Translated poetry: what do we lose?

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Some of the most important parts of Drive your plow over the bones of the deadby Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk, are the scenes where the main character and her best friend are busy translating the words of William Blake.

Janina and Dizzy, both Polish, examine fragments of the original poems and reflect on the translation: they discuss in depth what language to use, what the author meant and what is really most important for the poetry in translation: correctness or intention; stay as close to the original text as possible, or change whatever is necessary to convey the meaning that the original was trying to convey.

An interesting fact is that Drive your plow over the bones of the deadthe novel, takes its title from one of Blake’s poems, proverbs from hell.

Reading the book – which is filled with short transcriptions of Blake’s poetry – I too wondered how I was going to translate these fragments into my own native language, Portuguese. There are so many variations in a language that allow for legitimate translations of the same text, and there is always the fear that a better, more accurate translation is just around the corner.

If we turn to Blake and his proverbs from hellpart of the poem explains this struggle: “A fool does not see the same tree that a wise man sees.” Anyone who has ever had to examine a text for school can attest to the injustice of being marked as a wrong answer simply because their examination differs from that of the textbook – or the teacher.

In poetry, in particular, is it fair to assume authorial intent, especially when it leaves room for open interpretation? Who’s to say that my personal interpretation of a piece of literature is wrong, really, when every reader brings with them a metaphorical suitcase, filled with life experiences that shape their way of perceiving things?

One of Portugal’s most famous writers is perhaps Fernando Pessoa. He is known for his philosophical ramblings in volumes such as The Book of Worry, and for his poems. Pessoa was a curious character, a prolific writer, who had several heteronyms and molded the words at will.

I’m a big fan of the Fado musical genre, and many of Pessoa’s poems have been turned into songs; a few years ago, on vacation in Portugal, I ended up buying a collection of Fados composed entirely of Pessoa’s words. I have absolutely no complaints about the music itself, but the little booklet that came with it had all the poetry sung on the album in both Portuguese and English, and I swear I nearly collapsed in looking at the translations.

This isn’t the only time I’ve seen translations of poetry in my native language that completely botched the original. There is always, without exception, a thing or two that I would change, either because I think it sounds better, or because I believe it better sums up the idea of ​​the poem, or the particular words chosen by the poet. And yet, often I am also surprised: I come across a translation, I recognize that I would not have translated it with these words, but I agree that these words are, in fact, much more appropriate to the poem.

It is difficult to define how much you lose or gain from a translation. The ideal, of course, would be to speak all the languages ​​of the world and translate nothing. Because language is not just knowledge, it is a feeling.

Native writers may not know why the grammar works the way it does, but most of the time they will be able to tell you that it doesn’t sound goodand that it makes.

Managing to create beauty and encapsulate feelings in words is one of the hardest things to do. Keeping that beauty and feeling in translation might be impossible, which brings us back to the case of being more true to the intent of the original than to the words used, and where to draw a line.

Personally, I think Portuguese is one of the most beautiful languages ​​in the world and no English translation of a poem can come close to the beauty of the original. But maybe it’s just a feeling that speaks, my own understanding and my own feeling – always the feeling – of the language that I know best, the language that raised me and that I will always know the more deeply.

Pessoa said, “My homeland is the Portuguese language,” and as an immigrant, I feel that in my bones. After ten years abroad, I don’t feel like I belong in Portugal per se, but I also know that I will never know a culture like the one I grew up immersed in. But the Portuguese language, which belongs to me in a certain way, my homeland may never belong again.

I can translate one of my favorite Portuguese poems into English and feel like I did a great job. But I will always wish that you could discover my language as I do. Which, unfortunately, is not possible (unless you know and speak the language).

Then, of course, there’s the matter of puns and made-up words. PURgatory and PurGATOrio (where cats atone for their sins before going to heaven?) will work for native speakers of both languages, but when someone (like author Mia Couto) mixes up the words bless (benção) and dream (sonho) to form abensonhadas – which makes perfect sense in Portuguese – how do you translate that while keeping both words, and the original intent and meaning? Well, luckily I’m not a translator, otherwise you’d probably have dressed or blamewhich is gibberish.

Still, I think translations are always a valiant effort to share stories and promote greater accessibility, which brings us to another important question in translations: who should translate what.

During Biden’s inauguration ceremony, Amanda Gorman stormed the stage. His poem, The Hill We Climb, has been turned into a book and translated around the world. In the Netherlands, the translation work was offered to the writer and poet Marijke Lucas Rijnveld.

Even though Rijnveld is a brilliant writer (having won the International Booker Prize for his first novel Discomfort Of Evening), he is neither a translator – nor versed in English, as was evident at the Booker Awards ceremony. – nor a person of color. The Editor’s Choice, it seems, was made simply because of its popularity and the fact that several publishers continue to give certain awards to the same popular – and usually white – authors over and over again, whether the best solution or not. .

Of course, the conversation started: why did Rijnveld receive this honor when there are so many black translators better suited for it who are struggling to find jobs? And how much of the heart of the poem will Rijnveld really be able to translate correctly, given that his own experience of race and culture differs so much from Gorman’s?

In the end, because these questions arose (which probably wouldn’t have happened ten years ago), the translation ended up going to Zaire Krieger.

This does not mean that nothing is lost in translation, because such is the risk of trying to transmit a language. But when you know the translated language and the translated experience on a deeper level, a piece of poetry can still work for readers the same way the original works for native speakers: it can strike the same heartstrings and invoke the same sentiments. .

Nothing gained, nothing lost, everything transformed.


If you enjoyed this piece, here are a few others you won’t want to miss:

Why I was afraid of poetry

Indie Presses Publishing Books in translation

Can a translation be better than the original book

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