Thursday, February 08, 2007

Rosanna at Work

In an article from BU Today, the community news site for Boston University, Professor Rosanna Warren advances an uncontroversial but largely unheeded proposition: “You can be word-by-word accurate, but produce an absolutely horrendous translation that has no life in it." The article is a genial introduction to a writer whose poetic sensibility is central in the American writing community, and whose lyrical intelligence has had wide influence, not the least reason for which is her celebrated Literary Translation Seminar in the University Professors Program at BU.

In the seminar, students gather on Mondays for classroom sessions under Prof. Warren's able direction, discussing the challenges and techniques for depositing the gold of one language in the treasury of another. On Fridays, expert practitioners are flown in to discuss their chosen art. Already this spring, Robert Hahn has spoken on translating from English to Italian and from Italian to English, and Roger Greenwald came down from Toronto to share his expertise in editing and translating work from Norway and Denmark. Looking ahead, I'm personally excited to hear Richard Serrano's lecture titled "Translating Traditions in Chinese and Arabic Poetry: Al-Akhtal and Sun Yunfeng" on February 16. For a full list of this semester's lectures, visit the seminar webpage.

Professor Warren is given rein to say altogether more interesting things in a 2005 interview from The Kenyon Review. Interviewer Joseph Campana asks about an attitude found in her essays about Sappho and Catullus: "that poetry is, inherently, both elegy and translation." Asked to speak more about this, she responds:
... "I think of poetry as being lyric in the deep and archaic Greek sense, as song and dance. By the time it is translated to the drawing on the page that we call writing, the markers of dance and song are no longer present. Writing tries to conjure the presence. In that sense, I think of poetry as a kind of elegy for that transient intensity of experience. And translation, more specifically, sacrificial and elegiac in that it takes you to the heart of the mystery of what is poetry, which nobody can define, but we keep dancing around it. It’s an essence, which is not just engineering, which you can't just get by riveting together choriambs or dactyls, and yet which involves the engineering at some level. The image of the human body is a good one since most of us have the illusion, at least, that who we are is not merely the engineering of our bones and flesh and nervous system, though we wouldn't be here without them. So translating means teleporting a body, teleporting Sappho into another body. Inevitably in that passage, the molecules, the cells are damaged and yet we reconstitute it in something like a good translation which gives us the illusion of another dance being made, another breath being breathed, another nervous system pulsing.
Elsewhere in the interview, readers will learn about Warren's traditionalist stance on the education of poets and translators, an ethic enacted in the translation seminar's emphasis on metrics and formal verse in Greek, Latin, French, and Italian, among the many languages held up for consideration.

WBUR "World of Ideas" with readings
Translations of imaginary (!) French poet Anne Verlaine
Faculty Profile at Boston University