My recent interview with Kirk Marshall, editor of bi-lingual literary journal Red Leaves has had me reading widely about the art of translating poetry.
There are many that say poetry defies translation. In her essay, Translating Poetry, Erna Bennett says:
Poetry … is a music of words, and is a way of seeing and interpreting the world and our experience of it, and of conveying to the listener a heightened awareness of it through an intense concentration of metaphor and words in which the natural flow of speech sounds is moulded to some kind of formal pattern. Such patterns can never be the same after the act of translation.
So what then is a translator to do?
Well I liked Willis Barnstone’s take on this question in his An ABC of Translating Poetry…
Translation of poetry is conceivable. A translation dwells in imperfection, using equivalents and shunning mechanical replicas–which is the dream of literalists who believe in truth. It gives us the other. Or under another name it gives us itself.
Whichever way you look at it, translating poetry is a difficult art.
I have always been fascinated by the various translations of haiku, particularly, Basho’s famous frog haiku. Some of them adding to the depth of my love for this incredible image, others fueling my distrust of translation (or at least the translator).
I recently found this page showcasing 31 translations (with a commenatry) of said haiku. It illustrates perfectly (or should that be imperfectly?) the varying nature of translation.
I also found these translations of Buson’s temple bell/butterfly haiku, which provide further insight into the nature of translation.
After many readings of these haiku, the words of Willis Barnstone were ringing in my ears…
A translator operates in the unknown. To choose the unknown path risks loss–and often brings gain.