Thursday, March 30, 2017

what is poetry in translation like?

I just reviewed "Paterson," a movie about the poetry that infuses life, even at its most mundane. I mentioned, in my review, how Paterson, the protagonist, finds himself seated next to a Japanese man near the end of the story. This man is visiting Paterson, New Jersey, to find out more about William Carlos Williams, a poet who lived in the city and who wrote an epic poem titled Paterson. The tourist is also himself a poet, it turns out, and he has a copy of Paterson with him. The book contains both the original English and a Japanese translation, to which the man wryly remarks:

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

I suspect this is particularly true when you're translating poetry from a Western language to an Eastern one. It's less true when you are, say, translating a poem from English to French or vice versa: you're helped by the similarities in grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and even cultural assumptions, which very often express themselves in similar idioms (avoir plusieurs fers au feu = a literal translation of "having several irons in the fire," for example; the French idiom means exactly the same thing as the English one). I once translated some Kahlil Gibran into French for my French friends, inviting them to compare my translation to an "official" translation, and my friends said they preferred mine, which was a kind compliment. My translation was, in many respects, merely a word-for-word rendering, however—not hard to do. Translating Gibran into Japanese or Korean would be much more challenging, I suspect, and in the end, after the inevitable semantic distortion, reading Gibran in an Eastern language would probably be very much like showering with a raincoat on.

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