Failure Foretold: Manifesto of Translation Excuses

The physics of a tiny bead driven by a puff of air towards a miracle on airy wing guarantees that a kid plinking at dragonflies with his BB-gun will never bag one. That’s the comfort built into the action. So it goes with translating poetry — done because it can’t be done. The lost cause fallacy cushions the effrontery.

I’m not a poet but gravitate to poems for translation practice and vocabulary acquisition. A decent poem’s language is economical, concrete, precise and uninflated. If it’s flowery or obscure — and there’s plenty of that — it may suffer qua poetry but is still fit for purpose as long as it can be held in the mind and on the tongue, and interrogated at word level

Carmen Giménez, Graywolf Press’s new executive editor, has said she became a poet and not a fiction writer because she is “attracted to the granular level of language” Me too. My view of translation will be myopic in the sense of being literal-minded.

Here are the two poles of the dialog:

How literal must a literary translation be? Nabokov, who was fluent in three languages and wrote in two of them, believed that “the clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase.” Borges, on the other hand, maintained that a translator should seek not to copy a text but to transform and enrich it. “Translation is a more advanced stage of civilization,” Borges insisted—or, depending on the translation you come across, “a more advanced stage of writing.” (He wrote the line in French, one of several languages he knew.)

(Jiayang Fan, “Han Kang and the Complexity of Translation,” The New Yorker, 1-8-18)

If I had to pick a side, heaven forbid, I’d have to call myself of the Nabokovian persuasion, but not as proud or thunderous.

With Arabic, I can’t profit from having rubbed elbows with the culture such as I’ve done with Spanish and, to some extent, French. Tant pis. I won’t be denied a gander at the sources in company with my dictionary and grammars. Most fascinating is when other translators depart from the literal sense of texts as I’m able to glean it. The how and why are paramount, with due respect to whatever “spirit” and authorial intention they presume to have captured floating outside the rude language matchups that can be established.

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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