Thursday, 1 December 2011

Tim Parks in Sensible Comment Shock!

Regular readers will know I'm not a great admirer of Tim Parks' theories on how the fact books get translated is making literature dull and globalised. I summed up my objections here. The man himself has been in Germany recently and even took part in an event about his ideas in Berlin, which I sadly couldn't attend. Or maybe not sadly, because I'm sure it would have made me all angry and incoherent and given me wrinkles. He also gave an interview to Deutschlandradio Kultur, reiterating his ideas and giving one single example (Peter Stamm).

So imagine my surprise when I read Parks' latest missive in the New York Review of Books - and actually found myself nodding in agreement. Here, Parks writes about the translation of poetry and how it really helps to have an excellent knowledge of the original language. In many cases poetry is translated by poets, who often don't understand the source language at all or have only a rudimentary grasp. They do so with what we call an interlinear translation - an absolutely literal translation done by a non-poet.

I'm not going to make myself many friends by saying this, but that's a bit of a roundabout way of doing things. What I often find comes out of the procedure is more a new poem than a classic translation. (Oh, by the way, I'm reading David Bellos' Is That a Fish in Your Ear? so when I use the words "classic translation" you'll just have to think up your own idea about what that might mean, because of course there's no such thing. But more on that some other time - let's just assume we have reached an agreement about what a translation is, and it is a close approximation of the original text in another language.) Now there's nothing wrong with writing a new poem based upon one written in a language that's foreign to you and your audience. The book Buch der Sehnsüchte, for example, is a collection of Leonard Cohen translations by various German writers, some of them rather a long way from the originals. And there's a similar anthology of translations by German poets out there that I shall add in this spot as soon as I can remember the title. In fact, I've been told (by a translating poet) that only poets can translate poetry.

I disagree, and so does Tim Parks. He writes:
(W)hat often frees the student to offer better translations is a deeper knowledge of the language he is working from: a better grasp of the original allows the translator to detach from formal structures and find a new expression for the tone he is learning to feel: in this case, however, every departure from strict transposition is inspired by an intimate and direct experience of the original.
All this to arrive at the obvious conclusion that while expression and creativity in one’s own language is crucial, a long experience in the language we are working from can only improve the translations we make.
Interpreting is a key aspect of translation, and I feel a good translation has to be based on the translator's personal interpretation of the text. We have to feel the implications and hints, the flavour and allusions, we have to hear when a poem is leaning towards an advertising jingle or a Christmas carol just as when it's playing on a previous work. And while there are of course annotated editions of poetry that has entered the canon, most poems just have to stand on their own to be interpreted freely. To capture all those nuances calls for intimate knowledge of the original language and to re-render it, great skill in the target language.

The ideal translator for the purpose of rendering a close approximation of poetry, then, might be a poet or might not be, but would be a voracious reader of poetry in both languages.


David said...

Parks mentions Robert Lowell in his piece, but Lowell was the first to admit that his efforts were not translations at all, but rather "Imitations" (the title of his 1961 collection). In the preface Lowell writes:

"I have tried to write alive English and to do what my authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America [...] I have been almost as free as the authors themselves in finding ways to make them ring right for me."

Ina Pfitzner said...

I think this actually holds true for all translation. A lot of people have gotten a lot of mileage out of Walter Benjamins' adage from "The Task of the Translator": "indem er — auch dichtet?" (...a translator can reproduce only if he is also a poet?<- Too much "poetry" in this translation already as far as I'm concerned).
A visceral grasp of the original is essential and a knowledge and feeling of place. When it comes to translations from English, I'm sometimes surprised by the nonchalance on the part of some of my colleagues, who have never been there and have no intention of going...

Anonymous said...

Very true - there has been a whole flood of bad poetry translations recently, all of them by poets, and more often than not of rather questionable quality. Many of them, I am afraid, were published by luxbooks, a publisher I admire greatly for their tenacity.
(And maybe the book the name of which slipped your mind is John Ashberry, Ein weltgewandtes Land, which is the collaborative effort of a whole bunch of German poets translating (or rather "nachdichten") Ashberry's poetry.)
And, sadly, the most prolific of the translator-poets are sometimes the most inept. Whoever has had the pleasure of trying to converse in English with Ron Winkler knows what I mean.

kjd said...

I agree with you Ina. I often find it shocking how little some translators into German know about the source culture. But I do hope they're only a very small minority.

kjd said...

And Anonymous - that was indeed the book I'd been thinking of.

But what I didn't really make clear enough in my post was that the "poet reworking the original in the second language" model is still legitimate, for me. As long as it's clear that's what's going on.

I was recently lucky enough to experience - at first hand - two poets translating each other. It was a hugely productive exercise and I'm sure the end products (which I haven't seen yet) will be well away from the originals, because working together gave them the license to do as much or as little to the poems as they wanted.

What I object to is the notion that it takes a poet to translate at all. Let's blame Walter Benjamin.

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