24 October 2006

When fidelity is treasonous

Don Paterson's brief piece on translating Rilke explains,
The one thing a poet must avoid, however, is pretending that both the meaning and the music of the original poem can be carried into the new language. Because a poem works on the heretical principle that sound and sense are the same thing, a poem is locked for ever in its original form. The poem's effect, which is all there is of it, can no more be "translated" than can a piece of music.

Yet we are compelled to seek some new incarnation for foreign poems in our own language. The two main strategies are the "translation" and the "version". In the translation, you work on accurately representing the words and their systems of relations; here, the integrity of the means (your skill and qualifications as a translator, say) justify the end. In the version, you work on representing the poem's idea and "spirit"; here, the integrity of the end (your inner conviction that this somehow "captures the vibe" of the original) justifies the means. A translation mirrors the original and stands alongside it; but a version tries to be a new, free-standing poem in its own right. In order to achieve that level of semantic and musical integration, it has, at some point, to forget the original and complete the course on its own.
As frightening a prospect as this sounds, it does make a lot of sense. I'm willing to admit that my predisposition has always been to the more "literal" side, but perhaps I owe this to a somewhat Romantic notion of authorial inspiration? That is, the closer something sticks to the literal meaning, the closer we are to authorial intent. But is this merely an almost mystical trust in the efficacy of words? (Especially as Paterson himself admits that Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus "appear to have been less composed than dictated to the German poet - as if they had been sitting around elsewhere, waiting for someone to channel them into speech. In an earlier time, we would have had no trouble in describing the Sonnets - in their oracularity and their visionary power - as a prophetic work.") On the other hand, I'm beginning to see such an attitude as exhibiting a lack of trust: authorial intent is far from the only issue that must be examined when analyzing a work of literature.

Meanwhile, Bud comments on this other excellent article and explains how "even reading in your own language is a translation":
What is translation if not an interpretation? Once we think in those terms, we've opened the door for the sometimes less than literal result of different translations over time. [...]

If I read a book in English (the only language I can read in) and I look up a word, aren't I then imposing Mr. Webster's and my own meaning on that word and therefore the author's intent? [...]

The best analogy comes from music - a performance of a symphony is a translation of a composer's music (often with the help of notes, either latin notation or annotations). At one level each conductor's music may sound the same - ta ta ta ta ta ta ta ta ta ta ta ta ta ta ta (can't you tell, that's Ode to Joy), but listening more closely, changes in timing or tone (not to mention possible reinstrumentation) can make the music sound quite different.
Angel Gurria-Quintana (in the article Bud quotes) points out the interesting dichotomy between "clarity" and "precision," ultimately deciding that
In the best literature, form is substance. Similarly with translations. Puritans may take issue, but it is undoubtedly a translation’s beauty - rather than its careful imitation of an original - that finally nudges it across the language barrier and enhances the pleasure it provides. Even if translation is treason, it is a necessary form of treachery on which readers of world literature depend.
Interestingly, it's my father (a native Spanish-speaker) who has opened up my mind to the reason clarity *must* supercede precision in a translation. Communication doesn't always have to indicate a loss of fidelity. Literalism (whether it be whimsical or heavy-handed) is ultimately more about not offending the author than it is about fully serving the work. And if fidelity means putting the essence (or meaning) of a work in second place, who or what is actually being betrayed?

And last--but far from least!--Jeff announces that The Unbearable Lightness of Being is finally (!!) being released in the Czech Republic. (I somehow think that a retranslation into English is now called-for...although that might take another ten years!)

(The two articles came via The Literary Saloon and were posted on my birthday. I'll take that as a nod that I'm heading in the right direction...)

1 comment:

Kathleen C said...

I was enthralled and challenged by the whole concept of interpretation, "precision vs clarity" and so happy to know that there is an eye-opening philosophy of translation, whose depths must be plumbed.