translators believe that the experience of reading a well-translated
poem should mimic the experience of reading the poem in the
original. Despite what these experts have to say about how
translators can produce the most authentic and natural poems, I
prefer translations that are both intelligently rendered (true,
clever and sensitive, though I know these definitions are as
problematic as accurate, reliable and faithful) and at least a
little unsettling. I believe there is a difference between a bad
translation and a difficult one, between poor choices and
problematic ones, and I appreciate a translation that makes me feel
somewhat uncertain, slightly ill-at-ease, a little off balance.
After all, what I'm reading is foreign, in the richest sense
of the term.
In "An ABC of Translating Poetry" (The Poetics of Translation:
History, Theory, Practice, Yale University Press, 1993) Willis
Barnstone, translator of numerous volumes of poetry from Greek,
Spanish and Chinese, calls this experience of unnaturalness "lexical
translation dwells in exile. It cannot return. Those who invoke
its former home wish to disenfranchise it. The translated poem
read as a poem written in the language of the adopted
literature, even if it differs because of its origin from any poem
ever written in its
new tongue…why not some fragment of unnaturalness?... Lexical
shock renews weary language bones. It is good to drink Turkish
in the pampas of the American Midwest."
I do not have language weary bones — quite the contrary. There is
plenty of poetry being published in English to keep me on my toes.
Yet what interests me about the concept of lexical shock in a
translation is its capacity for challenging boundaries and crossing
borders. A feeling of unnaturalness makes me aware that I am in
unfamiliar territory, that I am being confronted with an un-American
experience and that I am being introduced not only to a language,
but to cultural realities that are inherently different from my own.
Here is an example from Iraqi poet Fawzi Karim in excerpts from a
poem translated by Saadi Simawe and Melissa Brown ("The Dissident
Student," Poetry International 2006):
For years he listens to me
Like the trees listen to the seasons.
With me he crossed the current
To the fountain… He never lets me rest, even during my siesta,
Dictating into my tired mouth the most confusing gibberish.
Yet always mindful, as if he was holding back.
One day in my old age, he, blue like a diamond, bursts onto me
Strips off my turban,
Throws my ink and my tattered papers into my face,
And takes off as if for a rendezvous with fate.
I can't help wondering about "siesta" and "rendezvous." Do these
words appear in Spanish and French in the original? Are they common
words in Farsi or would they be read as esoteric or odd? In what way
are these "foreign" words related to the poem's concern with
"confusing gibberish?" Does "siesta" refer here literally to a
particular post-lunch nap and if so, is this a common practice in
Iraq? Or does it mean any brief rest from work? Is "rendezvous" a
planned get-together or a chance meeting? Are borrowed terms like
these common only in the language of scholars and students (a
dissident student) in Iraq or are they part of common parlance?
These are the sorts of questions I am happy for a translation to
encourage, concerns that move me deeper inside a poem and then lead
me outside of it again to ponder the landscape and culture where the
poem was written.
Dragonfire Home (on line)
View From 1st Ave.
A Rendez-Vous with the Unfamiliar
Sima Rabinowitz in New York,