Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Translating Procedural Poetry

When K. Silem Mohammad came to read with Christian Bök at the De Young Museum, we discussed at length how one could possibly translate his sonnegrams. If you recall, KSM's sonnegrams are more or less line by line anagrammatic poems written from Shakespeare's sonnets. I had been somewhat dismayed by some Italian translations of Google-sculpted poems by Gary Sullivan, which were just reproducing the meaning of the poems in question (mind you, I can read Italian, but I don't really know the language). The translator had basically worked from an artifact, rather than try to recreate a certain moment of writing. Of course, had the translator written the translation by simply entering the translation of the search terms into the Italian version of Google, he would have gotten a wildly different poem. But is it that bad?

My problem with such translation is that it treats more or less the poem as a communicative object. The poem as artifact has something to say. As Walter Benjamin wrote in "The Task of the Translator," translations will always be read under the shadow of their originals, but it does not entail that shadows have to be dull. And so, what is interesting about procedural poetry (Oulipo, flarf, some Language poetry) is not so much what they have to say but rather their gestures and their mechanics. The semantic acrobatics are icing on the cake.

What I proposed to KSM was to take a translation of Shakespeare (in French) and apply to it similar permutations to the one KSM operated on the English text. As KSM put it, it's writing a new poem out of a constraint/procedure. Which in itself is what poetic translation tends to be anyway, writing a new poem within the constraints of a foreign-language text. (Note that I am not planning right now to translate Kasey's sonnegrams)

KSM thought this was somewhat of a novel way of translating, but it's not really. In The Yale Anthology of Twentieth-Century French Poetry (ed. Mary Ann Caws), we find the following poem by Michelle Grangaud, "Isidore Ducasse comte de Lautréamont" (at least the first stanza):
méduse l'auditoire mets sac à côté nord
et mise du crocodile dans ta mare ouest
démode du croissant au court à demi est
toast à taire consomme le décideur sud
sors ta mince camelote du désert oui-da
monte maturité à la corde cuisse de dos
If we had just translated the poem word for word, sentence by sentence (the way Georges Hugnet translated The Making of Americans), this is what we would have gotten:
mystify the audience place bag on the north side
and stake of the crocodile in your western puddle
old-fashioned croissant on the eastern court and a half
toast to shut drink the southern decider
show your narrow crap from the oui-da desert
increase maturity to the rope thigh of back
Like the French, it's still funny and nonsensical, but Grangaud is an Oulipian and the poem is a repeated anagram of its title coupled with the structure of sestina. Here is the translation that Paul and Rosemary Lloyd did:
I am more cursed at close a dent outside
a sluice meet roused a distracted moon
some toadies direct moat clause under
o I must care seamed a rose tinted cloud
lo our coast master educated me inside
so tailed mouse can't deem dour ice star
The translation here in term of gesture is more faithful to the original. Nevermind meaning, there wasn't any to begin with. However, I am not saying this should necessarily be the way to translate procedural poems. This translation is still problematic, in that it is syntactically more correct than its original, for example (there is almost no syntax in the original).

Another interesting translation of procedural poetry is Cole Swensen's work on Pierre Alferi's Kub Or. The original text:
au lieu de moquer marquise
me font vos yeux beaux mourir
penser images secondes
arrangement d'étourneaux
qui vont à la ligne haute
tension battre le flip-book
et revoir le mouvement

And as translated in OXO:
rather than mocking marquise
of your eyes so beautiful
die i think frames per second
the arrangement of starlings
aligned on the high tension
wire shuffles the flip-book
and revises the motion

Alféri's original is 7 syllables in 7 lines in conversation with 7 photographs by Suzanne Doppelt. What is so admirable about Swensen's translation is that she manages to keep both the structural constraints of the original, but also the dialogue it establishes with the photographs.

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