yes, it is an ideal of mine to stay as close as I can to the original while still producing a living, breathing text in English—which is primary. In fact, imposing my own style would take away some of the enjoyment of translating for me—which is to leave my own style and my own sensibility behind and enter fully into the sensibility and style of another writer, to be able, in a sense, to take a vacation from my own writing, while still writing. Certainly, this approach applies to anything I translate. In this poem, as I explained earlier, I felt I had to depart more from the literal—and that would be true with almost any translation of a poem, I think. But that did not mean imposing my own style.