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.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The fundamental problem of truth.

Once, during rehearsals, Stanislavsky told an actor: "You can act well. You can act badly. Act, as you please. I am not interested. It is important to me that you act veraciously."

The problem of truth is primary in the perilous business of translation. There are ever-present battles between those, who argue that a translator should be as close as possible to the original, and those, who say that literary translation is not all that literary if it does not alter the original. Frequently, both fall into pits of their own creation – the former produce unreadable transmissions and the latter create something that resembles the original only in name. Literary translation, as acting, should be veracious, and thus cannot be either/or, it has to be both, literary and honest to the original.

Sarah Glazer in her 2001 essay "Lost in Translation" implicitly makes a strong case for such translation by evaluating the current English version of "The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir. The “founding text of modern feminism” has been inaccurately translated, to the point of distortion, by a person who was least qualified for such an exercise - a biologist with no background in either feminism or philosophy. Albeit a result of a misunderstanding, this work gave English readers a wrong impression of the author, whom they now see as an “incoherent” and “sloppy” thinker, and destroyed the philosophical merit of the treatise. More disheartening is the fact that the publisher refused a request by Beauvoir's literary heir, Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir, to re-translate the work. Thus, the book will remain in its current version and those who wish to read the actual written word of the founding feminist will need to learn French. Perhaps, the argument for verity in “The Second Sex” has more merit – it is crucial to be precise in a work that operates with philosophical concepts, which don’t appreciate misinterpretation. However, Sarah Glazer, addresses a very prominent problem in translation as a whole - frequently, translators are either not part of the world of writing, or confuse the exercise of translating with that of creative writing, or both.

Recently, I have been trying to find “Master and Margarita” for a friend of mine. As you know, there are currently 3 versions of the novel available. I have done my research, and have to admit that Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation is the best. I know, they are accused of monopolizing the market of Russian translation, but the other two versions took liberties with the text that I cannot forgive. I think this team has the fundamentals for "veracious translating" – a native speaker of Russian, a native speaker of English (both literary gifted) and a degree of honesty to the original that is rare.