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Translation and its discontents, part quatre
“When I was reading an anthology of contemporary European poetry, I was struck by how much its poems tended to sound alike: in most cases, I couldn’t really tell what country or language a poetry had come from until I checked.”
If poetry aspires to the condition of music, then maybe translated poetry aspires to the condition of… world music? C.K. Williams, quoted above from an essay in the March 2009 issue of Poetry, surveys the world of his office and says:
“Here are some of the poets that are with me on my desk or the table next to it as I write this: two different translations of Osip Mandelstam’s poems; a book of translations of Giacomo Leopardi; a collection of Thomas Wyatt; another of Gerard Manley Hopkins; an anthology entitled New European Poets, which includes poems from every possible nook and cranny of Europe; a book of essays of Eugenio Montale, as well as his last book of poetry, It Depends, the astonishing singularity of which I only recently came to appreciate; Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies;’ a collection of Blake; Alcools by Guillaume Apollinaire, in French; a book of translations of early Celtic poetry, with those magical strings of modifiers; a translation by Marilyn Hacker of a contemporary French poet, Guy Goffette, whose work I’m not familiar with, but which I plan to read soon; and several anthologies of English and American poetry.”
Doesn’t sound like he’s bragging with that list: my own desk (thanks for asking about it on another Harriet thread, Jason!) sounds suspiciously like Williams’s, and I’m sure yours does too. Greatness, much maligned this past week, has nothing to do with it! Au contraire! Williams finds the same small, still voice in all those books of translations… it’s what often gets called translatorese, a kind of Esperanto for the well-intentioned.
I’ve always thought it curious that during a kind of 16th-century Golden Age of Translation into English, poets would translate works from Latin and Greek for a readership that was far more likely to know the original languages of texts than we are today. And the effect could be dramatic – as Hannibal Hamlin from the Folger Shakespeare Library put it in a recent letter to the TLS, it was
“George Chapman’s Homer that sent Keats into raptures, and it was Arthur Golding’s Ovid that Ezra Pound called (extravagantly) ‘the most beautiful book in the language.’ Virgil was translated by Gavin Douglas and the Earl of Surrey, Plutarch by Thomas North, and the Greek and Roman lyric poets by almost everyone. This was also the age that produced the English Bibles of Tyndale, Coverdale, and the translators of the Geneva and the ‘Authorized’ Version, as well as the Psalms of Philip and Mary Sidney (among hundreds of others).”
Today, by contrast (according to Williams),
“there has been what surely has to be called a globalization of art, and a nearly instantaneous awareness, especially in the market-driven visual arts, of what is happening in other aesthetics. Whether this is all for the good, I’m not certain. While I was reading the anthology of contemporary European poetry I mentioned before, I was struck by how much its poems tended to sound alike: in most cases, I couldn’t really tell what country or language a poetry had come from until I checked. I thought at first that perhaps the almost universal commitment to free verse was the reason for this apparent homogenization, which is a rather distressing thought. It may have been instead because all the translators of the poems in the book were working in American English, and hadn’t sufficiently taken into account the subtleties of the original languages.”
Williams says that the current interest in literary translation has its roots in a search for new stylistic tricks “during the the late fifties and early sixties, when much of the poetry being written in America seemed to have become overly formalized, self-referential, stale, and, if I dare use the word, spiritually lifeless.”
The problem is that
“Styles are always striving to perfect themselves, by which I mean that styles have inherent in them the potential for enactments that no longer depend on anything but the demands of the style itself: neither matter, content, nor, in other words, world. Stylistically, art is always moving from the transparent to the opaque, from trying to make encompassing and as comprehensive as possible its relations with reality, to a state in which its formal dexterity comes to be its most essential requirement. When this happens, usually during the late moments of an artistic era, the execution of style becomes an end in itself, the end in itself: art becomes style displaying itself, preening, showing off. This is when an artistic style becomes decadent. Decadence in itself isn’t intrinsically bad, it’s unavoidable, and some of the very greatest art is created at the end of the innovation-decadence cycle. What happens then, though, is that some subtle line is crossed, and the gloriously decadent becomes the offensively empty, sterile, and, with no longer any portion of the quest of the artist’s blundering soul a part of it, produces work that is lifeless, stillborn.”
The first art works were apparently made in caves, where the artists had to illuminate darkness, and reaching out to others had severe limits. That world was at the farthest remove from what we now call the global. So… do we reach inward or outward? Can we do both?
Another thing I read in the TLS (how global of me!) was an essay by Jon Garvie that had this to say:
“Discussions of globalization share one similarity – an inability to decide what the term means. In the absence of definition, commentators rely on description. Globalization reveals its true nature in the credit crunch, or the growth of international civil society, or the Nepalese Maoists who mythologize their rebellions in the language of New York hip hop artists. It could denote American cultural and economic imperialism. Or, for the more hopeful, it is the rise of global values and human rights. These disagreements exist among those who give it credence. Another area of study devotes itself to denying that the term has any worth. However you approach it, globalization is a messy idea for an anxious world.”
In an anxious world – and what world isn’t anxious? – I don’t suppose any qualms will shake the noble resolve of poets to translate other poets, and there will always be readers who need translations. As Williams concludes:
“All over the world, if not every day then in every age, beautiful paintings and poems and pieces of music and buildings are generated: one can almost imagine little flaring lights on the surface of the earth, like those seen in photos from space, though they are much more sparse and scattered than the illuminating devices that bespeckle our globe. And then over time these embodiments of the beautiful are harvested, amassed, collected in books, in museums, in concert halls, to be distributed into the lives of individual human beings, to become crucial elements of their existence. Often, our experience of beauty will be the first hint of what each of us at some point will dare call our soul. For don’t those first stirrings of that eternally uncertain, barely grasped notion of something more than mere mind, mere thought, mere emotion, usually first come to us in the line of a poem, a passage of music, of the unreal yet more-than-real image in a painting? And isn’t it also the case after all that beauty is the one true thing we can count on in a world of insufferable uncertainty, of constant moral conflicts?”
Institutions like museums and magazines, and concepts like “beauty” and “eternity,” are under attack and sound pretty quaint these days – “shit on the curatorial,” as the manifesto says – but if you’re a cautious optimist like Garvie, you can hope for the best:
“Ideas, knowledge, science, hospitality, travel – these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible and, above all, let finance be primarily national. Yet, at the same time, those who seek to disembarrass a country of its entanglements should be very slow and wary. It should not be a matter of tearing up roots but of slowly training a plant to grow in a different direction. That practice of national horticulture now looks resurgent. Globalization brings connections, but no convergence towards consensus.”
The best, I was going to say, of both worlds, but we all know there’s only one.