Rethink­ing the Art of Translation

Faithfulness is still considered the defining feature of translation, while creativity is reserved for original authors. That needs to change. By

One version of the original. Paula Modersohn-Becker: Portrait of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, 1906 (detail). Source: WikiCommons

In 2006, the Scot­tish poet Don Pater­son pro­duced what he called a ‘ver­sion’ of Rain­er Maria Rilke’s Son­nets to Orpheus (Ger­man: Sonette an Orpheus). He took great pains to frame his work as some­thing sep­a­rate from trans­la­tion, focus­ing on his own cre­ative process in craft­ing Eng­lish poet­ry from Rilke’s Ger­man son­nets. Here is one of his poems, along­side a con­ven­tion­al trans­la­tion from 1987:

A tree rose from the earth. O pure transcendence–
Orpheus sings: O tall oak in the ear!
All was still. And then with­in that silence
he made the sign, the change, and touched the lyre.

One by one they crept out from the wood,
emp­ty­ing each set and form and lair;
and look­ing in their eyes, he understood
they’d fall­en qui­et in nei­ther stealth nor fear,

but in their lis­ten­ing. Growl and bark and roar
died in their breast as each took to the clearing.
Before this day, there hadn’t been a shack

that might have held the song, a plain earthwork
hol­lowed by their most obscure desire:
today the tem­ple ris­es in their hearing.

Don Pater­son, Ver­sion, Son­nets To Orpheus, 2006

A tree stood up. Oh pure uprising!
Orpheus is singing! Oh tall tree in the ear!
And every­thing grew still. Yet in the silence there
changes took place, sig­nals and fresh beginnings.

Crea­tures of still­ness crowd­ed from the clear
untan­gled woods, from nests and lairs;
and it turned out that their light stepping
came not from fear or from cunning

but so they could lis­ten. Shriek, bel­low and roar
had shrunk in their hearts. And while before
there was scarce­ly a hut where they might stay,

just a shel­ter made of the dark­est cravings
with shaky posts for an entrance-way -
you made a tem­ple for them in their hearing.

David Young, Trans­la­tion, Son­nets To Orpheus, 1987

This is the orig­i­nal poem by Rilke:

Da stieg ein Baum. O reine Übersteigung!
O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum im Ohr!
Und alles schwieg. Doch selb­st in der Verschweigung
ging neuer Anfang, Wink und Wand­lung vor.

Tiere aus Stille drangen aus dem klaren
gelösten Wald von Lager und Genist;
und da ergab sich, daß sie nicht aus List
und nicht aus Angst in sich so leise waren,

son­dern aus Hören. Brüllen, Schrei, Geröhr
schien klein in ihren Herzen. Und wo eben
kaum eine Hütte war, dies zu empfangen,

ein Unter­schlupf aus dunkel­stem Verlangen
mit einem Zugang, dessen Pfos­ten beben, -
da schuf­st du ihnen Tem­pel im Gehör.

Rain­er Maria Rilke, Die Sonette an Orpheus, Erster Teil (1922)

Young’s trans­la­tion is slight­ly clos­er to the terms used in Rilke’s orig­i­nal. The final line of the first stan­za, to take one exam­ple, men­tions ‘neuer Anfang, Wink und Wand­lung’, which is much clos­er to Young’s ‘changes […] sig­nals and fresh begin­nings’ than Paterson’s men­tion of a lyre. When look­ing at the two as a whole, how­ev­er, it’s hard to see any major dif­fer­ences: they are both recog­nis­ably tak­en from the original.

So why is this worth dis­cussing? Look­ing at Paterson’s attempts to define his ver­sion as a sep­a­rate cat­e­go­ry from trans­la­tion real­ly empha­sis­es some of the prob­lems with how we define trans­la­tion – par­tic­u­lar­ly when it comes to poet­ic translation.

Trans­la­tion is usu­al­ly defined as a kind of equiv­a­lence: a ‘faith­ful’ trans­la­tion repro­duces the orig­i­nal accu­rate­ly in anoth­er lan­guage. The prac­ti­cal real­i­ty of trans­la­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly non-lit­er­ary trans­la­tion, does work like this – some­one trans­lat­ing an instruc­tion man­u­al is sim­ply aim­ing to con­vey the same instruc­tions as the original.

When we look at lit­er­ary trans­la­tion, how­ev­er, things get a lit­tle more com­pli­cat­ed. The idea of accu­rate repro­duc­tion not only obscures the extent to which it’s impos­si­ble to tru­ly cre­ate a ‘faith­ful’ trans­la­tion, it also reduces the act of trans­la­tion to lit­tle more than an emp­ty ves­sel for con­vey­ing the orig­i­nal author’s ideas. I’d like to sug­gest that, even if nobody is going to be dis­card­ing the prac­ti­cal def­i­n­i­tion of trans­la­tion any time soon, it is worth acknowl­edg­ing that there is more going on in the act of trans­la­tion than this com­mon metaphor sug­gests. By con­fin­ing our­selves to con­cepts of sin­gu­lar author­ship and strict def­i­n­i­tions of orig­i­nal­i­ty, we are miss­ing out on pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions about the inter­re­lat­ed­ness of all kinds of texts.

The first and most fun­da­men­tal ques­tion is, of course, what exact­ly is being trans­lat­ed, a ques­tion which is very close­ly embed­ded in dis­cus­sions of where exact­ly the mean­ing of a text lies. It seems obvi­ous that the process is not sim­ply word-for-word, but call­ing it some­thing like sense-for-sense if very hard to pin down.1 A trans­la­tor has to con­sid­er a bewil­der­ing range of fac­tors: the orig­i­nal text; the cul­tur­al con­text in which it was writ­ten, and the con­text of the time peri­od and place in which it is like­ly to be read; even the needs of the pub­lish­ing indus­try (such as if it will be read in a pop­u­lar or aca­d­e­m­ic con­text). To take a very con­ven­tion­al exam­ple, trans­la­tors of Har­ry Pot­ter have to decide if they want to trans­late the many British con­cepts that lit­ter the text. The Chi­nese trans­la­tion by Su Nong explains the cere­al Corn­flakes in a foot­note, while the Israeli trans­la­tor Gili Bar-Hil­lel chose to con­vey a sher­bet lemon as a choco­late sweet; some trans­plant the set­ting into a board­ing school in their own coun­try, while oth­ers choose to keep it all on British soil.

And these kinds of nego­ti­a­tions are only the start. When we look at poet­ry – such as Rilke’s Sonette an Orpheus – the ten­sions real­ly come to the sur­face. There is a lot of debate about if poet­ry can ever be prop­er­ly trans­lat­ed, because the mean­ing is con­veyed by much more than sim­ply what the words say. 2More so than prose, poet­ry is about spe­cif­ic word choic­es, rhythm and rhyme, and a whole host of lin­guis­tic and styl­is­tic deci­sions. Broad­ly, trans­la­tors usu­al­ly have to choose between con­vey­ing the mean­ing of the words and los­ing some­thing of the struc­ture and style, or con­vey­ing the style with a loos­er trans­la­tion of the meaning.

Poet­ry is often con­sid­ered untrans­lat­able pre­cise­ly because peo­ple focus on the idea of accu­rate­ly repro­duc­ing an orig­i­nal. To get around this lim­i­ta­tion, poet­ic trans­la­tors take dif­fer­ent approach­es. To come back to Don Pater­son, he wrote an entire after­word to Orpheus explain­ing the dif­fer­ence between his ‘ver­sions’ and con­ven­tion­al translations:

[A]rtists also put them­selves in the way of a dan­ger­ous kind of sym­pa­thet­ic res­o­nance. (Of which Rilke writes approv­ing­ly, and rather unwise­ly, in ‘be the glass that shat­ters with its own ring­ing.’ ‘Zer­schlug’ I was tempt­ed to ren­der as ‘shiv­er’ or ‘trem­ble’, as a shat­tered glass is no use to anyone.)

He places the empha­sis firm­ly on his own cre­ative choic­es and judge­ments, his own respons­es to Rilke. It is hard, how­ev­er, to see this as any­thing more than a more con­fi­dent ver­sion of trans­la­tions tak­ing the translator’s own inter­pre­ta­tion into account. Pater­son may be mov­ing beyond the usu­al mean­ings of zer­schlug, but the result is still a com­bi­na­tion of the orig­i­nal text and his close engage­ment with it – as is the case with translation.

Pater­son only tries to sep­a­rate his work from con­ven­tion­al trans­la­tion because he takes the usu­al view that trans­la­tion is deriv­a­tive: if he wants to be regard­ed as an author, not a trans­la­tor, he has to be seen to be doing some­thing more. In his after­word, he says that ‘trans­la­tions date. Free ver­sions, on the oth­er hand, can nev­er be defin­i­tive; but nor do they date in quite the same way.’

This comes back to the ques­tion of what a trans­la­tion is con­vey­ing. New trans­la­tions are pub­lished because old­er ones appear out of date in a way which orig­i­nals do not: orig­i­nals reflect their own time peri­od, where­as trans­la­tions are a nego­ti­a­tion between the orig­i­nal time peri­od and the one in which the trans­la­tion is being writ­ten. (Wolf­gang Krege’s trans­la­tion of The Lord of the Rings in 2000, for exam­ple, sought to update the lan­guage by using Ger­man slang: Sam calls Fro­do Chef or boss, and Pip­pin ref­er­ences the lost prop­er­ty office.) Pater­son wants to place his Orpheus in a cat­e­go­ry of works that don’t become dat­ed after a few decades; he wants the poems to be judged in their own right, rather than by how well they reflect people’s expec­ta­tions of what Rilke should sound like in English.

People’s expec­ta­tions of poet­ic trans­la­tion change. Ear­li­er trans­la­tions of Rilke rhymed; by the ear­ly 1980s, how­ev­er, the trans­la­tor Albert Ernest Flem­ming was argu­ing that mak­ing Rilke rhyme in Eng­lish was an ‘impos­si­ble task’ that only leads to choos­ing ‘wrong or unsuit­able words’. Does this mean that ear­li­er rhymed trans­la­tions should be a sep­a­rate, less faith­ful cat­e­go­ry? And how far can Paterson’s ver­sions actu­al­ly be sep­a­rat­ed from pre­vi­ous translations?

If we come back to the Rilke poem I cit­ed ear­li­er, it’s clear that Pater­son isn’t doing any­thing cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent to pre­vi­ous trans­la­tions. The changes he makes – such as adding the lyre to the first stan­za – still ref­er­ence the orig­i­nal work and its con­text. His ver­sion is still a com­bi­na­tion of Rilke’s orig­i­nal and his own inter­pre­ta­tion, and still takes into account all the oth­er fac­tors – even pre­vi­ous trans­la­tions. To him, the notion of trans­la­tion can’t prop­er­ly con­vey his lev­el of engage­ment with the text, with exist­ing Eng­lish trans­la­tions of it, and with his own autho­r­i­al deci­sions, such as how he ren­ders words like zer­schlug.

Paterson’s attempt to cre­ate a ‘ver­sion’ rather than a trans­la­tion empha­sis­es how dif­fi­cult it is to define trans­la­tion in terms of faith­ful­ness, to see it as a very dif­fer­ent process to the orig­i­nal­i­ty of author­ship. Any descrip­tion of trans­la­tion as ‘faith­ful’ fails to encom­pass every­thing that hap­pens when some­one tries to con­vey a poem in anoth­er lan­guage. We need a less restric­tive con­cept that bet­ter con­veys all the process­es at work with­in trans­la­tion. Rather than view­ing trans­la­tion as between two lan­guages, I think we should try to see it in terms of the pre­fix ‘trans’: trans­la­tion, trans­for­ma­tion, even trans­gres­sion. This not only cov­ers the idea that trans­la­tion moves ‘across, from one place, per­son, thing or state to anoth­er’, but also encom­pass­es ‘beyond, out­side of, transcending’.

This image of mul­ti-direc­tion con­nec­tions is embed­ded in dis­cus­sions of trans­la­tions, but is often ignored in favour of think­ing about trans­la­tion as sim­ply ‘between’ the orig­i­nal and the trans­la­tion. The con­cept of ‘trans’, how­ev­er, lets us see all the con­nec­tions between trans­la­tion and orig­i­nal, author and trans­la­tor. It acknowl­edges Paterson’s cre­ative input with­out hav­ing to sep­a­rate what he does from trans­la­tion. It refutes the idea of a sin­gle autho­r­i­al influ­ence over a text, see­ing trans­la­tions not in terms of faith­ful­ness, but with a recog­ni­tion of every­thing that influ­ences them. It is not sim­ply a one-way trans­mis­sion from orig­i­nal to trans­la­tion, nor even a dia­logue between the two – it encom­pass­es every­thing that influ­enced the orig­i­nal author and the trans­la­tor, and even pre­vi­ous translations.

It is not too far dis­tant from the way we con­sid­er orig­i­nal works in light of the oth­er works and authors than influ­enced them; both are an exchange of voic­es. There are count­less texts that retell Shake­speare, for exam­ple, who him­self was retelling – trans­form­ing – ear­li­er texts.

We should see trans­la­tions as mul­ti­ple rather than deriv­a­tive, a license to rein­ter­pret that is not so far removed from those retellings of Shake­speare into our cur­rent cul­tur­al con­text. Trans­la­tors not only respond to the orig­i­nal, but also to oth­er trans­la­tions and texts, as texts respond to oth­er works.

It is true that trans­la­tion is a bit of a dif­fer­ent process to cre­at­ing a work with­out a direct source. How­ev­er, much like Pater­son rework­ing Rilke’s son­nets isn’t so far removed from Young trans­lat­ing them, so is Pater­son not so much fur­ther removed from Mar­garet Atwood writ­ing a female-cen­tred ver­sion of the Odyssey in The Penelop­i­ad, or Jean Rhys rethink­ing Jane Eyre in The Wide Sar­gas­so Sea – both of which are judged as orig­i­nal works of authorship.

When we judge trans­la­tions by their faith­ful­ness, we lose the oppor­tu­ni­ty to more fruit­ful­ly exam­ine the myr­i­ad trans­for­ma­tions at work with­in the process of trans­la­tion – mean­ing poets have to go to the lengths of Pater­son cre­at­ing an entire­ly sep­a­rate cat­e­go­ry of ‘ver­sion’ to have his work judged as poems in their own right. When we allow works to trans­gress the bound­aries between trans­la­tion and orig­i­nal, when we see them as a con­tin­u­um of relat­ed sub­jects rather than as supe­ri­or and sub­or­di­nate cat­e­gories, we will open up more pro­duc­tive dis­cus­sions of translation.

  1. See The Prin­ci­pal Works of St. Jerome: Let­ter LVII. To Pam­machius on the Best Method of Trans­lat­ing, trans­lat­ed by  Philip Schaff and Hen­ry Wace: „For I myself not only admit but freely pro­claim that in trans­lat­ing from the Greek (except in the case of the holy scrip­tures where even the order of the words is a mys­tery) I ren­der sense for sense and not word for word“.
  2. See Matthew Reynolds, The Poet­ry of Translation.

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