Wednesday, December 23, 2009

More Translation Please

In my last post, I was complaining a bit about the narrowness of translations of not only novels but also poetry into English. So, rather than complain, I thought I would highlight a couple of translation awards. Perhaps an idea for a late Christmas present or something to bring in the New Year?

First, there is the Popescu Prize for Poetry in Translation, which is a biennial prize awarded by the UK’s Poetry Society. You can think of the UK Poetry Society as analogous to the US Poetry Foundation. On their website, the UK Poetry Society call the Popescu a “prize for poetry translation” and, further down, a “prize for European poetry translation” featuring “poetry translated from another European language into English”. This year the Popescu went to Professor Randall Couch for his translation of Gabriela Mistral’s Madwomen. Of course Mistral is Chilean. The prize really is an honor for both the author and translator, though I’m not sure the Chileans enjoy having works by one of their own classified as ‘European.’

Of as much interest is the shortlist for the prize. I’m particularly intrigued by two authors I’ve never heard of: Elena Shvarts and Oktay Rifat. Without these translations, perhaps I never would have.

Of course there’s also the annual PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, which is conferred every spring in New York. The award recognizes book-length translations of poetry from any language into English published during the current calendar year, and is judged by a single translator of poetry.

Two PEN award winners I have particularly loved are Peter Cole’s translation of Aharon Shabtai’s J'Accuse; and Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld’s translation Open Closed Open by Yehuda Amichai. They could not be more oppositional in terms of tone--Shabtai is politically on the faaaaar left while Amichai was, I'd say, more middle left. There are no right wing Israeli poets, or rather, there are no well published right wing Israeli poets.

Anyway, I know that translation, perhaps more so in poetry than in novels, is almost impossible. A better word might be transliteration, representing words in one language into another. Moreover, a good translation depends as much on the talent of the translator as on the talent of the originating writer. But that doesn’t mean we ignore them. And it doesn’t mean that all is lost in the translated work. Rather, I believe that the act of reaching out, of trying to grasp another’s experience, another’s words, even if slightly garbled, broadens our own experience. How can we forego that?

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