Follow Harriet on Twitter
Translation: Rhyme & Reason
Some of the lack of boldness in translation in the past fifty years or so has been a lack of technical boldness, of even attempting to get across the meter, rhyme sounds, puns, etc., of the original. After all, free verse represents a rather slim subset of poetry over the millennia. Can all poets of all times and languages really have sounded like mid-American, mid-century free verse poets in the plain-speaking tradition?
Often the translator(s) will state in an introduction that to have even attempted to convey the rhyme scheme or demonstrate a metrical pattern would have meant to sacrifice the “true” essence of the poem (the old Puritan notion that artifice and authenticity are at odds). Would it? It starts to sound to me like a cop-out. Can it simply not be done? Whose fault is that? As Daisy said, “Try harder, then.”
(Of course there are some truly elegant and effective free verse translations of metrical poems out there—I don’t mean to dismiss all such efforts, but to challenge the now reigning assumptions.)
Some poets attempting to translate rhymed poems from other eras might simply not have perfected the skills, which have dropped into general desuetude. For them, to wrench the poem into rhyme and meter would indeed be a feat, and not likely to be successful without significant collateral damage to the sense. But that isn’t the fault of rhyme and meter. It is a matter of practice and dexterity. It is a matter of trying harder.
So what, you might ask? Does it matter if a poem I find perfectly moving and “adequate” in a free verse translation is actually a densely rhymed sonnet? Maybe not, unless I would feel the poem has been misrepresented somehow. But don’t we start to assume that everyone sounds a little the same, a little like “us”? And I wonder if it doesn’t have some cumulative effect on our own poetry. Doesn’t much of American poetry essentially read like homogenized translation—that is, the ideas for poems, the metaphors intact, but with the networks of sounds and rhythms, the native autochthonous texture, leached out of them?
Some translators, not poets themselves, are concerned more with the important work of bringing poets to a larger readership. Keeley and Sherrard’s efforts to bring so many Greek poets (Cavafy, Seferis, Sikellianos, Ritsos, Elytis, Gatsos, etc.) to a wider audience is a noble enterprise in its own right. In their clear, uncluttered free verse Cavafy, which is the one known intimately to so many, they give Savidis’ extensive notes as to the prosody and rhyme schemes of individual poems. (All Cavafy is iambic, much unrhymed, but some is densely rhymed in a mixture of pure rhyme and rime riche—i.e., homophones.) So at least we have an intellectual sense of the other world behind the scrim.
Perhaps it is time, though, for poets to revisit favorite poems with an ear for bringing across their aesthetic as well as semantic effects. One of my favorite Cavafy versions is by a poet who claims no Greek–at least I don’t think he does–Robert Pinsky. (So I shall call it a version rather than a translation.) My guess is that what he has done is looked at the Keeley/Sherrard version, and perhaps compared translations, maybe looked at the Greek–and studied the scholarly note to the poem. And then he has “versified” the poem back into its original rhymed form. Well, more than that. He has reimagined the poem. Yet it is scrupulously faithful to the sense of the original. It is a bold move, and a satisfying one:
An Old Man
Back in a corner, alone in the clatter and babble
An old man sits with his head bent over a table
And his newspaper in front of him, in the café.
Sour with old age, he ponders a dreary truth—
How little he enjoyed the years when he had youth,
Good looks and strength and clever things to say.
He knows he’s quite old now: he feels it, he sees it,
And yet the time when he was young seems—was it?
Yesterday. How quickly, how quickly it slipped away.
Now he sees how Discretion has betrayed him,
And how stupidly he let the liar persuade him
With phrases: Tomorrow. There’s plenty of time. Some day.
He recalls the pull of impulses he suppressed,
The joy he sacrificed. Every chance he lost
Ridicules his brainless prudence a different way.
But all these thoughts and memories have made
The old man dizzy. He falls asleep, his head
Resting on the table in the noise café.
(from The Figured Wheel.)