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.
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.