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So long and thanks for all the fish + a question about translation

By Barbara Jane Reyes

Dear readers of this here Harriet blog,

Well, looks like my time here has come to a close. It’s been interesting watching you all anonymously thumbs up and thumbs down one another. In all seriousness, thank you for reading my posts, and allowing me to introduce you all to some poets, poetry, and indie presses which may not have otherwise blipped on your radar.

I will be posting here every now and then; there have been books sitting in my growing “to review” stack, and I do mean to say a few things about a couple of them, namely these two:

INCANTATIONS: Songs, Spells and Images by Mayan Women by Xpetra Ernandes / Xalik Guzmán Bakbolom / Ambar Past (Cinco Puntos Press, 2009).

KILLING KANOKO: SELECTED POEMS OF HIROMI ITO Translated from the Japanese by Jeffrey Angles (Action Books, 2009). You can read more about Ito here).

And this brings me to my question: how do you write about translated poetic work when you don’t read the original language, and when the original language is not included with the translated text (you know, like when you read Lorca, and the original Spanish is included on the facing page)?

That said, it’s back to my own cozy blog for me. Do come and have conversations with me there.

Comments (17)

  • On November 16, 2009 at 5:51 pm Glen wrote:

    We’ll miss you, Barbara. Thanks.

  • On November 16, 2009 at 8:17 pm edward mycue wrote:

    i was able to listen and talk to ambar past when she was here with the international poetry festival (that jack hirschman organizes in san francisco) at an event in our renovated library in the inner richmond district (that sarah menefee curated).
    it was a great mind opening experience.
    edward mycue

  • On November 16, 2009 at 9:48 pm Erica Mena wrote:

    Your question about writing about translation when you can’t read the original is wonderful to see – as a translator, I lament that the highest praise often bestowed on a work of translation is that it “reads like English.” If the originals are not published alongside the translations, you could probably find them through a library – especially for better known authors and widely spoken languages like Spanish. For thinking and writing about the translations, there is a wonderful guide for reviewing works of translation on the PEN Translation site which is a great place to start.

  • On November 16, 2009 at 10:02 pm Momotombo Press wrote:

    Thank you for your posts here, Barbara. Your presence at Harriet has been great. I look forward to the continuing conversations over at your blog.

  • On November 17, 2009 at 11:53 am Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    “That part of your poetry which strikes upon the imaginative eye of the reader will lose nothing by translation into a foreign tongue; that which appeals to the ear can reach only those who take it in the original.”

    - Ezra Pound

  • On November 17, 2009 at 1:44 pm Joshua wrote:

    If the poet is bi-lingual but uncomfortable with the second language, a first language speaker can often “translate” the work very well. Isn’t that how a lot of the Ugly Duckling Presse translations work?

  • On November 19, 2009 at 8:10 am evie wrote:

    sorry to see your time here come to an end, barbara jane! per your invitation, i’ll see you back at your place… : ) thanks for putting your voice, your ideas, your fierceness out in the world the way you do!

    peace.

  • On November 20, 2009 at 10:45 am Jon Corelis wrote:

    “…how do you write about translated poetic work when you don’t read the original language?”

    I know some people may take exception to this, but if what’s being written is a review, then I don’t think it should be being written at all by someone without at least a basic competence in the original language and familiarity with the original text.

    This is certainly not to say that opinions or recommendations of the translation as poetry can’t be valuable unless they come from someone who knows the original. A poem in English is a poem in English, and it’s incumbent on the poem to make itself appealing to its intended English speaking audience, who have the right to judge it like any other poem in English.

    But reviewers, I think, have special ethical duties, since reviews (for most writers at least) have an emotional and practical importance for the author of the work under review beyond what ordinary readers’ opinions have. And the fact that a review appears in print in a respectable venue raises certain expectations of the reviewer’s qualifications, among them a competence in the language being translated from. So my feeling is that, while no ordinary reader need apologize for expressing an opinion on a translation, a reviewer owes it to the author of the translation to have enough competence in the original language to review the translation knowledgeably. And the reviewer owes it to the review’s readers to have enough knowledge of the original to make a responsible recommendation or non-recommendation of it.

    Whether a poem’s translator should know the original language, and how well, is another issue, and not at all a simple one.

  • On November 20, 2009 at 11:56 pm Terreson wrote:

    Barbara Jane Reyes says:

    “And this brings me to my question: how do you write about translated poetic work when you don’t read the original language, and when the original language is not included with the translated text (you know, like when you read Lorca, and the original Spanish is included on the facing page)?”

    I think you miss what matters. Language, poetic language especially with its localized, environmetally constricted, prosodic rules is kind of like what happens between sub-species of finches. Between these sub-species rules of prosody and language would not matter. They would still f*ck and there is a good chance the hybrid progeny would be stronger for it. On the other hand too much inbreeding in a sub-species ends badly, ends in death. And I think the same is true of language, poetry’s language especially.

    Poetry is not a matter of language or even of dialect. Poetry is a matter of thought. Translate that and you bring over the poet into a language not her own. But only the gifted translator gets as much.

    And yeah. The blog’s anonymous vote function strikes me as funky to the extreme too.

    Terreson

  • On November 21, 2009 at 10:32 am Richard Epstein wrote:

    What exactly is accomplished by writing “f*ck”? Nothing is disguised; no propriety is observed. Would anyone offended by the unexpurgated word have his sensibilities preserved by “f*ck”? “Ah, that’s better,” he’d say. Or maybe not. Be brave. Write “fuck.” And if the powers that be smite you, accept your punishment like Samson, eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves.

    Otherwise it’s merely superstition, like pretending that some Supreme Deity will not send bears to devour us if we write “G-D” instead of “God” or that the Baby Jesus will not weep if we swear with “Zounds!” rather than “God’s wounds!”

    RHE

  • On November 21, 2009 at 12:00 pm Lucas wrote:

    While ideally someone writing a publishable review of a translation would be able to read the language from which the work is translated, just knowing how to read the language without knowing how to judge translations is not enough, I think. A translation relies on the establishment of trust, of course, and a reviewer who knows the original can go a long way to tell readers whether the trust is warranted, but in the end translations are not designed for people who can read the original.

    Here are some questions I’ve been considering to help guide me towards a sense of whether I like the translation, whether or not I know the original:
    After reading it, do you like it?
    Do you feel like the original deserves to be translated (only around 350 books of new literary translation appear each year; such a selective group had better represent incredible quality, and if it doesn’t, maybe the translation didn’t speak to you)?
    Did you feel like the translation was as multi-dimensional and complex as you would like an original to be, or did it appear flat?
    Were you aware that you were reading a translation, and did you want to be aware (as in, would you prefer that you’re forgetting you’re reading a translation any more than you could forget that you were reading a novel, or a poem?)?
    Did you learn something about the language, culture, and literature of the original, and did you want to?
    Did you feel that you were being lied to?

    This last question, I think, gets us back to the issue of trust, which I think is an essential one. But it’s not to say that it’s a simple question: some of us like unreliable narrators.

    Lucas

  • On November 21, 2009 at 1:22 pm Jon Corelis wrote:

    “… in the end translations are not designed for people who can read the original.”

    There are exceptions. Dryden’s Aeneid, for instance, was written for an audience who could mostly read the original (I think it’s fair to assume that most educated English people of his time would have had at least some Latin, and Vergil was one of the authors with whom they were most likely to be familiar), which makes it very interesting to read it in conjunction with the Latin text. (Personally, I prefer Dryden’s version to the original.) Such an audience had to be expected to bring a different sort of appreciation to the translation. And most people here no doubt are familiar with Zukofsky’s versions of Catullus, which simply lose their point unless you read them in conjunction with the Latin, or at least the memory of it. But these admittedly are special cases.

    I tend to like or dislike a translation from a language I don’t know for the same reasons I like or dislike any poem. If it’s from a language I do know some of, I judge it both like any other English poem but also from the special standpoint of comparison with the original.

    Anyone who doesn’t know it already should immediately look up the most hilarious of all critiques of “translationese,” A. E. Housman’s “FRAGMENT OF A GREEK TRAGEDY” (easily found on the internet.) Whether or not you know Greek it’s funny as a parody of outmoded styles of translation, but if you know Greek it has the added value of being a hilarious parody of Aeschylus in the original. One scholar (D. S. Raven? Can’t remember) at some point actually translated the whole thing “back” into ancient Greek!

  • On November 22, 2009 at 1:35 am Terreson wrote:

    Richard Epstein says: “What exactly is accomplished by writing “f*ck”? Nothing is disguised; no propriety is observed. Would anyone offended by the unexpurgated word have his sensibilities preserved by “f*ck”? “Ah, that’s better,” he’d say. Or maybe not. Be brave. Write “fuck.” And if the powers that be smite you, accept your punishment like Samson, eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves.

    “Otherwise it’s merely superstition, like pretending that some Supreme Deity will not send bears to devour us if we write “G-D” instead of “God” or that the Baby Jesus will not weep if we swear with “Zounds!” rather than “God’s wounds!” ”

    I hope Mr. Epstein receives my riposte in the mostly impish spirit in which it is intended.

    F*ck off.

    Terreson

  • On November 22, 2009 at 10:48 am Richard Epstein wrote:

    “F*ck you”? Why, how impish. One might say puckish. Or, in your case, p*ckish.

    RHE

  • On November 22, 2009 at 12:59 pm Johannes Goransson wrote:

    Hi Barbra Jane and Co,

    Here’s my advice: You review books of poetry in translation in a similar way you review other books of poetry: You try to figure out what’s going on, what makes the poems tick, what they are concerned with, how they operate.

    You want to acknowledge its status as translation, but that doesn’t invalidate it as poetry in English.

    Of course, you want to consider that it might not have the same context and goals as an American Poem, but then there is no One American Poem either, so that’s useful to keep in mind when you review American poetry too.

    It often helps to know something about the literary context of the work (which is often included in intros etc), but that is true of reviewing American poetry too.

    Besides, I’ve seen reviews by people who know something about the context and it getting in the way of actually engaging with the text.

    If you want to make a study of the translation, you obviously have to know the other language to some extent. These kinds of review are also useful, but that’s only one kind of review.

    The idea that this is the only useful review of a work in translation is very problematic for me: as if foreign works had no interest beyond scholarly knowledge and curiosity. We need the correct text in order to achieve Mastery!

    The obsession with the “correct translation” is a really reactionary notion – based on the really reactionary idea of there being *one* original, presumably as interpreted by that highly problematic reader, the Ideal Reader. The Ideal Reader is never a foreigner, just as his Ideal Text is never a foreign text.

    This makes me think of a really great piece Haryette Mullen read about reading as the non-intended reader. It’s on the web somewhere.

    I also want to note that the Action Books book of Finland-Swedish avant-garde poet Gunnar Björling (“the Gertrude Stein of Scandinavian Literature”) was reviewed incredibly well in the fine journal Pleiades by someone (I’m sorry I can’t remember his name) who did not know Swedish as far as I could tell. But it was really one of the best articles I’ve ever read about Björling’s prosody/syntax, including all the scholarly articles written over some 80 years (and I’ve read pretty much everything ever written about him). Likewise, Lara Glenum’s article about Aase Berg that we published on http://www.actionyes.org is one of the most perceptive articles about that Swedish poet. So it can definitely be done.

    Jonathan Mayhew recently wrote a highly enjoyable, informative book about the translation of Lorca into English, but in it he argues that translation is “kitsch,” that it’s a second-hand experience, “apocryphal.” As Lawrence Venuti pointed out in a recent review of that book, this is a profound misunderstanding of not just the way translation works, but the way literature works – that only the true scholar has access to the real text and all else is kitsch, a lie, “second hand.” Well, I certainly don’t feel that way, not about works in translation, or about works of American poetry. And I hope we haven’t come to that as a literature – when only the certified scholar has access to the true text.

    But then I’ve been living my entire adult life as a foreigner, a second-hand reader and writer of American poetry.

    Best,
    Johannes

  • On November 22, 2009 at 1:48 pm Johannes Goransson wrote:

    Another thing I just thought about: Barbra, your own book is in part in a foreign language. Do you think only people who can read that language should review (or even read) your book correctly? It seems that your book asks to be read according to a very different (anti-monolingual, heteroglossic) model. I just thought about that and found it curious.

    Johannes

  • On November 22, 2009 at 2:03 pm Lucas wrote:

    One of the great things about translation is how it stands against blanket statements. All of them.

    Of course historically many translations have been designed for readers who know the original, as you point out. And many translations still are designed for readers who can read the original; I’m thinking mainly, but not only, of scholarly translations and/or translations that serve to demonstrate the translator’s knowledge. Zukofsky’s Catullus translations, in a very different example, were designed for people willing to follow a very particular kind of reading of the original.

    If I were to re-write that sentence a bit more sensitively and sensibly, I’d get rid of “design” completely, and say something more like, “most of what we call literary translations today serve their purpose best when read by people who do not know the language of the original.” But that’s not as fun.

    Lucas


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, November 16th, 2009 by Barbara Jane Reyes.