Friday, March 19, 2010

Precious Translation from The Poetry Translation Centre

Last month, Poetry Magazine published a lengthy discussion on translation. Two poets and people I admire—Ilya Kaminsky and Adam Kirsch—took somewhat opposing sides in the debate. Kirsch took the more pessimistic stance, claiming the now standard impossibility of translation and that “when you translate the “accidents of life” into the rather featureless dialect of international poetry” there is a risk “of losing the very truth the poem wants to tell us.” Kaminsky, who just co-edited (with Susan Harris) a book of translated poetry from around the world called The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, took the side of translation. While his arguments were more nuanced, he suggested that while there may be good and bad translations of specific poems, translation can yield something akin to the poetic ‘truth’ and sometimes yield a better poem. Most of us who read poetry in translation partake of both points of view (as do probably these two poets, but what a boring conversation that would make!).

In my case, I can only read Rilke, Zagajewski, Milosz, Akhmatova, Cavafy in translation. Even the Hebrew poets I love including Natan Zach, Yehuda Amichai, Dahlia Ravikovitch come to me only, really, in their English translations. But in all cases, I recognize the trade-off. The original music and meter, form and even content, is often sacrificed. Translators must make choices. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Hamutal Bar-Yosef, an Israeli poet, and her English language translator decided to avoid translating any of Bar-Yosef’s more difficult poems (i.e., ones that had difficult form or abstract metaphor) because they felt it would be impossible to do adequate translations. You have only to compare different translations of the same poems to see how it can sometimes work and sometimes not. Hopefully though what is retained (and dare I say added by the translator) replicates, even enhances, what the originating poem intended.

I’m reiterating some of this debate because I came across a very interesting translation project called the “Poetry Translation Centre.” It is a small UK-based outfit that translated only living African, Asian or Latin American poets who have already established a reputation in their own languages and only through collaboration with the poet. Their process is in three steps:

1. They look at the original poem: even if most of us can’t understand a word, it’s always important to hear its music, and to look at how the poet has placed it on the page.
2. The language expert produces a literal translation that’s as close to the original as possible.
3. There’s the long and detailed negotiation that ends with the translated poem.

It is a lengthy process and obviously requires lots of resources though the Centre seems open to the idea of exchanging poems via mail and e-mail. So far, they’ve translated poets from Sudan, Portugal, Tajikistan, Somalia, Kurdistan, India, Argentina, Afghanistan, Turkey, Oman, and many others, including poets from Palestine and one from Israel. On their website, there are podcasts that include readings in both the original language and the translated, and one can purchase chapbooks of the translations.

I am doing a bit of informal translating myself from Hebrew to English of work by Israeli poets Tal Nitzan-Keren and Khaviva Padia. These translations are extremely time consuming and, so far, terrible. They illustrate how far I still have to go in learning this difficult language, and, how difficult the translation project is.

Check out The Poetry Translation Centre website and some of the poets. You can see the poems in their original languages, the literal translations, as well as the finished translated poems. Here is one of the finished poems by Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi translated from Arabic:


Poetry - may you be a green body.
May you be a language
in which I wander
with my wings and my self.
Be the inspiration of my tongue,
so that I may pasture
the tribes of my voice - though they are silent.

and alone, I see
you will not be
a green body.
You were neither
a good master, to be bought,
nor the muse.
My longed for delirium, my memory.

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