Discussion Guide

Seduction and Betrayal

The problems and joys of translation in the June issue.

Translation is famously tricky. Hence the French expression “Traduire, c’est trahir,” which translates into this appropriately clunky English equivalent: “To translate is to betray.”

The French, always a dramatic crowd, would find the June 2011 issue of POETRY downright treasonous. It features translations from a dozen languages, some common (French) and some less so (Futhork). The demands of their art lead many of the translators to depart significantly from their source texts. Do such changes constitute betrayals, or merely creative adaptations? In follow-up essays, the translators explain their motives and methods.  

Connor O’Callaghan, an Irish poet who translates Federico García Lorca, finds the foreign text inspiringly familiar. He describes “clear twentieth-century parallels between Ireland and Spain: civil war; decades of Catholic fundamentalism and institutional fear; two longstanding repressive leaders, Franco and de Valera, who died within months of one another in 1975.”

In response to these similarities, O’Callaghan has produced a particularly Irish rendition of “The Unfaithful Housewife.” He writes: “My Lorca has ‘blackberry bushes, / rushes and whitethorn,’ the pure stuff of Irish summer. ‘Su mata de pelo’ becomes ‘her thatch of hair,’ and ‘el mejor de los caminos’ is ‘the pick of the roads.’”

What do you think of this hybrid version? Is it inappropriate for O’Callaghan to throw Irish flavors into a Spanish mix—or has he cooked up a new and pleasing fusion?

Ange Mlinko shares O’Callaghan’s impulse to translate what seems recognizable. Where O’Callaghan notes the overlaps between Irish and Spanish history, Mlinko considers similarities between Arabic and Anglo-Saxon poetry:

Concreteness and compression of language. Journeys across darkened wastes. Desolation and violence. Wolves and birds of prey. Celebration of the tribe, and the joys of the feast. Fatalism: what in Arabic is known as mekhtoub (What is written) and in Anglo-Saxon wyrd (“weird” — but close enough to “word” to be, well, weird). Even the arrangement of hemistichs on the page recalls the caesuraed lines of Anglo-Saxon verse.

These observations encourage her to translate Arabic in truly idiosyncratic style. She casts her version of Abid B. Al-Abras’s “Last Simile” in Anglo-Saxon accentual meter, the alliterative, four-stress line of medieval England. More remarkably, she translates certain Arabic words not into English, but into Anglo-Saxon. The translation begins:

            It’s as if she were an earn,                                                                                                                                                 gebidende prey for her eyrie.

            Perched alertly,
                                                                      a hægtesse on their innards.

If you read this poem without knowing its provenance, you would probably mistake it for a translation from the Anglo-Saxon—a partial translation, no less, that seeks to honor its lineage by retaining some original language. Note how swiftly Mlinko implements unfamiliar words: the poem begins with a baffling simile, comparing an unidentified woman with an “earn,” whatever that may be. Do her Anglo-Saxon reference points orient or confuse you? Why might confusion be her goal?

Discussing her translation of another Arabic poem, by Labid, Mlinko explains her decision to add content from the Anglo-Saxon world. Because Labid supposedly converted to Islam, Mlinko writes, she “felt justified incorporating the religious elements that one finds in Christianized Anglo-Saxon poetry: Bede’s swallow; the Almighty.” This cultural cross-pollination might remind us of O’Callaghan’s. Do such efforts strike you as helpful bridges between traditions? Alternatively, do they seem problematically ahistorical?

Mlinko describes Anglo-Saxon terms like “earn” as “semantic indigestibles.” Other translators in the issue also give us unknown words to chew on, generally in the poem’s original language. Their efforts hew closer to the source texts than Mlinko’s or O’Callaghan’s—and yet they can disorient us just as much.

Atsuro Riley, for instance, retains the Portuguese word “zinha” in his translation of Eugenio de Andrade. His essay depicts the word as “the kind of wonderfully economical polychord diminutive we ought to have in English. So softly does it naturalize-domesticate in this poem by its tone-colors of fondness, familiarity, playfulness, endearment, I’ve left it there untranslated to do its work.”

Note Riley’s use of nonexistent terms—“naturalize-domesticate,” “tone-colors”—to define a word with no English equivalent. Do you agree with Riley that “zinha” functions so meaningfully in this poem? If you don’t speak Portuguese, are you able to intuit its “tone-colors”? If not, does its foreignness serve its own purpose.

After considering these works, would you throw your beret in with the French and agree that translation is a form of betrayal? By contrast, might it reveal dual loyalties—to another tradition as well as one’s own?

Originally Published: June 1st, 2011
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In