The Magic of Translation – April 2010

The Magic of Translation

By Michael Warren


michael-warrenEvery 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.

Ojo Del Lago
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