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Translation: Rhyme & Reason

By A.E. Stallings

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
After Cavafy
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.)

Comments (5)

  • On January 20, 2008 at 12:52 pm Ben Friedlander wrote:

    What really suffers from lack of boldness in translation is light verse. You can read an unrhymed, metrically irregular version of Petrarch and imagine the same thing, only more beautiful. But how about imagining a flat statement as crisp, or even funny?

  • On January 20, 2008 at 5:19 pm Steve wrote:

    I agree with Ben. Light verse gets hurt worst.
    I was talking with a fluent German speaker yesterday and we got to why Rilke works in translation so often, and why Goethe never does.
    It seems to me that Frost and Housman are almost ideally hard to translate, and Whitman almost ideally easy. (That’s why Pessoa’s Whitmanesque avatar, Alvaro da Campos, works so well when translated back into English, and Pessoa’s other avatars not so much.)
    A similar pair from another language: Mayakosfky (translates easily, as such things go) vs Akhmatova (doesn’t work in English in any translation I’ve seen).
    I’m not so much in love with the Pinsky Cavafy above as Alicia, I’m afraid– too much filler. But I’m one of those people with no modern Greek who know Cavafy only through the Keeley… maybe I got used to the wrong effects.
    Obviously it’s not optimal to translate from rhyming forms into free verse, but what about translating from one pattern of rhymes or line-endings into another? Long passages of terza rima are hard to translate, because English doesn’t have as many rhymes, but some of the most memorable Dantesque effects in English are attempts to find a pattern that is for English what terza rima is for Italian: axa bxb cxc rhymes (Ciardi’s version of Dante), stressed/ unstressed alternating endings (the tercets in Little Gidding), three-line stanzas with irregular patterns of rhyme, often aba bcb but sometimes aab or aax (Walcott’s Omeros, parts of Heaney’s Station Island).

  • On January 21, 2008 at 1:11 pm Susan McLean wrote:

    I think that it would make little sense to translate free verse into formal verse, but even in translating formal verse into formal verse, one often has to make significant changes to rhyme and meter to convey the effect of the original. Different languages have different speech patterns, a different number of syllables per word, and different rules of prosody; to try to replicate the formal pattern of one language in another one can create more problems than it solves. Instead one needs to find an equivalent in the target language that has some of the same sensual appeal of the original in the source language and that does not alter the tone or content of the original too much. I do not think, for example, that in translating a sonnet from French into English it is necessary to maintain exactly the same rhyme scheme or even the same line length. Whereas hexameters and syllable count are a natural part of sonnets in French, English sonnets rely on accentual-syllabic meter and fall most naturally into iambic pentameter. Because it is much easier to find rhyming words in French, a rhyme scheme such as ABBA ABBA in French might need to be changed in English to something like ABBA CDDC or ABAB CDCD to avoid changing the meaning or warping the syntax of the translation. The essential ingredient is to convey beauty and craft, since the exact texture of the original cannot be reproduced.

  • On January 21, 2008 at 4:09 pm Mark Leonard wrote:

    Richard Wilbur’s translations from the Spanish amaze me, e.g., his version of Borges’s sonnet “Everness” is nearly as aesthetically powerful as the original, while conveying the same meaning within the sonnet form. I assume his translations from other languages are equally adept.
    In addition to Wilbur’s technical gifts, perhaps the fact that he has done so few translations is the reason for their quality compared to the larger volumes of translations put out by others.

  • On June 26, 2009 at 6:00 pm A.Z. Foreman wrote:

    I think the best argument for preservation of form is to imagine an English form-poem recast in free verse. If I were to take, for example, Robert Frost’s sonnet in couplets

    The shattered water made a misty din.
    Great waves looked over others coming in,
    And thought of doing something to the shore
    That water never did to land before.
    The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
    Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes.
    You could not tell, and yet it looked as if
    The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff,
    The cliff in being backed by continent;
    It looked as if a night of dark intent
    Was coming, and not only a night, an age.
    Someone had better be prepared for rage.
    There would be more than ocean-water broken
    Before God’s last *Put out the Light* was spoken

    And imagine some “translation” back into English, only without rhyme, in a only a rough approximation of iambic pentameter:

    A misty din rose from the shattered water.
    Great waves looked over others that came,
    And thought of doing something to the shoreline
    That water had never before done to land.
    The clouds were low and hairy in the skies,
    Like locks in the gleam of eyes, blown forward.
    You could not tell, and yet it seemed
    The shore was lucky the cliffs backed it,
    And the cliffs, too, that the continent backed them.
    It seemed a night of dark intent
    Was afoot, and not only a night, an era.
    Someone had better ready himself for rage.
    There’d be more than surf broken
    Before God pronounced his final *Put out the Light.*

    I rest my case.


Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, January 20th, 2008 by A.E. Stallings.