On Poetry and Translation

I think that poetry is a beautiful and important part of our history. Poetry allows us to express our thoughts and feelings in a therapeutic and elegant way. Poetry is important because it presents a way for people to connect with one another in with deeper expression than with prose. For me, the most important part of the poem is the flow. The form of expression can be just as important as the content when considering a poem whether you are writing it yourself or it is a work of translation. The form should match the content, because the tonality of the work can be utterly changed with format.

Take for example, the Irish folk song Green Fields of France. I am a firm believer that music is a vivid form of poetry, and this song is no exception. There are many versions, but my two favorites are both by The High Kings. In one, the song has a slow and graceful melody, that makes it a quite beautiful and meaningful song. The other version is no less meaningful, but has an upbeat tempo that makes the song bigger and more enthusiastic. Both takes on the poetry of this song are quite lovely, but the first time I heard them I didn’t even realize they were the same song until I examined the lyrics.

From this we can understand that tone and flow are some of the most important parts of a poem, and yet they are also malleable, depending on who composes the piece. Everyone writes poetry differently because poetry is a reflection. For some that means a reflection of the self, or of an experience, or of knowledge that the poet is comfortable with. My poetry contains my thoughts and hopes and dreams, and I make my own mark with everything I write.

Here is when I fully turn to translation, that delicate art. Aside from authors and poets who translate their own works, the translator is taking up someone else’s voice, and changing it into another tongue. The translation is a different entity from the original, because it requires a leap of faith towards oneself and one’s abilities to reimagine the work in a new context. In his essay An Act of Imagination Philip Boehm notes that “what allows us to summon a new creation from the original and give it a life of its own is our empathetic imagination.”[1] So when I translate a poem, I am not only shaping the words through varying amounts of linguistic prowess, but also putting myself and my imagined consciousness into the poem.

That said, every time I look at a poem that I have translated, or even more so poems I have written myself, there is always something I want to change. The poem is always forming itself, even as I go back to it again and again. During my independent study last semester, I was hesitant to share my poems with the professor because I never felt like what I had done was enough, and I was revising right up until hours before my selected poems were due. Maybe I was overdoing it a wee bit, but honestly, I don’t feel like I was.

Tomorrow I head off to Middlebury’s 3rd Annual Bread Loaf Translators’ conference, and I couldn’t be more excited. In preparation for my workshop I have been reading through The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Language in Translation as was directed by my workshop leader, Idra Novey. We only had to read part I, but I read all four because I’m a nerd and translation is my passion. Also, because I read ahead whenever possible, and sometimes even when it shouldn’t be. I already quoted one of the essays, but let me quote another. In Pierre Joris’ A More Complex Occasion he speaks quite a bit about poetry and translation, and one quote speaks out to me:

[W]hat many years of practicing (and thinking about) poetry and translation have lead me to is a sense that the often-stated difference in nature between the supposedly pure and unalterable ‘original’ poem and an always secondary ‘impure’ poem is much exaggerated. […] A poem is […] a variable thing: the poet’s hand-written poem is not the ‘same’ poem when first published in a magazine, which in turn is ever slightly different when published in a volume, then a selected collection, and later in a posthumous collected volume. The poet’s public readings of the poem, its being set to music by a composer, its translation into one or ten or however many languages ― all these events do change a poem, enriching it, making it into a more complex occasion.

If we acknowledge the poem to be such a mutable complex of occasions, then nothing is more translatable, nothing demands multiple translations more than a poem ― and nothing enriches the poem more than being translated.[2]

I realize that is a very long quote, so I’m going to stop this post here, giving you just a little food for thought.

Cheers,
Talia

Slower version: Green Fields of France
Fast-paced version: The Green Fields Of France

Sources

[1] Boehm, Philip. “An Act of Imagination.” In The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Language in Translation, 27. Washington DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2014. https://www.arts.gov/publications/art-empathy-celebrating-literature-translation

[2] Joris, Pierre. “A More Complex Occasion.” In The Art of Empathy: Celebrating Language in Translation, 68-69. Washington DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 2014. https://www.arts.gov/publications/art-empathy-celebrating-literature-translation