888 words, 3.5 bad translations and 0 pictures

Although the language I know best is English, for some reason I think all the best poetry is in Russian. Maybe I just don’t know much English poetry. There is a poetry book store in Seattle called Open Books (which is really confusing when it’s closed). So I went there, and asked the proprietor for his opinion. His surprising response was that perhaps I’m just right and Russian poetry is simply better. So now I feel no qualms about my theory of Russian poetry superiority. However, if most of my life is in English and the poems are in Russian, the desire for translation comes up, of course. There are three ways to translate a poem. One is to adopt the scheme of theme of the poem, and then try to make the best poem within those limitations. The second is to translate word-for-word as closely as possible. The third is to try to retain both the meaning and the scheme, and accept that some poems are untranslatable. This isn’t a surprise to anyone, of course. But I’ve never seen it illustrated with several attempts to translate the same poem before (except, kind of, in Ada), so I figured it would be fun to try.

Here is the poem, the fourth poem from Marina Tsvetaeva’s cycle “Poems to Blok”:

Зверю — берлога,
Страннику — дорога,
Мертвому — дроги,
Каждому — свое.

Женщине — лукавить,
Царю — править,
Мне — славить
Имя твое.

I think historically, the most popular method was the first “just make up a related poem” method. Here is a translation of the poem in this style:

For the beast – a lair
For the saint – prayer
For the wounded – care
Same for same

For the babe – crawling
For snow – falling
For me – calling
Your name.

One advantage of this method is that it’s relatively easy to get at least something out of it. Another is that if you’re much better at poetry than the original author, you can improve the poem! This happened, for example, when Alexander Pushkin “translated” Barry Cornwall. The problem for us, though, is that this ain’t gonna happen. A more serious problem is that with so much leeway, you can miss the tone of the poem and completely misrepresent the author’s original intention. For instance what if I made the second stanza “For potheads – blazing/For YVR police – tazing/For me – praising/Your name” and then somehow attributed that to Tsvetaeva?

The second method avoids the pitfalls of misguessing what words are important and what aren’t. The “near word-for-word” poem would read something like this:

For the beast – a lair
For the wanderer – a path
For the dead – a hearse
For each their own.

For the woman – wiles
For the Tsar – rule
For me – praising
Your name

You can see that this, too, is relatively easy to do. This method is more in vogue in modern times, because it’s easier to be careful than a master poet. Also ’cause not rhyming is still considered cool. The upside is that it’s faithful to the “letter” of the poem. The downside? Let me again partially quote Wallace Stevens, with what is my favourite observation about poetry: “If the meaning of a poem is its essential characteristic, people would be putting themselves to a lot of trouble about nothing…” The above thing is good to read if you want to know what Tsvetaeva said as a research question, but it’s still totally different from her poem (even though it uses the same words).

The third method is a compromise between the two. Here’s my version of that style of translation:

For the wanderer – a way
For the beast – a hole to stay
For the dead – a dray
Each for each

For the woman – her game
For the Tsar – his claim
For me – your name
To preach

Obviously, in an ideal world, this is the best method, but in reality you can never have both the words and the prosody identical – the languages are different, after all. So what happens is you get some of the weaknesses of both the other ways. An additional problem is that you get contortions of language: “For the beast – a hole to stay” is a really ugly line that wouldn’t exist in either method one or two. But what if there’s no way to avoid the ugliness? Either you must veer from the meaning, or from the style, or accept that the poem is untranslateable. The last is probably the correct path, but sometimes it’s hard to accept. Say you are translating Eugene Onegin and it all works wonderfully until the last stanza? You’re not going to just say “oh well, it’s untranslateable, I guess”.

My own view is that while the first way may lead to good poems, and the second is useful, neither is translation. I also innately believe that a translator shouldn’t ever add anything of their own, but taking things out, or rearranging things that exist is fair game. This is an aesthetic preference that I don’t have any defence of, other than that some of the translations I’ve read that I enjoy most operate under this principle. Although my favourite “translation” that I ever tried myself was when I mostly ignored the meaning of the words and tried to keep the sounds similar (for Vinicius de Moraes’ Berimbau).

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3 Responses to 888 words, 3.5 bad translations and 0 pictures

  1. Zuuko says:

    Is this closer? mind you chez is french for home, or cottage. the only other option was chalet. But I think dervish is an improvement if the idea is that the wanderer is on a spiritual path (hence, reference to saint in version 1 of this poem)?

    For the dervish – a way
    For the beast – a chez
    For the dead – a dray
    Each for each

    For the woman – her game
    For the Tsar – his claim
    For me – your name
    To preach

  2. zzzanna says:

    omg guys….. cooool )))

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