Edward Foster: Do poets trust translation, or do the make up their own versions as they read?
Anselm Hollo: I can't speak for anyone
else, but I trust translations-of poetry
from other languages-by poets, especially
by poets whose work I like: e.g. Beckett's
and Padgett's translations of Apollinaire
over Anne Hyde Greet's or William Meredith's.
It occurs to me that it really isn't a
question of trust in these instances so
much as a matter of enjoyment: I can read
Only in cases where the source language is one I don't know, it's also a matter of trust-as with, say, Peter Dale Scott's and Czeslaw Milosz's translations of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. They are terrific poems in English, and given Milosz's participation, I feel confident that they are as faithful to the original Polish as can be. When translated poems are terrific poems in English, I don't feel any urge to improve on them.
EF: In your introduction to Saarikoski's Poems, you quote (translate) him as saying, "Translating, I do not cram sentences into any mid-linguistic limbo. I write Finnish-language sentences over them-so they'll disappear." Which apparently means that translation erases the original text. Is that what happens when you translate Saaikoski? And if that's the case, what is it that you want from the original?
AH: Translation does not erase the original
text-quite literally, as far as the presumably
monoglot reader is concerned. Growing up
in a culture of which subtitled American,
German, Italian, French movies are a big
part, Saarikoski may have been particularly
aware of this-movie subtitles are not true
translations, they do not "erase" the
original sound. By "mid-linguistic
limbo" I think Saarikoski meant what
is also called "Translatese"-the
language in which many poor English translations
of (particularly) French literature seem
to be composed (and particularly the older
ones, say, late nineteenth century translations
of Balzac, Dumas, etc.). When I translate
Saarikoski, I want him to sound as good
and vivid as any of his contemporaries
writing in American English.
What do I "want from the original"? Not sure I quite understand the question….When the task of translation is a matter of choice, not merely a job, I do, of course, want the original to be terrific, inspiring, exciting, even "difficult" in certain ways-all the things I like in any writing…
Catching the tone of poetry written in
a foreign language is an important part
of the interpretive task, and it requires
a sophisticated passive knowledge of that
language: by "passive" I mean
an understanding of the language and culture
(in the particular time and place of the
work in question), not (necessarily) any
kind of active fluency in it. This would
seem to be the reason why we rarely find
good literary translators into more than
one language-since they would have to divide
their entire lives into separate linguistic
spheres, giving absolutely equal time to
each one. Samuel Beckett, of course, is
the one shining example of a completely
and convincingly bi-lingual author (and
translator of his own work).
In many ways, translation, and translation of poetry and drama in particular, is related to acting. The translator has to try to "become" the poet, in the target language, the way Mallarmé "became" Poe (and a much more elegant Poe!) in French. I remember some words by Paul Blackburn to that effect-that when you are "in" a translation, working on it, you put yourself in a trance, an active (actor's) trance.
EF: I recently interviewed Rosmarie Waldrop and mention was made of the fact that Benjamin thought translation, like philosophy, didn't have a muse. Perhaps philosophy doesn't have a muse, but without one, I can't imagine that poetry could really be translated.
AH: I suspect that philosophy needs all the muses it can get-and the translation of poetry is, in the best-case scenario, presided over by a committee of at least six: Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Polyhymnia, and Thalia (eloquence / epic, history, lyric / amatory, music, sacred-song, and acting). The ancient Greeks were, of course, terrible chauvinists-people, including poets, who didn't know and use their language were barbarians, and translation was simply appropriation. I guess Ares presided over that.
back to Anselm Hollo's homepage