The Magic of Translation
By Michael Warren
Every poem is a translation. Impressions become thoughts and thoughts become ideas; an event sinks into the poet’s consciousness and a mysterious alchemy begins to occur. Once this is understood, it becomes possible to approach the task of translation with a proper humility. The magical process has become explicit, but is no less magical as a result – in some ways rather more so, as if one had seen an actor painting his face and putting on his costume and then found oneself completely carried away by his performance.
For a poet, the work of translating a poem into another language can be a very rewarding task. A true translation will convey not just the meaning of the words, but also the rhythm and emotion of the original poem. Let me give you an example. Some time ago I attempted a translation of Le Tombeau des Rois, a collection of poems by Anne Hébert, a French-Canadian poet. Her poem “Nos mains au jardin” ends with the seven lines
Pour une seule fleur
Une seule minuscule étoile de couleur
Un seul vol d’aile calme
Pour une seule note pure
Répétée trois fois
Il faudra la saison prochaine
Et nos mains fondues comme l’eau.
An initial translation into English produces
For one single flower
One single minute star of color
One single flight of a calm wing
For one single pure note
Repeated three times –
It will require the next season
And our hands melted like water.
We have the sense of the words, but this is not yet a poem. The repetition of “seule” produces a liquid plaintive sound, while “single” is too heavy. Moreover, the overtone of “lonely” is lost. There are other problems – “It will require the next season” and “minute star of color” are clumsy English renderings of natural French phrases. And how on earth can one reproduce the bird-like sound of “répétée”? I wrestled with this poem for weeks – finally I saw a way to produce the sound I wanted in English.
For the blessing of one flower
one single tiny star of color
for one lonely sailing wing
for even one cuckoo-call –
we shall need another season
and our hands melted like water.
Of course you can argue about this translation, and in particular about the cuckoo-call to conjure up the sound of “répétée.” In a poetic sense it seems to me that it is closer than the direct word “repeated” could be. Robert Frost once said that what is lost in translation is the poetry. This is certainly true for word-for-word translations, but when mind, heart and ear are all involved in the process, translation can provide a unique poetic experience.
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