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“But translating a poem is like covering a song”

By Harriet Staff

David Orr at the New York Times Sunday Book Review has a great article on translating the poetry of Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer. As always, the question of a translator’s fidelity to the meaning or to the spirit of a poem is raised. And this is where Orr begins:

But what’s unusual about Transtromer is that the most interesting debates over English versions of his work actually took place before his Nobel victory. In this case, the argument went to the heart of the translator’s function and occurred mostly in The Times Literary Supplement. The disputants were Fulton, one of Transtromer’s longest-serving translators, and Robertson, who has described his own efforts as “imitations.” Fulton accused Robertson (who doesn’t speak Swedish) of borrowing from his more faithful versions while inserting superfluous bits of Robertson’s own creation — in essence, creating poems that are neither accurate translations nor interesting departures. Fulton rolled his eyes at “the strange current fashion whereby a ‘translation’ is liable to be praised in inverse proportion to the ‘translator’s’ knowledge of the original language.” Robertson’s supporters countered that Fulton was just annoyed because Robertson was more concerned with the spirit of the poems than with getting every little kottbulle exactly right.

Orr goes on to compare examples of translations by Fulton and Robertson and sees value in both literal and imitative forms of translation. But does Orr ultimately favor one mode of translation over the other? Find out after the jump! But we’ll leave you with this striking comparison:

But translating a poem is like covering a song. We can savor the liberties someone is taking with, say, “Gin and Juice” in a way we couldn’t understand similar variations on songs written by Martians.

Right on!

Posted in Poetry News on Monday, March 12th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.