Feature Articles


(PI News, January / February 2005)

Perhaps it is because of our official status as a bilingual nation, perhaps because so many of us have lived or continue to live abroad, but Irish poets are very much given to translation. There are, famously, doubts as to whether it is even possible to translate poetry - for Robert Frost, poetry might be succinctly defined as those qualities of a language that are lost in translation. It is a useful insight, since poetry has as much to do with connotative value as denotative, is concerned as much with the position of words and sounds within an idiomatic net of what the late Jacques Derrida termed différance as with simile, metaphor and rhythm. Nevertheless, I would argue that the eager engagement with other languages that characterises so many contemporary Irish poets has been of huge benefit both to their individual development, and to Irish poetry in general, if it is allowed that such a body exists.

What one gains by playing the translation game is, I think, self-evident. Not only does one need to read, in an intensely close way, the linguistic choices made by another author within another idiom, but more importantly, one becomes alive to those possibilities inherent in that author’s language which are unavailable in English, and vice versa. Many languages have a subjunctive mood, or differentiate between polite and familiar forms of address. The nouns of many languages carry a gender value, while others such as Spanish are highly flexible in terms of their syntax: thus ‘el tren llegó’ carries a different nuance to ‘llegó el tren’. Others, such as the Slavic languages, have no articles, so that the title of a poem like ‘Pamyatnik’ may be translated ‘A Memorial’, ‘The Memorial’ or, quite simply, ‘Memorial’. On the other hand, as Gerard Manley Hopkins made abundantly clear, English as a hybrid language offers choices between its Romance and Germanic parentage for which there are few equivalents elsewhere.

Related to this last point is the whole question of lexis. Any dictionary which attempts to map one language onto another using one-to-one transformations is highly misleading. For some time I was bemused by the title of Kafka’s great novel The Trial, since the satisfaction of a trial is precisely what eludes Joseph K. throughout the text. But the original title, Der Prozess, which can also signify ‘the legal process’, holds out no such certainty. And then there is the Pandora’s Box of wordplay. How, for instance, is one to render Richard III’s opening pun: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York’ into another language? Yet the persistence of giants such as Joyce, who translated Synge into Italian, and Beckett, who translated from the Spanish as well as more famously his own work from the French, suggests that something of value is achieved in the exercise.

But what makes for a good translation? This is a difficult and highly contentious question, and experts remain broadly divided into two camps. On the one hand there are those who maintain that a translation should read ‘naturally’, which is to say, as if it had been written in the target language. Such a view would insist on mirroring, where possible, the original rhyme scheme. Against this view there is the position, famously advanced by Vladamir Nabokov, that a translation should read precisely as a translation, maintaining where possible the ‘strangeness’ of the original idiom. Any concession to the new language at the cost of an absolute fidelity is to be abhorred. There is a broad consensus between both camps that, where possible within the limitations of space, all translations should have the original on the facing page.

Perhaps it comes down to preferences. My own loyalty is squarely within the latter camp, so much so that when I come across a monolingual book of translations which rhyme, my first instinct is to reach for the bin. It is seldom indeed that an equivalent rhyme-scheme can be set up in English without doing a good deal of violence to the original. Still worse is the introduction of new or explanatory conceits, a charge which to my mind should carry an endorsement of the poetic licence. Traduttore traditore indeed! A great strength of the twenty volumes of the Dedalus European Poets series, this year sadly discontinued, is that where possible the original is made available, and the range of languages and translators attests to the continued willingness of Irish poets to embrace diversity.

But let us be quite clear here. What I am referring to is pure translation. When a great poet such as Robert Lowell in his‘Imitations (1961) offers loose and idiosyncratic versions of foreign poems, the results can be exhilarating. In Ireland we have wonderfully inventive versions by such verbal prestidigitators as Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson, but what is critical here is that the translator’s poetic is of equal if not surpassing interest, much as is the case, say, with the ‘variations on a theme’ that one gets when Rachmaninov revisits Paganini or Corelli. One can identify a comparable impulse to assimilate in the translations of Montague, Heaney and Fallon.

In order to see in three dimensions, it is necessary to have binocular vision, that is, two eyes whose fields overlap almost entirely, but do so eccentrically. A comparable power can be conferred by the small degree of semantic distance inherent in a second language. To engage seriously in translation is to appreciate that the world is not linguistically flat, and I would argue that this appreciation has differentiated Anglo-Irish from other English poetic traditions, thanks in part to the efforts of Douglas Hyde through to Thomas Kinsella. To return to my point of departure, perhaps this should be the most compelling reason to continue to promote the status of Irish as a national language.

Selected Pessoa, David Butler's translation from the Portuguese, was published in 2004, while a collection of his own work, Via cruces, is due out in 2005, both with Dedalus Press

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