Translation and Tradition

Literary translation is more than finding equivalent words in one language for those in another. It is really about discovering the proper idiom in which to fit those words. This is not to be confused with making a text conform to a standard by artificially imposing a form on it. Homer, for example, in the heroic couplets of Pope, is more Pope than Homer. No, what I mean is that a translator has to search for an existing tradition in the target language that mirrors the language and form and context of the original. Barring this, usually when there is nothing to “translate into,” a translator has two options: render the text literally, hoping perhaps that the exoticisms and strange twists will somehow be able to be understood; or invent an idiom, a new language and form that can rival in vitality and intensity the original.

As a translator I’m always grateful when a work I’m translating can be grafted onto a pre-existent literary tradition, since a major part of translation is to make a text sound as if it were written in the target language, rather than, to use Mark Twain’s phrase, “clawed into it.” The advantage for a translator in finding an established home for a foreign text is that a linguistic repository is already present, making it easier to render a work with greater fluidity and naturalness. For readers, it’s easier too. Accustomed to texts of the type translated, they are not baffled by the discourse, even though the subject and/or imagery may be new.

In the early 1970s I translated the first picaresque novel, The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), into English. It wasn’t difficult. Smollett, Fielding, Defoe, Sterne, the major innovators of the English picaresque novel made it fairly simple to put the Spanish Lazarillo into English. A language, a tradition, even a prose rhythmic cadence existed to receive the Spanish words and phrases. In short, a common language was already present, ready-made to accept the transplanted locutions.

I quickly learned that I’d been lucky with Lazarillo when I moved on to tackle the French Symbolists, mainly Verlaine and Mallarmé. A few years before I had made a few translations of these and other Symbolists into Spanish with reasonable success, Spanish being close enough to French to capture quite literally a good deal of what was in the original. “Claire de Lune,” for instance, worked rather well as “Claro de Luna”; “Salut” became “Salud,” etc. But Symbolism in English was vastly different. The fine-tuned resonance and sheer beauty of Verlaine, in particular, sounded either sappy or precious or unmusical. What I wanted was Yeats; I ended up with bad imitations of Arthur Symons.

But translators are a mad lot. In my desperation I even retranslated Poe from the versions of Baudelaire and Mallarmé in an attempt to perceive what had happened to Poe on his way across the Atlantic. I somehow figured that since French Symbolism had theoretically been born through the received Poe of Baudelaire and Mallarmé, if I reversed the process, I wouldn’t render our Edgar as we knew him, but as a Symbolist Poe(t) in English garb. Alas, it came out something like this:

Once, upon a lugubrious midnight, while I was meditating weak and fatigued
over a precious and curious volume of forgotten doctrine,
while my head fell, almost asleep, suddenly there came tapping,
like someone rapping softly, rapping at the door of my room.
“It’s some visitor,” I murmured, “that raps at the door of my room,
it’s only that and nothing else.”

I was truly bewildered by my product (I can’t understand now why it didn’t amuse me more) but I think it probably had something to do with knowing that it could actually be done in English. My model was Joyce, who as a teenager had managed to create a stunning English version of Verlaine’s “Chanson d’Automne” that was neither unfaithful not musically ajar. I was also well aware that Yeats and Eliot and Stevens had written “Symbolist poems,” thus making it seem that a tradition did exist in English, that a language and vocabulary and concern was there to assume a French translation. But after several months of failed attempts and numerous stratagems, I concluded that I wasn’t Joyce (or Yeats or Eliot or Stevens). I was still young enough to find this a sobering realization and abandoned the project.

What I realize now is that while I was right in thinking there was a tradition, it was as different from Verlaine or Mallarmé as they were from Poe. Here, the English tradition didn’t serve me at all, only showed me what wasn’t achievable, for what made the French Symbolists nearly impossible to translate adequately was that the poetry turns not on ideas, per se, but on the words themselves. In Symbolist poems it is not just that the language creates for us a mental or physical landscape; rather the language is the landscape, with event or milieu or conceptual scheme subordinate to the language of the poem itself. Which means that an English translator is up against an inordinately difficult task if he/she is to bring the sense and senses of the original across. I suspect that with the exception of the occasional poem—even Joyce only translated, as far as we know, that single Verlaine poem—a translator must of necessity reinvent the original, create a parallel work which can perform its own conjuring acts. Then, of course, one does not have a translation in the strict sense of the word, but an imitation, a poem that faces the original, points backward to what was, points forward in an English idiom to what is (or at least what is possible).

This is valid though it may not be “translation.” But it is essentially what the Symbolists did with Poe, what Pound did in Cathay, and what Lowell attempted in his Imitations; i.e., they ported over the poetry, if not all the words, or meanings or color of one language to another.

If done right, the results can be staggering. The unsubtle Poe launched in France the subtlest poetic movement of the age. They, in turn, inspired Yeats, the young Eliot and Stevens, who set about creating English poems that echoed the concepts and concerns of the French, while at the same time being entirely new. In another direction, Pound invented Classical Chinese poetry in English. That it doesn’t sound that way in Chinese, that it is rhymed, restricted in tone and vocabulary, and rigidly metered, is a matter of which the majority of English-language readers have neither awareness nor concern since Pound’s versions are quite simply so good. And until someone can make better poems than those in Cathay, Pound will continue to define for most Western ears how Chinese poetry should sound in English.

Despite my enthusiasm for Pound, I’ve only adopted his approach of re-creation once (and for different reasons) with my verse version of sections from the ancient Mayan book of prophecy, The Chilam Balam. Written in the Mayan language but in European script, The Books of Chilam Balam are generally considered to be transcriptions and recompilations from memory of material originally contained in the hieroglyphic books, all of which were apparently destroyed by the Spaniards. For my “translation,” since my Mayan is virtually non-existent, I used a literal, annotated Spanish edition in conjunction with the Mayan text.

In setting out to bring pieces of these books into English I felt I had no choice but to employ a “freer” method. To begin with, the texts, as handed down to us, are in prose. Second, they’re a mess. Written down by the Maya in the early sixteenth century under the watchful eye of the Spanish priests, the extant books clearly contain a fair amount of newer, interpolated material injected to please the Catholic overseers. Lengthy treatises on the Mayan calendar are interspersed with Western astrology, ancient prophecies with Christian dogma. Few sections are logically put into paragraphs or even written in complete sentences and the division of the books into parts seems completely arbitrary. But hidden within and alongside the garbled sentences, strained syntax, and unconnected ramblings are evocative passages of undeniable power, of terrible beauty. It was these golden glimmers that struck me as being the essence of the sacred books; these must have been the poetic texts that the old accounts relate as having been ceremonially performed: sung and danced to the accompaniment of drums and rattles and other instruments. Once I sorted out what to translate, the task was not at all that difficult; indeed, the imagery was so strong, the atmosphere so poetically charged, that I found poem-making rather natural:

                                 What has been written
                                 will be fulfilled.

                                 Though you may not comprehend it
                                 though you may not understand it
                                 he will come who knows
                                 how the ages unfold
                                 one onto another
                                 like the stone steps
                                 on the palace of the governor.

                                 …Remember these bitter words
                                 of the one true god
                                 come from heaven.
                                 Remember his counsel
                                 when the last son of the Itzás
                                 lies buried in a shallow grave,
                                 his liver plucked by vultures,
                                 his eyes pecked out by crows.

If the language sounds akin to that of the last book of the Bible, “The Revelation of St. John the Divine,” it’s not simply coincidental, for this was my guide in finding the proper level of diction. As with the prose of Lazarillo, English already had a familiar idiom to receive the prophecies. An oracular tradition of thundering pronouncements, of lamentation, from the Bible to Ginsberg’s Howl, is firmly established in English. As a translator I simply plugged my text into what was already there, clothed an existing English body in Mayan garb.

Unlike the prophetic, or even Symbolist traditions, there has never really been much Surrealist poetry in English, or at least much that is any good. Philip Lamantia, David Gascoyne, and Edouard Roditi attempted English poems along the lines of Éluard or Breton, often with interesting results, but even these practitioners abandoned the experiment fairly early on. Which means that Surrealist verse translated into English (with the exception of Beckett’s magnificent renderings of Éluard) often sounds fairly forced, if not silly, since we don’t have a vehicle already established on which it can ride. I’ve translated with mixed results Éluard and two Spanish semi-Surrealist texts: García Lorca’s little-known prose poems, Narraciones, and Rafael Alberti’s 1928 poem sequence Concerning the Angels (Sobre los ángeles).

Though the Lorca was somewhat easier to get out of Spanish than the Alberti—mainly I think because it was less lyrical and in a prose idiom—the Surreal locutions continually stymied me. Take this sentence: “Could it be possible that the beak of this cruel dove that has the heart of an elephant engenders the lunar pallor of that transatlantic liner streaming away?” Quite simply, this doesn’t sound like an English sentence, nor could I ever get it to do so without seriously distorting it. In an early draft I played with it: “Did the beak of that elephant-hearted, cruel dove make the ocean liner steaming away look moonlight pale?” This may sound a bit more like English, but it isn’t really what Lorca said, and since I would have had to have done these sorts of transformations continually, I gave up and simply attempted to bring through the meaning, the delicate pairing of sounds, the strange disjunctions as best and literally as I could.

But even though I surrendered my text to the publishers long ago, I still occasionally feel twinges about it. I know that I neither invented an English mode to contain the extraordinary brilliance of the original, nor ported over quite intact the music and rhythm of Lorca’s lines. What bothers me most, though, is that it reads far more exotically in English than in Spanish. This I blame on our not having had a Surrealist tradition in English to accustom our ears to such syntax and imagery.

The problems I encountered in Lorca were also present in Alberti’s masterwork, but in addition, I had to contend with a variety of poetic styles, occasional rhyme (both internal and external), meter, regular and sprung rhythms, assonance, consonance, and an imagery both (and often simultaneously) profoundly beautiful and horrific, and almost always unique. But I was aided in that the “subject” of the poem sequence—the terrors of the dark night of the soul—and the imagistic frame—the conjuring of personified angels—did have a long tradition in English. The Bible, Milton, Blake, to name but a few, had provided certain apocryphal entrances; Eliot’s The Waste Land, Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven,” and Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode,” among many works, had poetically recounted states of despair not so different from that in Concerning the Angels. This still left me the problem of transporting Alberti into English syntax without sacrificing Surrealist expression or imagery, and trying to preserve the music, rhyme when possible, and the varied meters. But I did feel I had an edge in that the basic matter of the poem (unlike Lorca’s work) was familiar to readers of English. I did not have to invent a new idiom to contain Alberti once I got him out of Spanish.

But getting him out of Spanish was not easy. A simple poem, such as “Madrigal sin remedio” (“Inevitable Madrigal”) took me nearly three years to approximate. The first problem was with rendering the madrigal form, in particular bringing through Alberti’s rhymes and meter, which in Spanish had the naturalness of speech; the second was with conveying the startling imagery of the poem, for what the poet had done was to overlay on the traditional grid of the madrigal a group of evocative and beautiful Surrealist images. This juxtaposition of the old form and new skin was such an extraordinary achievement that I despaired of ever getting anything near to it in English. I felt a bit like a traveler trying to stuff too much into a valise: when the form was contained, the imagery popped out, and vice-versa. In the end I opted for preserving the images and language over the structure, although I did not neglect the form entirely. I resorted to some slant rhymes where I couldn’t come up with a real match, used a fair amount of assonance, and affected a recognizable meter. I’m fairly satisfied with it now, though aware of all the compromises I had to make in the process.

The reward with putting Alberti in English, however, was that once I had wrestled with the technical problems, either solving them or deciding they were beyond me, the actual language meshed with what we think of in English as a natural poetic line. The exoticism, awkwardness even, of Lorca that remains in my translation does not linger much in my version of Concerning the Angels. I think the reason has largely to do with the preparation by Milton, Blake, and so many others whose verses and celestial/daemonic cosmology are ingrained in my ears. By that I don’t mean that Alberti is comparable to Milton or Blake; it’s just that a language and verse tradition existed that made it possible to render Albert’s unique visionary poems in recognizable English. Maybe it has something to do with startling imagery being acceptable in English if it comes in the context of religion. And while Alberti’s poems are decidedly non-religious, we are accustomed to angels in English, like to write about them, permit apocryphal happenings under their aegis, even if they don’t have any true Biblical parallels.

Translation, then, often hinges on finding in the target language a mode of discourse that will accept the diction and imagery transported from a foreign source. If it isn’t present, then the translator must either, like Pound or Baudelaire, invent a new idiom imitative of the original, or else be content with producing a text that may be so exotic that it will inevitably read “like a translation,” hoping, often in vain, that the rendered version will still be able to captivate its readers. There is, naturally, a middle ground, somewhere between imitation and literalness, but I’ve rarely found a translation of this sort to be terribly interesting in its own right or faithful enough to the original to be valid.

In the end, of course, some texts simply defy any translative compromise. Years ago, I was talking with classics scholar Frank Nisetich about why Sappho never, in my opinion at least, actually sounded in English as she did in Greek. “Oh,” he said. “That’s because she’s Chopin played by God.”  To which I replied: “Well, I guess that means she’s untranslatable.” “No,” he said. “Not if you’re Chopin or God.”

—Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno

This article originally appeared in 1993 in Brick: A Literary Journal (Toronto) edited by Michael Ondaatje and Linda Spalding.