Friday, June 8, 2012

Beats me. I feel it done to me and weep.

Dr. Johnson asks, "Q: What are some of your ideas about reading poetry in translation? When I read Dante or Rumi, it's always a different English translation, and they always give a slightly different vibe from the previous translation. How much do you think is missed by reading a writer in translation? Thanks, I'll hang up and listen to the response on the air...I should add I'm a first time listener, long-time caller."

This seems like asking a virgin to describe sex.  I can barely read German, and I have less skill with Latin.  I've "read" some Goethe and Rilke, etc., in German and then read the English translations.  I have some sense of the music of German poetry, but I can only understand a word here or there in the German.  I've read even less Latin poetry.

1)  I initially have a Poundian response to this.  One can see poetry using the tools of melopoeia (sound), phanopoeia (images), and/or logopoeia (the play of words), etc.  One can translate melopoeia only in spurts (according to Pound), but one can translate a great deal of imagery (phanopoeia).  Logopoeia seems even more difficult to translate.  I've read and loved a lot of Pound's translation and those he recommends (Arthur Golding's Ovid, etc.).

2.  Rumi brings up the special problems of esoteric meanings, sufic, etc.  I don't claim to understand those esoteric meanings or how to translate them.  I think of the great bumper sticker, "God said it; I believe it; That settles it."  I find the Bible difficult to understand in English, and I have no understanding of the original languages, in their esoteric or exoteric meanings.

3.  I've become more agnostic about translations.  Read whatever works for you.  Two and a half years ago some tenth graders said they wanted to read Dante, so we put together a reading group.  I immediately thought in Poundian terms and thought of using either the Dent or Binyon translations.  My old copy of The Portable Dante had the Binyon translation, so I told them to buy The Portable Dante.  I didn't realize the more recent editions of The Portable Dante used the Mark Musa translation, who translated the poem into blank verse, which I suspect would have horrified Uncle Ezra.  Well, some kids had already bought the book when I discovered this, and it looked like both of the translations Pound had recommended had gone out of print, so I decided to go ahead with the Musa translation, and I ended up really enjoying it.  In fact, when a passage of Musa's translation of the Purgatorio really moved me, I thought I'd look up Binyon's translation to find an even better version of it, and I found the Binyon version a little old fashioned and less effective.

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