Found in Translation

Should that read 'Found in Translation'?

We often speak of something having been ‘Lost in Translation’ (a phrase which is also the title of an interesting film) and it is true, of course that something must be lost in the re-making and rewording of a text from one language to another. One might say that was especially true of poetry, so much of whose meaning is embodied in the sound and feel of particular words, or in allusions that are embedded in one culture and language and not another. Indeed poetry has been defined as ‘that which cannot be translated’. Whilst not denying any of that, I would like, for a moment, to turn it on its head and ask, might there be valuable treasures ‘found’ in translation, to make up for those that are lost, and might that be especially true of poetry in translation? Try reading in sequence six or seven different trnslations of a poem you like and know well. you will often discover new aspects of the poem, new depths and beauties glancing across from one translation to the other as each translator finds and expreses a particular aspect of the poem that had connected with them. That experience is itself an expression, in one moment or on one page, of the experience we all have of reading a poem over time, over many years. Every new reading is itself a kind of translation, as the unchanged horizon of the poem meets the changing horizon of our own lives. When I read Marvells’  poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’ as a young man, the lines about ‘time’s winged chariot’ seemed a glorious exaggeration, a mere metaphor for the urgency of  a young and pressing lover. In the second half of my life, those same lines

For at my back I always hear

times winged chariot hurrying near,

take on a different timbre, a different place in the balance of the poem. I have found a poignant and elegaic tone that was lost to me as a younger man.

Marvell’s lines were haunting some recess of my mind, when, some years ago I wrote my poem “The Cutting Edge“, though the main focus of that poem, when I wrote it was not the universal ‘deletions’ of time  or mortality, but the selective deletions, the falsifying of memory, to which our own age is prone. It was interesting to me, therefore when a French translation of that poem was published (now on the web in La Besace des Unitariens) and on reading it I discovered, not only of what was ‘lost in translation’ but also of a series of ‘finds’, almost like archeological ‘finds’; ideas or tones buried deep in layers of the text which a new translation brought to the surface.

You can read my original text, which I included in my last post, here, and I give the  French translation below. The most striking thing is the change in the title. She has taken my “Cutting Edge” which was intended largely to carry a first sense of being ‘up to date, ultra modern’ and then secondarily, the sense of ‘dangerous, destructive, deadly’ and translated it “La Faucheuse” the name of the allegorical figure of Death or The Grim Reaper, (who is interestingly, in french, a female figure, in contrast to our Grim Reaper). At first I thought this ‘translation’ was an imposition on the text and a loss, but I came to see on reading it that my allusions to Marvell in the opening lines and to Milton’s ‘blind fury with the abhorred shears’ do at least subliminally introduce a figure like “La faucheuse’ into the imagination of the reader. Marie-Claire could not of course indicate in French my quotation of other English poets, but by changing the title she has introduced the same effect, though perhaps rather more strongly than I had intended. She has also produced some marvelous soundscapes available to her in French and not to me in English. so my word play in ‘sneering and sniping and snipping’ becomes

Et ricanant, et critiquant, et tailladant

Which has a wonderfully dry sinister clicking sound, a new and apropriate effect has been ‘found in translation’. I showed this translation to my friend and fellow poet Margot Krebbs Neale, who has kindly agreed to read it on audioboo and also to add to this post some comments of her own from the perspective a of a French writer. Meanwhile I would be delighted to hear from any of my readers what they feel has been lost or found in translation here and to hear their own examples of the perils and plesures of translation.

A s usual you can hear a reading of the poem by clicking on the ‘play’ button or on the hyperlink in the title.

La Faucheuse (translation by Marie-Claire Weber-Lefeuvre)

Derrière mon dos, comme vous,
Je l’entends toujours, la Faucheuse,
Qui se rapproche.

Ce n’est pas l’aveugle Furie
Qui élague tout sur son passage.
Mais voici ce que je crains :
Les ciseaux d’une époque aveugle,
Coupant à la dérobée
Dans toute l’ampleur du passé
Monotones, quotidiennement supprimant,
Tout ce qui n’est pas à venir
Et ricanant, et critiquant, et tailladant,
extirpant toute communication mystérieuse du texte,
Epluchant toutes les parties qui nous dirigent ailleurs
Que dans notre propre moi encerclé.

Je sais que les anges furent les premiers à tomber,
Chérubin et Séraphin, en spirale,
En un ballet en boucles de textes sacrés,
Brûlant, encre et papier, jusqu’au sol,
La plus petite preuve de ce qui nous concerne,
De notre longue affaire avec Dieu.
Et Dieu lui-même suivra bien assez vite ;
Un petit mot si facile à retrancher,
Un autre petit bout pour le montage du film
Le coup de balai au sommet de l’histoire.

Mais quand même de nuit, sur la pointe des pieds,
Je me dirige vers la porte, pour faire bruire
ces banderoles d’amour grave,
Et je jonche mon cœur de bribes poétiques,
D’espoirs interdits et d’éclats d’argile mystérieux.
Ils m’habitent et passent, froufroutant
En mes rêves éveillés
Et ainsi j’aurai un coeur -une tête-
J’en aurai plein les mains,
Quand les ciseaux viendront me chercher.

Car derrière mon dos, comme vous,
Je l’entends toujours, la Faucheuse,
Qui se rapproche.


Filed under imagination, literature, Poems

16 responses to “Found in Translation

  1. James McLaren (Jersey, Channel Islands)

    It happens with music as well. “Found in translation” isn’t a bad way to describe how a song called “Comme d’habitude” spawned both “My Way” and “Life on Mars?”

    (We can leave “Seasons in the Sun” as lost in translation…please…)

    • malcolmguite

      Thanks James, thats an interesting insight, I didnt know of ‘Comme d’habitude’ as a single source for those very different songs! sometimes versions and re-writes throw up something treally new, Like dylan’s ‘Its not dark Yet’coming strangely out of Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale!

  2. Margot Krebs Neale

    I have pondered over the poem and its translation: quite a job it is, yet a few things disturb me, so I discussed them with a French poet Severine Daucourt-Fridricksson.
    We both felt that “At my back” would be better as either “dans mon dos” or “derrière moi” .We both prefered the second less strictly physical.
    “Notre longue affaire avec Dieu” losses the idea of love which might be given back by words such as “aventure” or “intrigue”. « de notre histoire sans fin avec Dieu » would convey discretly a love story and a faint idea of the « embarassing ».
    “Froufroutant” conjures ideas of skirts and the Folies-Bergères “Bruissements” would also work for leaves, or that noise of things sliding on a floor. « dans un murmure » a little further from the original might be more poetic and give a voice to that sound.
    “Banderoles d’amour grave”, does not translate « severed strips of love ». Severed strips would be des bandelettes or banderoles déchirées.

    And the most challenging, and impossible for last ! the title. We both lamented the loss of the double meaning. “La Faucheuse” conjures death immediately, the capital F leaves no doubt and the idea of modernity is lost. Séverine suggested moving away to keep a double entendre and came up with « le dernier cri » Something like
    Dans mon dos, comme toi, j’entends toujours
    Le dernier cri, celui qui tranche et se tient prêt…
    The idea would be picked up at the end
    J’en aurai plein les mains
    Quand elle viendra, la lame
    Car dans mon dos, comme toi,
    J’entends toujours le cri ultime
    Qui se rapproche.
    “Le dernier cri” is an expression of modernity: the latest craze. But it is also the last scream, and therefore could conjure an idea of death, rendered more obvious by le cri ultime .

    • malcolmguite

      Thanks Margot (and Severine!) for this helpful analysis. I really like ‘de notre histoire sans fin avec Dieu’, that says alot of what I want, and Severine’s suggestion of ‘Le Dernier Cri, for the title phrase, modulating to ‘le cri ultime’ is excellent. In fact that whole new ending is wonderful. It is interesting that the English choose a French phrase when they want to say ‘double entendre!

      • Margot Krebs Neale

        and double entendre is not an expression in French! we would say “une expression a double sens”

  3. Diane Arnson Svarlien

    I like the falling angels, and they sound great in French! (“Chérubin et Séraphin, en spirale”).

    • malcolmguite

      Thanks Diane, I agree that’s a lovely line in the French. You are a far more experienced translator of verse than I ever will be. It would be great to get your take on things you’ve ‘found’ in your translations of Euripides et al, if you fancied a ‘guest slot’ on this blog!

  4. Margot Krebs Neale

    André Gide wrote “Sans cesse j’entends la Parque, la vieille, murmurer à mon oreille : tu n’en as plus pour longtemps »

  5. It was interesting for me to read the French translation – flipping back and forth between it and the English — because my French (which was never good) is now so rusty as to be practically non-existent… yet enough remains in my memory to make (attempting to) read a poem in French an evasive, allusive experience. Words and phrases suggest meaning without actually coming clear, and here and there a bit would come through completely. This has nothing to do with translation, per se, except perhaps that it mimics and magnifies the experience of reading poetry in general. After all, reading T.S. Eliot or G.M. Hopkins can sometimes be much like reading a half-familiar foreign language…

    One thing that I thought was interesting in terms of translation choices was the “vous.” That startled me in the French, because when I read the original, I felt that the “you” was very clearly singular, speaking directly to me in a very personal, piercing way — as if to say, if I don’t hear those cutting edges, perhaps I’m not listening very carefully! So I would have expected “comme tu”.

    • Margot Krebs Neale

      The question of tu or vous is a very interesting one, and very personal. In the comment I put above, I gave a suggestion of translation by Severine Daucourt and she used “tu”. That is when I thought about the vous chosen by Marie-Claire Weber. The vous had not disturbed me because I was brought up using “vous” a lot including to address my parents and yes vous can be a single person, “vous, le lecteur”.
      But when I read “tu” it did struck me more in “a very personal, piercing way” just as you say and feel the poem to be. Yes, “tu” does just that…

  6. malcolmguite

    Thanks for these comments Holly, I know just what you mean about reading French being an evasive, elusive experience, with meanings just suggesting themselves, that experience tends to make me more sensitive to the sound itself . certain words also seem to have a more extensive or suggestive hinterland in French. in this translation for example I like the way my line ‘forbidden hopes and shards of mystery’ comes out as ‘D’espoirs interdits et d’éclats d’argile mystérieux.’
    Like the Eliot and Hopkins comments too, though, come to think of it reading eliot does often involve quite literally ‘reading a half familiar foreign language’ 🙂

  7. Lewiss Translation of The Aeneid.Although it was nearly lost a copy of C.S. Lewiss translation of the Aeneid by Virgil Unfortunately the manuscript appears to be incomplete but what remains is of great interest to Lewis fans around the world.

    • malcolmguite

      Yes, it is a brilliant translation, which I have now finished reading and on which I am going to comment in my next blogpost!

  8. First, Thank you to excuse my English ! I just discover to-day with great pleasure this article and all the enlightening comments. I would like to thank you.

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