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Thread: Great translators (and not so great translators)

  1. #1
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    Great translators (and not so great translators)

    I started thinking about this on another thread: there are a lot non-English poets whom, if I'd first read them in a bad translation, I'd have assumed I didn't like. And I'm starting to think that really good translations aren't very common. At least for my own point of view, I'll have to ignore the question of accuracy: I only know English, and I'd rather a translator take a few liberties if it means I get to read a good poem.

    The newish translation of Dante by Hollander & Hollander left me cold, but I haven't read any other. I really liked Allen Mandelbaum's Metamorphoses and David Young's Duino Elegies. All the second hand bookstores are full of Ovid translations that make me wonder if I even like Ovid at all. Rilke's a bit harder to ruin (or maybe Mandelbaum improved Ovid), but still, there's such a difference!

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    This is awesome:

    the bells chime for no reason and we too
    cares carried with us
    the inner clothes
    we put on each morning
    unbuttoned by night's dreaming hands
    adorned with useless metal puzzles
    purified in the bath of circular landscapes
    in cities prepared for carnage and sacrifice
    near vast expansive seas
    on mountains of troubled severities
    in villages of painful swagger
    the hand weighing on the head
    the bells chime for no reason and we too
    we leave with those leaving arrive with those arriving
    leave with those arriving arrive when the others leave
    for no reason a bit dry a bit hard severe
    bread food no more bread to accompany
    the tasty song on the scale of the tongue
    colours put down their weights thinking
    thinking or crying or staying or eating
    fruits as light as hovering smoke
    thinking of the heat that weaves the word
    round its kernel the dream called us

    This sucks:

    the bells ring for no reason and we too
    the cares we carry with us
    which are our inner clothing
    that we put on each morning
    the night undoes with hands of dream
    decorating with useless metallic puzzles
    cleansed in the bath of circular landscapes
    in the cities prepared for carnage for sacrifice
    near the seas of sweeping horizons
    on the mountains of uneasy harshness
    in the village of painful nonchalance
    the hand weighing on the head
    the bells ring for no reason and we too
    we leave with the departures arrive with the arrivals
    leave with the arrivals arrive when others leave
    for no reason a little dry a little hard severe
    bread sustenance no more bread to accompany
    the bawdy song on the scale of the tongue
    the colors lay down their burden to think
    and think or cry out and stay to feed
    on delicate fruits hovering like the smoke
    that thinks of the warmth spun by the word
    around its center the dream called ourselves

    If I read the second translation first, I'd have thought, "Tristan Tzara? he's ok I guess." But this translator has no ear! I don't care how many nuances of meaning they've preserved! The poem's gone! (This is assuming the French original isn't itself as insipid as the second translation.) And of course the same editor responsible for this second, square-wheeled translation makes a big deal about the importance of force and speed in Tzara's poetry and poetic theory. And calls his early poetry "sentimental."
    Last edited by Stewed; 10-11-2011 at 03:38 PM.

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    This is why art will never be taken over by a machine? Why? Because even the most correct interpretation is just that. One possible among many. The choice must be made, and the chances of a coincidence with the original meaning and nuances is almost impossible.

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    I guess I've got a definite stance here: aesthetics over accuracy. I only wish I knew French so I could tell when it comes down to a choice between those two, and when it's simply a question of one translator being better. I suppose this all depends on the notion, which I could no more prove than give up, that I can somehow tell which is better aesthetically. If I really had an occult connection to the beautiful, I suppose that would imply that a machine could theoretically do a translation, because there's be one right translation, which I'd have a somehow closer than average link to. I feel I've developed "taste," and possibly even that I have a knack for it. The feeling has a sort of mystical flavour to it, but....

    I've just reached the saturation point, as far as carrying a single notion in my head goes, and I no longer know what I think. Who's written about this? Kant? What's everybody else think? Does taste improve in all directions? Are we stuck between (whatever critic stood for rules and absolutes) and it's-all-good?

  5. #5
    Speaking of Rilke, I think Edward Snow's translations are the best I've read. They're just absolutely beautiful, and everything I've been told about Rilke shines through.

    Is he native to this realm? No,
    his wide nature grew out of both worlds.
    They more adeptly bend the willow's branches
    who have experience of the willow's roots.

    When you go to bed, don't leave bread or milk
    on the table: it attracts the dead--
    But may he, this quiet conjurer, may he
    beneath the mildness of the eyelid

    mix their bright traces into every seen thing;
    and may the magic of earthsmoke and rue
    be as real for him as the clearest connection.

    Nothing can mar for him the authentic image;
    whether he wanders through houses or graves,
    let him praise signet ring, gold necklace, jar.

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    Registered User virginiawang's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Stewed View Post
    If I read the second translation first, I'd have thought, "Tristan Tzara? he's ok I guess." But this translator has no ear! I don't care how many nuances of meaning they've preserved! The poem's gone!
    I seldom read poetry. However I enjoyed the second version of the poem tremendously. It was written too well indeed, especially when it was arranged under the first version, which choked me into laughter. I do not know what the word " sucks" means. In my opinion, it must be a good work of translation, since people can enjoy reading it. I do not think the thread starter was making sense when he/ she said the poem is gone. All poems must be gone when they undergo the process of translation, because it goes through the gap between two languages. Even if the writer of the poem does the translation him/her self, the poem still must be gone, because the writer commmands the two languages in different ways.

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    Sucks is a worn out metaphor that now in its less obscene second life means "no good at all." I think it's great that you enjoyed the second translation; anyone enjoying a poem at all is usually a good thing. To be more clear: I dislike overly literal translations. In my own ear, "ring for no reason" has a similar sound to "rural juror." For my own reasons and purposes I have strong, dogmatic preferences in literature, which I ordinarily avoid foisting on others, but still sometimes feel the need to express. I suppose I should stick to "I hate this!" and avoid assertions about reality. No hard feelings, I hope.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Stewed View Post
    The newish translation of Dante by Hollander & Hollander left me cold, but I haven't read any other. I really liked Allen Mandelbaum's Metamorphoses and David Young's Duino Elegies. All the second hand bookstores are full of Ovid translations that make me wonder if I even like Ovid at all. Rilke's a bit harder to ruin (or maybe Mandelbaum improved Ovid), but still, there's such a difference!
    I liked Mandelbaum's Dante. It's my second favourite translation of poetry. My favourite is Ted Hughes' translation of Aeschylus - the vivacity and perspicacity of Mandelbaum, but with added wattage. Hughes has translated Ovid's Metamorphoses as well.

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    Hmm. Good to know, good to know.

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    This depends, I suppose, on what you are using the poetry for. If you are reading for pleasure, I agree that you will want the translator to write a great poem in English, taking as many liberties as necessary to achieve that, while retaining as much of the original as is compatible. However, some very important things are achieved when translators remain 'faithful' to the original.

    Firstly, the spread of literary forms across languages depends on translations historically. Things like the sonnet have come from Italian, and other examples can be found from other languages (Russian is one). English is not (as past centuries have believed) a superior consumer language to which the poetries of all other languages can only aspire to be translated effectively - it is one language, that we know, that can learn as much from others as they can from it. So while accessible translations, from writers such as Ted Hughes (whose 'Tales from Ovid' is delightfully unacademic but highly enjoyable to read) are all very well and good, someone needs to bring innovative forms and ideas to the table, and translators are best positioned to do this when they open foreign language forms to be interpreted by poets in their own language.

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