Translation and Transformation of Poetry: an essay
by Joseph Zaccardi
My first exposure to a translation of a poem happened on the first day of eight grade. Sister Mary Cleitas, had us open our English Lit textbooks to, what she prefaced as, the greatest poem in the English language. Not exactly English, something called Anglo-Saxon or Old English. It actually sounded friendly and adventuresome. The title made me dizzy –– “Beowulf.” And as I listened to the poem in a 1950s translation, read aloud by our good sister, I was completely baffled:
An excerpt from that translation by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff:
What! We of Spear-Danes in spent days,
Of the Folk-Kings’ force have heard,
How the Athelings excelled in fight.
Oft Shield of the Sheaf from scathing hordes,
From many meinies their mead-stools tore.
I too thought, What! What were “many meines” and “mead-stools?” Who are the “Athelings?” As I followed along with the words in the text, my eyes glazed. The greatest poem in the English language left me feeling defeated and bereft; after this reading, “Beowulf” was not discussed again. This great poem left me untouched. Nearly 40 years later, in 1999, a new translation of “Beowulf” by Seamus Heaney was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I read all 3000 plus lines aloud; what magic and what music and meaning this poem now had for me.
An excerpt translated by Seamus Heaney:
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.
There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
a wreaker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
Here’s the Anglo-Saxon:
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
The first word, “Hwaet,” literally can be rendered as meaning “What.” Other conventional archaic renderings are “lo,” “hark,” “behold,” and “attend” –– more colloquially “listen.” Heaney writes in his introduction that “so” came naturally to the rescue to replace the “what,” which added confusion unnecessarily, the “So” functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, ‘so’ it was.” I think the valuable lesson here is that one should read more than a single translation before deciding on the worth of a poem and should choose for themselves that which best resonates and connects them to the poem.
I have since returned to my salad days’ translation by C.K Scott-Moncrieff and found that it wasn’t as awful and unintelligible as I remembered. In fact I wasn’t put off by the strangeness of the names and references to places and things, but that is, I’m convinced, because Heaney’s work allowed me to enter “Beowulf,” as both listener and participant.
The impetus for the poet / translator, whether of modern poetry or of poetry from antiquity is essentially linguistic; it is a matter of pacing and discovery; to try to uncover from one language to another the poetry itself. In a sense it is a revolution, because the translator and the reader will have in their minds what was or is the poets linguistic character –– from the anonymous author of “Beowulf”, to Li Po, to Sappho, –– to more modern poets such as Yehuda Amichai, Czeslaw Milosz, and Neruda et al, the translator plays a central role in the development and understanding between two languages; so a composition of the original, forces the translator to analyze why one word follows another, why sound is important and rhythm essential. The beat, if you will, of the music in the lines without distorting the delicate contours of rhythm and sense. This is no easy process, because it could degenerate into parody. What finally determines the line is the usage of a living, spoken language, in a given place and a place in time. As for form in poetry, great care must be taken to merge, not submerge, the culture that the poetry being translated represents; hence alliteration, line tempo, staccato and elision are a necessity to the translation’s success. So often in the past, blank verse, rhyme and inversion killed the language of the people. Free verse translations, are, on the other hand on the right track, because its primary impulse is to preserve the language; this is why I believe they are more palpable, because they preserve the pace and pause, the rise and fall of the poets’ intent for the poem.
Now let’s look at " The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter," published in 1915 in Ezra Pound's third poetry collection Cathay: Translations, which contains versions of Chinese poems composed from the sixteen notebooks of Ernest Fenollosa, a scholar of Chinese literature. Pound called the poems in English, which resulted from the Fenollosa manuscripts, "translations," but as such most scholars of Chinese language and literature hold them in contempt. However, they have been acclaimed as "poetry" for their clarity and elegance. They are variously referred to as "translations," "interpretations," "paraphrases," and "adaptations.”
An excerpt of the first stanza of Ezra Pound’s interpretation:
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
Played I about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And here’s a faithful translation excerpted from The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry, published in 1947:
My hair could hardly cover my forehead;
I was plucking flowers near the door,
Then you came riding a bamboo horse
And threw green plums near my bed.
Although Pound’s telling is compelling, it misses the importance of “green plums,” which shows the reader the young perspective bride’s inexperience and concerns.
Here’s Amy Lowell’s translation, of another stanza of the same poem:
At Fifteen, I stopped frowning.
I wanted to be with you, as dust with its ashes.
I often thought that you were the faithful man
Who clung to the bridge-post.
That I should never be obliged to ascend
To the Looking-for-Husband Ledge.
At Fifteen, I stopped scowling.
I desire my dust to be mingled with yours,
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?
Pound’s version robs the original of its foreignness. His poem is spare and stark, his adjectives more concrete than Lowell’s, making his “translation” more universal –– that is, less dependent on the Chinese original.
Lowell freely conceded the beauty of Pound’s version, but she believed he pursued an aesthetic strategy detrimental to the original poetry. In fact, Lowell’s poem is much more discursive and letter-like, and favors the simile over metaphor; less intense than Pound, her poem has, in compensation, a certain mystique.
When Sappho wrote her poetry in ancient Greece, she employed the natural language of her age. If she were writing today in America, I believe, she would again write / speak in the current vernacular. This points to the beauty of translation. The translators of the 18th and 19th centuries express the Sappho of their age. Therefore, young readers of today, would be disappointed and disparaged by translations that left them out because of archaic language. What we have seen by way of English translations of Sappho has left most readers cold.
Consider this excerpt of a Sappho poem of jealousy published in 1883 by John Addington Symons.
Peer of Gods he seemeth to me, the blissful
Man who sits and gazes at thee before him,
Close beside thee sits, and in silence hears thee
How could anyone insist on translating that magnificent poem which even the ancients themselves treasured as the work of a god into something, well, silly. What is needed is a translation that would eschew the archaic expression, the inversion, the poetic phrase.
Compare Addington’s translation with William Carlos Williams’ 1958 translation:
Peer of the gods is that man, who face to face,
sits listening to your sweet speech and lovely
In the Symonds translation there is a high quotient of filler and exaggeration, while the Williams translation has the normal syntax, jagged rhythms, and recognizable idiom for the reader of both his time and of today. Here in Williams’ transformation, Sappho’s lines echo her sensuous reality, undimmed by the passage of twenty-five hundred years; still fresh, still able to move the reader, as when the words had first been passionately uttered.
And here’s Anne Carson’s 2002 translation:
He seems to me equal to the gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking //
And lovely laughing…
Carson’s translation is more expansive. Personally I favor Williams’ rendition. I’d recommend a web site to readers interested in seeing 29 translations of Sappho’s poem. www.bopsecrets.org/passages/sappho.htm
At the Squaw Valley Writers Conference in 2010, I put forward a suggestion at a lecture on translation, given by Forrest Gander, that perhaps it is time to translate poems by Byron, Milton, Shelly and their ilk into contemporary parlance; somewhat radical, I must admit, but my feeling was that by bringing those great works into current speech patterns they would be reinvigorated and made more relevant; then perhaps readers would return to the original with compassion and appreciation of this poetry from the past that is not much read anymore, at least not willingly. Curiously in 2012 while I was searching Small Press Distribution for a copy of Pound’s Chinese translations of 1915, I ran across a forthcoming book, “The Sonnets: Translating and Rewriting Shakespeare,” edited by Sharmila Cohen and Paul Legault. In this anthology, 160 poets were invited to each translate one sonnet from English-to-English, “to reconstruct it all in a fashion that would allow us to view multiple dimensions of the original work in a new light, as a new structure.” It’s a fascinating book with contributors as varied as Mary Jo Bang, Donald Revell, Brenda Hillman and (Oh sweet serendipity!) Forrest Gander. I did compare the original sonnets with these rewrites and was delighted with their leaps and constructs. I fell in love, again, with Shakespeare’s voice.
My opinions and conclusions in this essay on translation may be as right or as wrong as anyones. Perhaps they should be considered more like guidelines. I hope they encourage and stimulate others to study and enjoy the differences and deficiencies and discoveries in translations, and who knows, to try their own hand at this parallel art.
Copyright ©2015 Joseph Zaccardi