Thursday, February 3, 2011


Second post on translation.

I’m translating Anna Aguilar-Amat’s fifth book Color Charge, as mentioned. As I'm doing it, I'm asking myself all sorts of questions: How liberal can I be with line breaks, with meaning, with word choice?

A few weeks ago, Anna said, "It's interesting working with another poet. As you're translating, you're rewriting."

At first I felt terrible about this. I felt like I was this fifty-foot-tall ogre, trampling all over somebody's garden with my big-ass feet.

It didn't really help that on the same day, I read this really great interview on translation--Kyle Minor interviewing translator Elizabeth Harris.

Elizabeth Harris said this and I really like this idea (obviously):

“Many people go into fiction translation through their expertise in a foreign language, but they don’t necessarily know how to write fiction in English, and that can be a real problem.”

But then later she says this:

“When I was a student, I think I relied too heavily on my own writing skills, if that makes sense. So I mentioned earlier that people coming to translation through their language training might be at a disadvantage; well, so are writers, if they can’t get past their own style or sensibilities. The more that I’ve translated, the more I’ve worked to capture the rhythms of the original; I don’t want to iron out the original in my English version. I need to recognize a writer’s idiosyncrasies, what makes that writer’s style and voice. Of course I also don’t want to make a text clunky as a result of clinging too tightly to the original; it’s a balancing act. But I’ve increasingly put more trust in the author I’m translating.”

Ouch. I didn't like reading that. It's really hard for me to get past my style and sensibility. It's really hard for me to use words I don't like. I just . . . cannot use them. I don't want to. It's a problem. I always wondered how people could be actors. I could see myself, over and over again, saying, "I'm sorry. I know it's in the script, but . . . I'm not saying that. I'm just not going to say that."

It's hard, too, for me to tell if I don't like a word because of my own style and sensibility or because the culture I live in has destroyed it, and maybe I wouldn't feel that way if I were, say, Spanish. For instance, in this poem, "Orography of Air," I could not bring myself to use the word "angel" and so translated it as "spirit." I could not bear to use the word "wing" as it relates to "angel" and so substituted it with "pinion." So "angels tickle it with their wings" became "spirits tickle it with their pinions." Which is much more musical to my ear. And more importantly does not offend my sensibilities. I don't like overtly Christian symbols in poetry. Anna clearly does. I should respect that but I am a fifty-foot-tall ogre in her garden and so I cannot.

In my defense, this idea of being tickled by an angel reminds me of that TV show "Touched by an Angel." It's the first thing that comes to mind for me. The second thing that comes to mind is Precious Moments, those porcelain knickknacks. In Spain, does that show exist? Do precious moments--not the valued experiences, the decorative objects? I don't know.

If they did, would Anna have used angels and wings? Knowing Anna, I want to say no.

The other day I found an interview online with Anna, in which she says this about translating:

“It’s important for the translator to be a poet or somehow to become a poet in order to hear and work freely and flexibly with the possibilities of the language of reception. The instinct of fidelity has to be a little more diluted here because the important thing is to find what effects are being sought, a rhythm, musicality, and beauty. Yet I think there’s always a way of transmitting these poetic contents. Translating poetry is a difficult job and you should let yourself go, as you do when you write, there’s music playing there and you have to perceive it with your other instrument, which is your language.”

Here are some other great quotes from Anna--not related to translation but just to poetry in general.

“Basically the poet is a failed being, who recovers when he or she translates into art through the word, the impotence of living in and adapting to the society and culture of his or her birth.”

“There are very few writers I’m faithful to and that I keep going back to. I like what’s new, the very latest thing, what the young people are saying, even if they’re not the most virtuoso or most learned of poets. They’re the ones who, at the time, are vibrating with the maximum restlessness [. . . ] I like the poetry that takes risks and faces questions and challenges things, and that is even a bit aggressive at times, in the best sense of the word.”

Here's the whole interview:

And here’s Anna, reading "Orography of Air":

Here’s my translation, pinions and all:

Orography of Air

In the air there are mountains and plateaus
with their foothills, hollows, chasms, slopes.
The clouds rise and circle the mountains. They never
reach the very top. For this reason,
we never see the caps and think
the air has no sharp corners.
Something similar happens when it comes
to the soul. So few people see its geography
for what it is;
they are not familiar with its gaps, its caves.
They take the risk of flying through it
as if it were a flat surface.
There's no use warning someone who wants it
to be simple that it is complex.
Even so, it is simple, really:
the sky has a back and only wants
someone who's willing to scratch it when
spirits tickle it with their pinions.
To do this, you need to learn
to see spirits, and to see them you
need to learn to love. To love
there is no need to learn how to learn
and, in fact, it’s much better
not to know anything about it.

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