Thursday, December 11, 2008

Abusive tendencies of translation

'Translation is something akin to vivisecting a ghost,' James Stotts tells us in the new issue of the literary journal Reconfigurations. "An analysis of translation, then, would be like the shadow cast by a ghost—pale indeed." Not in this case; Stotts is erudite and informative in this account of reading a clutch of dense lyrics (on the theme of goldfinches) by Osip Mandelstam. Stotts writes:
The problem with translation is that both decent and opportunist professors, both earnest poets and career hackwriters conventionally approach the translation of a body of work as some conquerable task, as if the poetic achievement of Mandelstam could be taken on and achieved again by proxy. Even good writers usually seem to be at their worst as translators. Mandelstam’s own appraisal of translation seems fairer: translations should be tools for approaching the original poem in its original language. The other half of the equation is the use of translations as an alternative mode of poetic production: simply a plagiaristic method for writing poetry. That would allow for the abusive tendencies of all translation, in a way that exposes and counters the apologetics of bad translators. It would also demand the same kind of struggle toward linguistic mastery in English that Mandelstam concerned himself with in Russian. A poem not only draws on its language, but creates new possibilities for it as well, and so a translation must also have that creative, dynamic feature to be worthwhile.
Stotts, a writer and photographer, is translating for a selected poems of Marina Tsvetaeva forthcoming from Whale and Star Press. His "invisible shotgun anthology" of Russian writing" includes such masters as Afanasy Fet, Sergei Esenin, Joseph Brodsky, and, yes, Mandelstam.