Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Translation Muscle

Take a number of Cork poets and pair them with poets from the then ‘accession’ states of Europe and countries beginning their negotiations with the EU like Bulgaria and Romania, and publish the results of the encounter – this was the ambitious project which the Munster Literature Centre set itself as part of the Cork 2005 European Capital of Culture.

Poetry translation into English can often be a fairly loosely defined affair and in truth we probably need a more extensive vocabulary to describe the range of practice from close linguistic encounter to the working of translations provided by others which, with one exception, is what happens here. The fact that the poets don’t speak the languages they are translating caused a small splash of controversy. Can a poet who does not speak a source language be said to ‘translate’ a poem from that language? If not, how should that encounter be described? The poets, apart from Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, worked from cribs provided by intermediate translators. The exact role they played is unclear, and the books don’t have an agreed protocol for acknowledging this somewhat mysterious assistance, the intermediate translator sometimes acknowledged on the flyleaf, sometimes credited as the author of distinct ‘versions’, sometimes relegated to a note inside.

In one sense this kind of translation encounter is a reflection of the power of English. In other languages translation invariably means a linguistic encounter. No French, German, Bulgarian or Romanian translator would translate from a language they didn’t know; knowledge of the source language would be a given. The context in which translation happens is very often an interest in the source literature. In poetry translation it has become very common for translators into English even from such widely known languages as French, German or Spanish not to speak those langauges. To an extent this reflects the lack of interest within English-speaking cultures in other languages. Each year university language departments dolefully announce that fewer students are studying foreign languages, as a variety of English becomes the universal lingua franca. But it’s also a reflection of the fact that poetry pretty much always gets translated by poets, just as it’s poets who form the bulk of the consumers for the product. English language poets are not often linguists, but their appetite for translation, or however we choose to define the encounter, is often considerable.

It’s true that the act of translation is always a literary event rather than a purely linguistic event, an act of creative interpretation whose end result is a new production in the poet-translator’s language, but if the linguistic encounter is removed completely from the equation, what’s left is inevitably a secondary interpretation, a response to a response, a working up of a literal supplied by someone else. Should this bother us? Isn’t it the Poundian paradigm? Isn’t this how most translations from the classics work, with poets sifting through the existing translations and scholarship to sharpen their own work? That in itself is a process of engagement and will usually have been triggered by an affinity with the work, however encountered. The Cork project is just that: a project. And affinities will have had to have been orchestrated to an extent. A friendly academic, an interested ambassador...How do poets who don’t speak the language encounter poetry in that language in the first instance? How is one Lithuanian poet chosen above another? Do already existing translations play a role? Do they encounter each other at international conferences and jamborees?

Few of the books in the series have introductory material, but a bit of googling produces the following account by Kristin Dimotrova: ‘I received a letter from Gregory [O’Donoghue] saying that he’d read a lot of Bulgarian poetry, but that he’d really liked my poetry and that he wanted to work with me on the project. It was out of this world! I still have the letter’, says Kristin. ‘He came to Bulgaria to discuss the project. When I saw him I said: Gregory, you look like Obi Wan Kanobi. He laughed. Working with him was a great experience.’ ( How did Gregory O’Donoghue encounter Bulgarian poetry? Was it in the original or through translation? How did Maurice Riordan come across Immanuel Mifsud or Robert Welch happen on Dana Podracká? The blurbs on the back of the books give us some context, but these can be somewhat cryptic:

    A generous streak of dark wit is evident in the least likely of places. After all, anyone who edited a magazine entitled “Temperance and Hard Work” has to have a healthy sense of the absurd, at least I hope so. (Gerry Murphy on Katarzyna Borun-Jagodzinska)

    Sigitas Parulskis is the voice of a new Lithuania unshackled and demuzzled from unrealistic, official, Soviet optimism. His voice has such authority it guarantees him not only a place as Lithuania’s leading young poet but also fiction writer. Liz O’Donoghue’s experience as one of the generation of Irish who matured into the despairing 1980’s of the green Banana Republic qualifies her perfectly for transferring Parulskis’ vision into a cutting, sardonic Hiberno-English.

    What gives these poems their lift and savour, however, is not so easily named. Korun is both blunt and subtle, at once fantastically delicate and brutally direct as she confronts the terror and mystery and rough joys of being a mind incarnate – or, if you prefer, a thinking animal.

In one of the few volumes with an introductory note, Theo Dorgan explain how he came to work on Barbara Korun. It began with a decision to translate a woman ‘because I had learned that, as with Ireland in the 80s, poetry in Slovenia was not what you might call actively receptive to women’s voices, so there was a small opportunity to make a political point, and partly because I thought that the final texts might be more readily seen as versions of the author’s originals if it was clear that the speaking voice was not mine as man.’ The Slovenian ambassador to Ireland provided Dorgan ‘with as wide a range of texts in translation as it was possible to obtain, and gave generously of her time in helping me find my way, at last, to the work I have chosen to translate’. Dorgan also clarifies the role of his intermediate translator, Ana Jelnikar, ‘who supplied me with meticulous line-by-line literal versions of these poems, and with minutely detailed, illuminating scholarly notes – I was able to cross over into the territory of Barbara Korun’s poems by means of a strong, well-engineered bridge.’ He also worked closely with the poet herself to make the poems ‘as faithful as could be to the originals.’

A project, then, determined on the one hand by ideological decision followed by research and selection of the poet to be translated, and on the other by fidelity to a distant original. Many of the translations in the series read precisely as if they were labouring under the influence of the literal versions, preserve syntactic awkwardness and odd line breaks, and end up in the realm of translationese, where they could have done with cutting loose sufficiently to carve out a real poem in English. Some make a particular effort to domesticate the originals into a recognisable local idiom. This is true for instance of Greg Delanty’s versions of Kyriakos Charalambides, which make for lively reading, though sometimes domestication can go too far: ‘whose dantá (sic) are they in your laimheen (sic)?’ (‘In Aramaic’). Some improve on versions of poems that I’ve seen published elsewhere (Gerry Murphy’s versions of Katarzyna Borun-Jagodzinska or Gregory O’Donoghue’s of Kristin Dimitrova). And many have succeeded in crafting memorable English poems from their material.

The fact that the she learned Romanian undoubtedly deepened Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s engagement with Ileana Malancioiu’s work. The resulting translations certainly make a strong impression, particularly the series of poems written in memory of the poet’s sister. The versions have a strength of line and image and work convincingly in English. The edition also has the benefit of a useful introductory essay on the poet’s work. The essay pursues her career through its various phases as well as giving us a sense of where it fits in the tradition of Romanian poetry. This gives us a context to read her in and this seems to me me a useful model for presenting poetry from a culture likely to be unfamiliar to most readers.
Lack of context can make it difficult to respond to poems which depend on awareness of specific events or circumstances. The concluding poem in Dana Podracká’s book is ‘The Place of Execution of the First President’:

    Thank you, Lord, for the gift of sadness
    that brought me even past the metal door
    into the cell where they hanged our president
    and where they now kennel dogs in cages...

There are no explanatory notes, but would our response to this be affected by knowing that that the president in question is the Catholic priest Monsignor Tiso, president of the collaborationist ‘independent’ Slovakia from 1939-1945, from which 60,000 Jews were deported to the death camps? How much context does a translation require? Or does translation function for us as an ahistorical, asymmetrical zone, a wash of words and images at a tangent to the real? Do we, as readers, prefer a certain socio-political vagueness, a blurrily delineated psycho-geography of otherness, to the kind of anxious explaining of the dedicatee at the foot of Zbynek Hejda’s poem ‘Variations on Gelner III’ (see below): ‘Sergej was a friend of Hejda’s who used to be pro-communist but became disillusioned’ ? One of the peculiar by-products of translation is that can feed a notion of universalist poetry, cleanly purged of the laboriousness of the particular, but it’s a dubious notion, and one of the useful functions of this series is to remind us that poems do come from particular places, out of particular circumstances and historical pressures. The fact that we don’t necessarily understand these at our first encounter should provoke us to explore further, and if these books work as initial provisional reports on a single voice from each of the countries selected, they’ll have served us very well.
This particular selection of voices wouldn’t have reached us without the paraphernalia of the City of Culture, but wouldn’t it be interesting if translation of poetry was integrated into the fabric of Irish publication, so that publishers’ lists might carry news of poetic close encounters on some kind of regular basis? And poets might get a chance to flex the useful translation muscle, and fork out on dictionaries, grammars, and language lessons. . .
Here, in the meantime, with thanks to Cork 2005/Southword, are a few sample poems from the series.

Book issued at the time of writing in the Cork 2005/Southword series:

Ileana Malancioiu, After the Raising of Lazarus, translated from the Romanian by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin
Kristin Dimitrova, A Visit to the Clockmaker. Translated from the Bulgarian by Greogory O’Donoghue.
Barbara Korun, Songs of Earth and Light. Translated from the Slovene by Theo Dorgan.
Kyriakos Charalambides, Selected Poems. Translated from the Greek by Greg Delanty.
Immanuel Mifsud, Confidential Reports. Translated from the Maltese by Maurice Riordan.
Dana Podracká, Forty Four. Translated from the Slovak by Robert Welch.
Katarzyna Borun-Jagodzinska. Translated from the Polish by Gerry Murphy.
Zbynek Hejda, A Stay in a Sanatorium, translated from the Czech by Bernard O’Donoghue.
Guntars Godins, Flying Blind, translated from the Latvian by Eugene O’Connell.
Sigitas Parulskis, The Towers Turn Red, translated from the Lithuanian by Liz O’Donoghue.

Ileana Malancioiu

The Doctor on Duty

Go away quickly, she said to me, I’m afraid,
you see that Doctor X is on duty
he surely knows what to give me to help me to breathe,
he told me nobody dies while he’s on the ward.

And indeed, that very young doctor
who was not as famous as his heart was good
came in te middle of the night and gave her
something that kept her breathing until the next day.

Afterwards she understood
that his shift was finished and we had started
that terrible day about which already
she had begun to say it would never be over.

The one who was on duty looked down
on us without interfering:
I never said that nobody dies
while I am on duty, I am not at fault.
From After the Raising of Lazarus, translated from the Romanian by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

Katarzyna Borun-Jagodzinska

City Poets

It would be easier for us
if we stopped saying it straight,
if we his our meaning in metaphor,
if we dealt solely in obscurity.
The city sells itself over and over
for false friendships, for temporary gain.
Look at the previous dwellers
abandoned outside its gates,
dumped in its overflowing cemeteries.
We are no different,
our home is a dark stain
on a tablecloth,
a heart fashioned inexpertly
on a sewing machine.
We are foundlings
left in boxes outside orphanages,
squirming and wailing without end.

From Pocket Apocalypse, translated from the Polish by Gerry Murphy, intermediate translation by Karolina Barski

Immanuel Mifsud

The Mad People

In the electronic age every nutcase
with a laptop is writing a masterpiece.
They spend the night locked up in chat rooms
and emerge with red eyes and love poems.

From Confidential Reports, translated from the Maltese by Maurice Riordan, assisted by Adrian Grima.

Kristin Dimitrova


Uneven lines of lamps –
some bright, others smashed.
Silent wake
of a Mercedes
sweeps across my face,
cigarette smoke
of a bully.
Asphalt mimics the sky
for colour and firmness.
The bingo hall is open,
the church is under repairs,
Coca-Cola wishes us
Merry Christmas.
In my empty pockets
I keep my fingers crossed
for the oboist
with his hat at his feet.

From A Visit to the Clockmaker, translated from the Bulgarian by Gregory O’Donoghue assisted by Kristin Dimitrova.


sean lysaght said...

Having recently been translating epigrams by Goethe, I agree that the word 'version' should more properly apply to the work you mention. True poetry translation offers a fascinating challenge: to find new resources in one's own language through an authentic encounter with the target language.

Anonymous Poet said...

Hmmmm . . . difficult questions. I'm not sure I have the answers to those. Sorry.

John Guzlowski said...

Hi, I just posted a blog entry about a photo journal that did a special issue on Polish poets and photographers, and Katarzyna Borun-Jagodzinska, one of the poets you write abuot here, is represented with a very strong poem translated by Karen Kovacik.

swiss said...

nice! have just got barbara korun's one of these. am linking to this via my blog if that's okay

Featured post

Eastword Ho!

This is the latest from the Dublin essays I've been working on. This time I'm prowling the tangled history and contemporary rea...