LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 28, No. 4 - Winter 1982
Editor of this issue: Jonas Zdanys, Yale University
Copyright © 1982 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
SOME THOUGHTS ON TRANSLATING POETRY
In the past several months, a number of articles in both English and Lithuanian have appeared which have discussed poetic translations into and from Lithuanian. Essays in Aidai, Akiraθiai, the Journal of Baltic Studies, and Metmenys have examined at times fiercely questions surrounding the role of the translator and the viability of offered translations. Those discussions have focused on and have grown from deliberations of the propriety of various approaches to translation and from the line-by-line and even word-byword! comparisons of original poems and their renderings in the new language.
While I usually hesitate to join the ideological fray because of the too frequent resulting posturings participants are forced to assume, because of the heightening of contradictions polemics requires, and because of a general distrust of "position papers" written by poets to define their own work, I am moved enough by what seems to be a closed network and attendant pronouncements of artistic acceptability to venture forth a few observations, ideas which have evolved during the course of some twelve years of translation making.
Perhaps the most visible aspect of the current discussion is the preponderance of things theoretical. Though trained as a literary scholar and groomed to understand and often cultivate the theoretical in all discussions of the literary process, I have nonetheless come to believe that most literary theories are best suited to some ideal Platonic realm, where purity is palpable. Here, in the world of pen and paper and ink, the theoretical is in too many ways only intellectual game-playing, a distortion of the process of the creative, a posturing and a prancing around the periphery of what the thing we call a literary work in fact is. It takes little subtlety of mind to understand that multiplicity and subjectivity are always key issues in any consideration of a literary work, that connotation is fast at play, and that theories which exist as predetermined entities out there when applied are impositions and that with such impositions come limitation and distortion. This is especially true in the case of the judging of a translation by applying the tenets of an existing theory and pronouncing the translation as at best "a gloss" of the original because it does not adhere to the tenets of that applied theory.
For these reasons, and for others, I hope to shun the framing in these pages of a theory which seeks once and for all to propose the "correct" vision of what poetic translation can and ought to be. Such a proposal and perhaps even a belief that there is in art such a truth seems to me to limit too severely the definition of "creativity" and, worse still, posits the dimensions of the artistically acceptable. That such an urge exists in most of us engaged in literary work perhaps in all of us is certainly clear: one need only look at anything polemical to see the existence of a subjectivity which posits itself squarely at the center of things and which defines itself, irrevocably, as ultimate and true. On a scale closer to this discussion, one need only look at the tenets of Social Realism to see the effects of the imposition of a prevailing theory which purports to be truth.
I prefer to assert that questions of art, by definition, are subjective, relative, and personal; that they touch greatly and closely on issues of undefinable and often undefendable "taste"; that they are not readily or easily open to pronouncements or dismissals; and that in many ways the analytical faculty which seeks to understand the artistic is simply not the faculty most suited to understand or to articulate the artistic impulse.* The distance between the affective the level on which the artistic operates and the analytical is great; theories, I think, are too often inadequate to bridge the gap, and intellectual constructs alone are not necessarily best suited to explain it.
It is necessary, though, to discuss some existing theories before positing a preliminary explanation of what the process of translation-making may entail. One current theory of translation-making postulates a difference between opposing "schools" of translation: the "Western" school as practiced, say, in the United States and the "Eastern" school as practiced within the Soviet Union, the source of current literary tradition for those schooled in the techniques of translation-making in Lithuania. Briefly stated, according to this theory the "Western" school of poetic translation seeks to recreate in one language only the words of the original poem; the translation process, in this view, becomes little else than transliteration, a task most easily performed, it seems, through a dispassionate program of dictionary equivalents of words, phrases, and occasional metaphors and images. The description of the "Western" poetic school is one which compares the translator skilled in the "Western" approach to the solitary horn player whose task it is to convey alone the richness of a major symphony; the lesson, of course, is that the lone player cannot recreate the symphony and, by implication, the "Western" translator cannot convey adequately a sense of the richness of the poem he attempts to translate.
That is probably true. The process of translation-making should not necessarily be a process of discovering linguistic equivalents across the gulf which divides structurally distinct languages (although, it seems to me, the syntactical-analytical structure of English encourages, almost demands, that). That is a task best left to those writers who are happiest when, dictionary in hand, eyes glistening with the discovered joy of denotation, they search for words which "mean the same" in both languages. Those who demand such imagined precision demonstrate an understanding of poetry and art and translation-making which verges on the myopic. The process of translation-making is far more complex; there is much more at work than a single-minded rooting for truffles, and the translator is involved in much more than the search for equivalent words locked in the pages of the newest bilingual dictionary.
Translation, it seems to me, ought to involve a search for and, when necessary, a substitution not of linguistic equivalents but of "affective equivalents," images which, like Eliot's "objective correlatives," capture emotion and as many of the cognitive implications of the original as possible. If this search entails changing the "literal" meaning as defined by some compiled listing of linguistic "equivalents" then that change ought to be made. This, of course, is not something to be undertaken gratuitously or haphazardly; change is never made for the sake of change; unmotivated rearrangement in the search for "affective equivalents" should not be applauded. That change should be undertaken in the search to create a poem which reads like and shares the tonal inflections and qualitites of the prevailing poetic tradition of the new language. That is, poetry translated into contemporary American English becomes part of a tradition or prevailing literary condition in which rhythms are easy and in which there is no sense of linguistic stress or forced collocation of image. The reader of the translation must feel that he is reading an original contemporary American poem. To encourage that sense, the language cannot be stilted or forced; to ensure that, changes of words and phrases or images ought to be made during the translation-making process so the translation is, indeed, a new poem and an integral part of the contemporary, vivid, poetic scene of the new language, imbued with the same sort of idiom which defines the contemporary poetic thrust.
The issue arises, of course, of fidelity to the original. If I can use my own work as an example, I can offer some sense of a response to that demand. While making a translation, I work through various versions of a translation and through various approaches to the translation process, always beginning with a literal rendering, a version drafted with the aid of dictionaries and native speakers (myself included). To avoid contortions of language, I change those literals, substituting what I consider to be more appropriate phrases and images "affective equivalents" which capture what I feel and envision is the essence of the poem and which make the new poem a part of the American poetic scene. The process, I think, is artistically acceptable and does not violate academic and scholarly bounds. The leap of faith is not great or overbearing.
It seems to me that this idea, this search for "affective equivalents," borders in some ways on the line which encircles the "Eastern" school of poetic translation, but that, for me, it happily does not cross it. That school defines its own process of translation as a kind of fuller and hence better rendering of the symphony which is a poem. That rendering, though, has a profound preoccupation with things formal: metrics, rhymes, and other patterns. The "Eastern" school, in its efforts, focuses too much, it seems to me, on the poem's (and on the translation's) exoskeleton and not enough on the generation of particulars which, if not directly recreating content and image, engage the imagination by generating "affective equivalents." Those "affective equivalents," as I mentioned above, ought to be framed within a poetic structure which does not duplicate that of the original but which fits squarely into the poetic idiom of the language of the translation. Some of the literal and much of the formal can be surrendered to make a good American English poem which consists of literal renderings and of selected "affective equivalents". The "Eastern" school instead sacrifices the literal, often ignores the powerful distinct image, and makes substitutions to ensure the adequate replication, first and foremost, of the poem's patterns.
Both theories of translation "Western" and "Eastern" seem incomplete, and not only because each demands some activity on the part of the translation maker which is predetermined. The "Western" school of translation is too mechanical. As such, though, it is surely the perfect product of its age, where hand-held computers at the touch of a button provide word equivalents in two or three languages. This school, and its strict adherents, it seems to me ignore the notion of a shaping and reordering artistic consciousness which exists apart from and which transcends the mechanism of word-for-word transliteration, the computer programmer's answer to translation. Here there is a relinquishing or, worse still, an ignoring of linguistic connotation, and the wrong-headed move toward the limited and ever-limiting demand for the denotative. The "Eastern" school, with its rigid concern for patterns and its preoccupation with form with the skin of the poem too often ends up creating poetry which is stilted and forced and often only as beautiful as stuffed birds perched on ledges in forgotten display cases. Too many translations of poems into or from the Lithuanian sound as if they had been given shape by those whose knowledge of a language comes through reading and not through hearing and speaking, from apprentices in a "form" workshop whose knowledge of the new language is academic and not alive. The "Eastern" school's tenets and artistic suppositions concern me on a different level, too: What sort of mindset is it that requires primary adherence to form over content? What sort of society is it in which is stressed the precedence of structure? Where is artistic freedom when the bounds of creativity even in the exacting practice of translation are prescribed?
Makers of translations should adhere to neither theory and to no other predetermined theory. What is important is the necessary organic unfolding of each translation and the associated search for "affective equivalents" which shape the translation by playing off against the original and against the contemporary tradition. Still, having undertaken the task of writing this essay about what I think translation-making may entail, and trying to give shape to some thoughts I have about the process, I would like to try to articulate and give some measure of analytical coherence to a process which is, in essence, subjective and which involves a sphere of mental activity as the newly-vogue psychobiologists tell us which is not readily or easily quantifiable. How does one "translate" the motivations of creativity, the internal rhythms of the artistic process in essence the nonrational and the noncognitive into rational, cognitive, analytical terms? To do so, I think, would require an attempt to define and explain the "creative," something I am neither willing to venture forth to try to do nor which I am capable of doing. I can at best offer a sort of summary of what I think is the process with which translators are involved as they make a translation. To wit:
(1) The translator's primary responsibility is to make a poem which, although it is a translation of a poem existing in a different language, exists and takes an unobtrusive place in the contemporary poetic tradition of the new language. The translator, in this sense, crosses linguistic and cultural barriers and involves himself, in a leap of adaptation, in the formulation of a parallel though freely-existing poem.
(2) To accomplish this, the translator, as he makes his translation, searches for literal equivalents which "work" to ensure that the translation is "true" to the original. In those instances in which the effect of the literal is not adequate to the translator's eye and ear, or if the literal seems actually to detract from the new poem, "affective equivalents" must be found which, when substituted for the literal, work to ensure that the new poem is self-sustaining and does not "sound like a translation".
(3) All changes of image or word or phrase must be motivated. That is, they must be true to the translation-maker's artistic sensibility; they must, for the translation-maker, help make the translation a good poem in the new language. The translation-maker's duty is to the original, yes; but his primary duty is to the new poem which, through the process of translation, "becomes" the translator's poem and not just a transliteration of the original poet's work. In this view, the translator is active and not passive; an originator and not a transporter; a transformer and creator and not just some drudge who, dictionary in hand, roots for and writes down linguistic equivalents.
(4) The translation-maker's voice in the process of translation-making is as important as the voice of the original poet. The translator is modulator and interpreter of text, a shaper, a sound giver. The translation in some ways, thus, borders on being a kind of paralanguage. It is not just a "translation" but the translator's poem, an artifact to be considered separately as a product of artistic creation and not compared as a word-for-word rendering or some sort of recreated exoskeleton or linguistic mold. The translator, in this view, is an artist equal to the original poet.
These four points, I hope, will generate further discussion. Some products of the process have already attracted divergent commentary; I'm certain this, too, will find similar response. I would like to say, though, before I am upbraided for a tunneling of vision, that it is indeed my sense that these four points are not radical or new. They seem to me to be a framed reiteration of some fundamental artistic principles which illuminate for me what that thing we call the creative process is. I would like to affirm, too, that this is not an unchangeable manifesto; ideas, like translations, evolve organically and like any living thing are always open to stimulus and to resulting rearrangement and refinement. Toward that end, I welcome response from those currently engaged in translation-making and hope that we can begin a discussion and a valuable exchange which focuses on issues which transcend that which we too often have seen passing as learned discussion.
* I talk here about "art" and not about "kitsch"; I assume that we all understand that there is, indeed, "good" and "bad" art, and do not here wish to defend the "bad" in the name of any of these four categories.