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Can Poetry Really Be Translated?

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There's a great story of a Japanese production group that decided the conclusion of Samuel Beckett's classic Waiting for Godot was a little too...inconclusive. In case you aren't familiar with the play, the unresolved wait for Godot represents, in part, how we live without certainty of the existence of God. So when the group rewrote the end to feature Godot rolling onstage on a motorcycle, Beckett, no doubt, rolled in his grave. Take that, existentialism! Such are the perils of translating great literature.

As someone who barely passed high school French, I'm sympathetic to the difficulties of translating anything. Poetry, with all its nuance, music, and multiple levels of meaning, must be positively daunting. And you'd have to be brilliant or a little sick in the head to take on the task of translating someone like Shakespeare. Mohamed Enani, who translates the Bard into Arabic, actually admitted to the latter. In an interview with the Al-Ahram Weekly he said, "it was not until ... for five months I was practically incarcerated in a room in a French hospital -- that I gave the matter serious consideration."

You'll understand Enani's challenge if you've watched a performance of the storm sequence in Shakespeare's King Lear, wherein you can hear the violence of the words--a violence which complements and heightens the meaning. To come close to effectively translating that effect, you would not only have to carry over meaning, replete with all the wordplay and metaphor, but also replicate the aural impact in the new language. No doubt a lot of this gets lost.

I have this issue reading Dante's The Divine Comedy. While the poem's value--even in translation--is obvious, I know I'm missing out on its music (and how that music enhances the meaning). I've heard that Dante in the original Italian is gorgeous, but my translation (Allen Mandelbaum's) reads a little hollow. Here's the start of the poem in English:

When I had journeyed half of our life's way,

I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.
Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
that savage forest, dense and difficult,
which even in recall renews my fear:
so bitter--death is hardly more severe.

And here's the original Italian (read it with your best Roberto Benigni impression):

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

You can see that Mandelbaum chose to abandon Dante's form (terza rima) for the more manageable blank verse of English epic tradition. This is understandable. Terza Rima requires a tight interlocking rhyme scheme, making it a good fit for the Italian language (with all its rhyming words) but not English. But as a result, in terms of form, the translation is a far cry from the original.

Geoffrey Brock, a contemporary translator of Italian literature and a fine poet in his own right, does a far better job of carrying over poetic forms and their effects in his translations of another Italian poet, Cesare Pavese. Compare this excerpt from Pavese's haunting poem "Death Will Come and Will Have Your Eyes"-- among the poems found in Pavese's desk after his suicide--with the original Italian.

Death will come and will have your eyes--

this death that accompanies us

from morning till evening, unsleeping,

deaf, like an old remorse

or an absurd vice. Your eyes

will be a useless word,

a suppressed cry, a silence.

That's what you see each morning

when alone with yourself you lean

toward the mirror. O precious hope,

that day we too will know

that you are life and you are nothingness.

Verra la morte e avra i tuoi occhi--

questa morte che ci accompagna

dal mattino alla sera, insonne,

sorda, come im vecchio rimorso

o un vizio assurdo. I tuoi occhi

saranno una vana parola,

un grido taciuto, un silenzio.

Cosi li vedi ogni mattina

quando su te sola ti pieghi

nello specchio. O cara sparanza,

quel giorno sapremo anche noi

che si vita e sei il nulla.

I love that you can still hear the music of the original in Brock's translation. He described his attention to form in an interview with Poetry Santa Cruz:

"A good translation should breathe on its own and not require the original text as a heart and lung machine. And yet it should find ways to give expression to the most important features (formal as well as semantic) of the original text. All that is part of what might be called fidelity..."

Brock also has some advice for those who point out the shortcomings of translations:

"Pedants are fond of pointing out that perfect translation is impossible. Of course it is--in this, it is like everything else that's worth doing."

Agreed. So long as no one adds God on a motorcycle.

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