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.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.
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.
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.