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Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Monday, February 8, 2016

Two more things about translation

There are two objections I have to certain kinds of translation theory and practice:

1) Very sophisticated translation theory often leads to (or justifies) translation that is at the opposite pole from my own aesthetics. All the emphasis on translation that contains a "domestic residue" and the like, or that transforms the target language in a certain way, all of that ends up producing poetry that is not good poetry. I approach the translation of poetry in a radical way: I think that, without mistranslating in any way, the main criterion should be the aesthetic quality of the translation. So I approach translation through poetics, rather than subordinating poetics to translation theory. Sorry.

2) Secondly, atheoretical translation does the same thing: it justifies questionable translation decisions, but now based on the translator's ad hoc decisions.

Now you will say that of course my aesthetics and poetics are mine alone. They are not compelling for other people. The proof of that is eminent translators translate in ways I find odious, and others accept these translations as valid. Rothenberg, for example, when translating Lorca: if Lorca says "a river of gold" then he will say something like "a river made of gold." Or Lorca's "oro" will be "pure gold." Extra words added to rationalize Lorca; little touches to make him sound cuter; added punctuation that interrupts the flow of the lines; enjambments in a poem that imitates a folk style where enjambments are rare; the destruction of syntactic parallelisms; the use of weaker, more abstract words where Lorca's words are concrete. I could go on and on. I have gone on and on.

It would be cheating to say that this Lorca's poetics as well? Ok, then I will cheat. The original text has an aesthetic integrity. The translation should not only be a good poem in its own right (to cite the cliché) but be a good poem in the same way that the original was good. So a good translation of Quevedo (a different aesthetic from Lorca's) should be verbally witty. Góngora should be baroque, not plain-spoken.

Lorca was a modernist: his best early poetry exemplifies Pound's ideas in "some don'ts for imagists": use no extra words, don't follow the metronome, direct treatment of the object, don't say "dim lands of peace." All that good stuff. Secondly, Lorca follows the best of the anonymous lyric tradition, which derives its aesthetic value from extreme simplicity. No words are wasted there either. There are some childish and kitsch-like things going on there, too, some impurities that might lend themselves to a more varied approach, but not to the degree that would introduce extra words when Lorca is being austere.

Once again, I feel that mine is a minority position. The ungenerous alternative would be to think that those who don't translate as I'd like them to have no talent. I think that they could have talent, but simply don't share my aesthetic preferences.

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