Poets, translators and untranslatables

Maybe it’s a sign of middle-age, this return to books I read years and years ago. Whatever the reason, this past week I’ve re-read some of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, this time with the eyes of someone who has gained directly a lot of the experience Dickinson herself was cut off from due to her secluded life. Last time I read her, I felt in many ways as cut off from the outside world as she was, and the deep well of late-adolescent emotion, typical of the 18-year-old, bonded me to her poems, written in such a different context 100-130 year prior to my reading them. Reading her again was an interesting experience, bitter-sweet at times, and one question kept popping up in my head: What did I really understand, and what imagery did these words evoke when reading this for the first time?

What strikes me more than 20 years later, is how almost all her imagery has nothing to do with the sub-arctic nature I grew up in. When  she talks of gardens, fruits and sitting in her orchard, at 18 I would have known nothing about it, except what had been filtered through books and films. No fruit tree ever survived more than 2-3 years in that kind of climate; no snakes survived the winters; and for bobolinks and bats, they’d be creatures I only knew from the Animal Encyclopedia. So when reading these poems, at 18, in a language I still considered foreign, I really wonder what it was that actually touched me.

According to the French philosopher Derrida, the poetical is exactly the untranslatable part of language. Untranslatable because it isn’t connected just to the terminological meaning of words – but to their physical body. The visual impact of the word is important, its history, how it sounds and what other sounds it connects to in the language, sometimes take precedent. Derrida would say “Words refer to other words, not to things or thoughts“, and though I’m not willing to give up the idea of words conveying experience and ideas, I find Derrida’s point of view worth exploring.

The importance of the mere phonetic aspect of words really hit me when my youngest, trilingual daughter started rebelling against certain adjectives in Norwegian. She hated it when she heard adjectives like “nydelig” “skjønt” (that both mean beautiful/wonderful), and when I asked her why, she simply said “I can’t stand the sound of them – all those squeaky “ee”-sounds, the ugly sch-sound”. “Those are sounds that you find in bad and naughty words in English and Italian, and then it sounds fake when someone says something nice using those sounds”.

I’d never thought of that, and probably could have proven her wrong by digging out examples like “shining, ship, shore” or “sciare, scintilla”. But then again, this was her authentic perception, and who am I to say that what sounds ugly to her, actually is beautiful.

The idea of poetry being untranslatable, doesn’t put my translator’s mind to rest. If it is untranslatable, then how can I experience it, enjoy it, despite the linguistic boundaries? Am I kidding myself?

As a translator who once upon a time dabbled a bit in poetry, I recognize the struggle of the poet in translating or transforming experience into words. I realize that when this is successful, there is a wholeness to the poem, where sound, visual impact, meanings and etymology melt together. And translating, or rather “re-creating” the poem becomes the labour of Sisyphus. When you’ve succeeded in transmitting one level of the poem, you often have to start from scratch again with the other elements that make it great. Truly great poems strive towards the limits of translation – and poets like to consider themselves untranslatable.

As Walt Whitman says in Song for myself:

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues, And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women, And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.

When I read translated poetry, or even when I read poetry in a language that I’m only partially familiar with, I’m painfully aware of missing bits and pieces, sometimes big bits and pieces. Re-reading Emily Dickinson reminds me of how there is an intrinsic quality to poetry, where certain sounds and certain rhythms resonate with you, even when you understand only partially. It’s like hearing sounds through a wall, but hearing fragments is better than not hearing. And sometimes a good translation makes the wall paper-thin.

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~ by Hege on August 22, 2010.

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