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What we regard must seduce us, and we it, if we are to continue looking

I’ve been reading a lot of translations lately and in my attempts to write critically about the poems, numerous questions about the translations have made these essays almost impossible. To me, there’s so much that can get lost in a translation. I want to talk about sound, but can only talk about the sound of the translated text. What did the original poem sound like? Why don’t all translations include the original text? But, then again, unless it’s in Spanish, I won’t be able to read it anyway. This is just the beginning of some of the conversations I’ve had during and after reading translated works. And I can’t stop reading them. Now, I want to translate poems, too.
This summer, I had the opportunity to listen to Jean Valentine talk about her experience translating Marina Tsvetaeva with Ilya Kaminsky. She mentioned she was influenced by Anne Carson’s idea of two voices in a translation: that of your own and that of the person you’re translating. After her journey with Kaminsky, Valentine concluded there is a third voice: the voice of the translation itself. She said central to her approach was asking herself what she felt Marina’s strongest wish would be if she knew her poems were to be translated.

This Frenzy

from “The World is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation” by Jane Hirshfield

Knowledge is erotic. We see this not only in the Bible’s dual use of the term “to know,” but also, as classicist Anne Carson has pointed out, in the Homeric verb mnaomai, which means both “to hold in attention” and “to woo.” What we regard must seduce us, and we it, if we are to continue looking. A great poem creates in its readers the desire to know it more thoroughly, to live with it in intimacy, to join its speaking to their own as fully as possible. We memorize it, recite it over and over, reawaken it with tongue and mind and heart. Many translators describe their first encounter with their chosen authors as a helpless falling in love: a glimpse of a few translated fragments can lead to years of language study…

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6 thoughts on “What we regard must seduce us, and we it, if we are to continue looking

  1. Sounds fascinating! Which poets have you been reading, and who are the translators? I’ve recently bought a couple of collections, one of Czeslaw Milosz and the other of Mayakovsky. This weekend was looking at a Transtromer by Robert Bly, sold through an outlet but so many unread books already, I hesitate.

    I gather you are having a great time with it though. Maybe a reason to learn some other languages while you are at it!

    • Hi Carol, I’ve been reading Pavese translated by Arrowsmith, Neruda and Vallejo translated by Bly, Akhmatova translated by Kunitz, Amichai translated by Bloch and Mitchell, and more. I’ve read about three different Lorca translations. I’d like to read Bly’s Transtromer translations, too! I’d love to hear what you think once you’re done reading Milosz and Mayakovsky.

  2. Yeah, this is very interesting stuff–and gets at the heart of a lot of those nagging but peripheral questions about life and meaning and writing that we never see face to face because they keep managing to be peripheral, no matter how quickly we turn our heads.

    You can tell from the name of my blog I’m very curious about these questions of translation. Funny that Quillfyre above mentions Transtromer–he’s pretty much my favorite poet, and one of the reasons is that you can read his Selected Poems (multiple translators, edited by Robert Hass), or Bly’s translations in Half Finished Heaven, or Fulton’s translations in the comprehensive Great Enigma: Collected Poems–and to me the wonder is that you walk away from each book feeling you know exactly what Transtromer is all about. Then you compare translations, and see all the differences. Oh so many differences. Yet you still feel you know where the Transtromer is hidden in each poem! The question really becomes more of what YOU want to concentrate on—the essence that you come away with, or the differences?

    There’s a great collection of Bly-Transtromer correspondence called Air Mail, which is very enlightening as to the translation process between those two poets, that I would highly recommend. I have never been much of a Bly fan, but gained a good deal of respect for him in reading those letters. You also see, even in a writer/poet who knows his subject’s native language, the huge gaps in knowledge that any translator faces (both ways, as Transtromer translated Bly too). It’s really bracing stuff.

    One additional note about sound in the post above. I have been thinking lately that often the “sound” of a poem is in our own inner ear even more so than on the page. What I mean is, sometimes the sound of the language of the poem is just a marker. Even with gorgeous assonance, internal rhyme, end rhyme, alliteration, etc. those things are just markers for things that we “hear” in our minds–they are not in the words. So, thinking of Transtromer, in a poem about ice cracking, or a storm moving across a field of tall grass, or something in that vein. No matter what the language is, the sound already exists in our head; in fact, sometimes the sound of the poem can intercept or interfere with that internal sound. That’s just the beginning of talking about sound, but it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about these days myself with regard to translated poetry, and poetry written in one’s own language. When does the sound of the poem get in the way of the sound of the poetry?

    Thanks again for another thoughtful and engaging post. I think you owe me a cup of coffee though since lunch hour just disappeared in these words…

    • Hi Jeff. Thanks for your thoughts on translation and the Air Mail recommendation; coffee is definitely in order! Sound is important to me in poetry, as a poem is meant to be heard, so this is something I hope to explore more in translation.

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