Tomas Transtromer

I was very interested in this piece in the NYT Book Review

Tomas Transtromer’s Poems and the Art of Translation

Published: March 9, 2012

If you’re a poet outside the Anglophone world, and you manage to win the Nobel Prize, two things are likely to happen. First, your ascendancy will be questioned by fiction critics in a major English-­language news publication. Second, there will be a fair amount of pushing and shoving among your translators (if you have any), as publishers attempt to capitalize on your 15 minutes of free media attention.

And lo, for the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, it has come to pass. The questioning came from, among others, Philip Hensher for The Telegraph (in Britain) and Hephzibah Anderson for Bloomberg News, both of whom implied that real writers — Philip Roth, for instance — had been bypassed to flatter a country largely inhabited by melancholic reindeer. And when Transtromer hasn’t been doubted by fiction critics, he’s been clutched at by publishing houses. Since his Nobel moment in October, three different Transtromer books have been released (or reissued): THE DELETED WORLD: Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $13), with translations by the Scottish poet Robin Robertson; TOMAS TRANSTROMER: Selected Poems (Ecco/HarperCollins, $15.99), edited by Robert Hass; and FOR THE LIVING AND THE DEAD: Poems and a Memoir (Ecco/HarperCollins, $15.99), edited by Daniel Halpern. These books join two major collections already in print: “The Half-Finished Heaven: The Best Poems of Tomas Transtromer,” from Graywolf Press, translated by Robert Bly, and “The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems,” from New Directions, translated by Robin Fulton. So a little complaining, a glut of books: pretty typical.

But what’s unusual about Transtromer is that the most interesting debates over English versions of his work actually took place before his Nobel victory. In this case, the argument went to the heart of the translator’s function and occurred mostly in The Times Literary Supplement. The disputants were Fulton, one of Transtromer’s longest-serving translators, and Robertson, who has described his own efforts as “imitations.” Fulton accused Robertson (who doesn’t speak Swedish) of borrowing from his more faithful versions while inserting superfluous bits of Robertson’s own creation — in essence, creating poems that are neither accurate translations nor interesting departures. Fulton rolled his eyes at “the strange current fashion whereby a ‘translation’ is liable to be praised in inverse proportion to the ‘translator’s’ knowledge of the original language.” Robertson’s supporters countered that Fulton was just annoyed because Robertson was more concerned with the spirit of the ­poems than with getting every little kottbulle exactly right.

To understand this dispute, it’s necessary to have a sense of the poetry itself. …

The topic of translating literature, especially poetry, is one of the oldest war stories in literature. I suspect that both sides are right and on an item by item basis, different approaches to the translation may be required.

In my mind the translation question is whether the author’s words are repeated accurately in a new language or whether the sense of what the author was attempting to convey is transferred to the translation. With longer works, especially prose fiction such as novels, we might expect to discover both techniques in use:  translate the words accurately except when something like an idiom which is meaningless in translation, and then substitute a more meaningful phrase that still reflects the sense of the passage. But with poetry, this is very difficult; poetry has many characteristics that identify it as poetry:  rhyme, rhythm, figurative language, etc. Imagine translating a delicate Japanese Haiku into High German … how’s that work for you? There’s an old joke that the German word for “bra” is “keepsumfrumfloppin;” it’s not funny (and is probably very sexist) but it does illustrate a problem:  “bra” in a Haiku is only one syllable (I would pick Japanese and German). But what about French:  “potato” vs. “pomme de terre” perhaps.

My favorite example of the problems with translation is Georges Perec. Perec, as one of the principal members of OULIPO (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle) wrote a couple of prose pieces (one over 300 pages) following one of the suggested constriction of OULIPO. La disparition is an extended lipogram, written without ever using the letter “e” (and actually a good book). This was followed later by a much shorted novel called Les revenants that used all those “e”s and only those “e”s. Gilbert Adair translated La disparition under the title A Void. Interestingly, since it was longer and used most of the vowels, Adair’s translation comes close to the original, but the translation of Les revenants by Ian Monk was a very different story. Titled, The Exeter Text: Jewels, Secrets, Sex, Monk essentially wrote his own lipogram, loosely based on the Perec original. And again, it’s darn good. Imagine translating dozens of pages from one language to another and always selecting words which do not contain the letter “e.”

I urge you to read the full article at the New York Times. It gives a good lesson in translating and addresses a problem that captures my concern:  the self-centeredness of the English-speaking people and the myth that if it’s not invented here, then it cannot be that good. Do we blame the western canon or do we acknowledge our inherent stupidity? I’m considering Orr’s book myself.

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