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Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Ethics of translation

I was accused of being vitriolic in my criticism of Bly's translations. I was. Why do I get angry about bad translations, and is my anger justified?

I learned yesterday that one of the main translators of Hafez just makes up the poems. He doesn't even translate. It's all apocryphal.  So the pseudo-mystical claptrap in your Instagram account or your wedding vows or tattooed on your forearm is just some bullshit dreamed up by a middle-aged white guy with a beard in the contemporary US.  I don't believe in shunning people for their writing, but this is orientalism at its worst. There oughta be a law. There's no copyright that applies, and its not even plagiarism, but something possibly even worse. This is even worse than what Kent Johnson would do.

Then, the most popular Rumi translator, Coleman Barks, doesn't make the stuff up, but pretty much rids it of its Islamic content. He was first given a copy of Rumi by .... Robt. Bly. Neither Barks nor Ladinsky knows any Persian. You know, you can study a language if you are interested. It is not impossible to learn Persian. If I were going to devote my entire career to translating a poet, I would want to learn something about the poet, the original language, culture, or religion.

So yes, I will defend my right to criticize Bly. The guy who accuses me of criticizing Bly too harshly does not actually defend the translations to show me I am wrong. Bly once translated the word "quimera" [chimera] in a Machado poem as "mythological beast." It is as though he looked up the word in a dictionary and found the definition "a mythological beast" and put it in his translation without thinking about it too much.


Leslie B. said...

I always hate this. I mean, it's fine to do a takeoff on something. But.

Leslie B. said...

From right now, a literal translation by me:

The blood of our citizens is diverse, let us mix it to unify it.

What a book says:

If the blood of our citizens is diverse, let us make it one.

They're more elegant, but they miss the point. If I had not read the original, the sentence wouldn't have stood out in the paragraph and I would not have used it as an example.

And this is of course a translation that is even fairly good.

Leslie AKA Walter Benjamin.