Unsung Heroes, Sung Villains

Hannah Arendt lamented the damage done by translators to some of her favorite German poems. (“Remembering W. H. Auden,” The New Yorker, Jan. 20, 1975 — recently reprinted). As best I recall, she as good as said that trying to translate poetry is foolish.

What I’ve read of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, as well as the prose and poetry of ancient Greece, Rome, Persia and India, is in translation. I owe “War and Peace” to Constance Garnet. I owe “Beowulf” to Seamus Heaney. Goethe, Cavafy, even Chaucer — all translated, for me. You see where this leads: It can’t — and must — be done. Translators — including those who dare to assay poetry — have made, and make, important contributions to world culture.

I spill this thought to see if the cat licks it up: Yes, yes, yes — let’s agree that a masterful poem is ineffable, etc., but even a lyric has some “dross,” a residue of “content” of some sort able to be suggested, if not fully conveyed, in another language after the poem’s unconveyable essences are boiled away, as it were. I hazard that, if the poem is truly well crafted, said content is not a throw-away component to be dismissed highmindedly because other dimensions of the poem have necessarily been forfeited in the exchange. And I agree that even the content of a given poem may be slippery, and interpretations may vary, but bring ’em on — the more the muddier.

Robert Lowell, in his “Imitations,” takes an interesting position on translation. Also a complicated one in its way — so much so that I’d best save mulling it over for another blurp, lest this one turn long.

(c) 2018 JMN.

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day, and watch Netflix and Prime Video for entertainment. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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1 Response to Unsung Heroes, Sung Villains

  1. Eric Wayne says:

    Well, you nailed it: “I owe “War and Peace” to Constance Garnet. I owe “Beowulf” to Seamus Heaney. Goethe, Cavafy, even Chaucer — all translated, for me. You see where this leads: It can’t — and must — be done.”

    Similarly, I read Crime and Punishment, Father Goriot, Anna Karenina, and a bunch of others in translation. I read Rimbaud and Baudelaire in translation. Poetry is tougher because it is, as you well know, and better than I do, based on highly particular and even peculiar, often coincidental, relationships between the sound of words (ex., “birds” and “words” suddenly have some meaningful connection that has nothing to do with anything outside of poetry). I wouldn’t anticipate any overlap, except coincidental, between the sounds of otherwise unrelated words in one language with those of another. “Ants in my pants” in Thai is “mot nai gangang kawmg pom”.

    That said, for a poet to translate someone else’s poem into another language must be a load of fun, even if of the more technically arduous variety. It’s a bit like doing a cover of a song, or an interpretation of a painting. As you said, it can’t — and must — be done.

    Wholly agree.

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