> Poetry in Translation

Poetry in Translation

Par |2019-01-22T03:16:21+00:00 21 juin 2012|Catégories : Essais|

*Originally publi­shed in Wales

It was Robert Frost who said that “poe­try is what gets lost in trans­la­tion”. As someone who has a par­ti­cu­lar inter­est in the poe­try of other lan­guages, I have often found the accu­ra­cy of this pro­noun­ce­ment irri­ta­ting.

Fortunately, it isn't always true. It might be hard to explain why (to quote from a poem in The Trees/​Los Árboles by the Venezuelan Eugenio Montejo, a book I revie­wed recent­ly for a British maga­zine) ‘La Vida se va, se fue, lle­ga mas tarde' works well in the ori­gi­nal Spanish though falls a bit flat as ‘Life goes away, disap­pears, comes back later on’ in the English trans­la­tion accom­pa­nying it. But you don't need much of a grasp of Spanish or English to rea­lise it does. Some of the other poems in the same book, howe­ver, do (or at least I think they do) come across well in English trans­la­tion. Take the ending of A Photograph from 1948 (Une pho­to­gra­phie de 1948). In the English trans­la­tion this reads :

The same sun-washed coun­try­side remains,
unta­med land­scapes, fast music,
mines, wide plains, petro­leum,
this land of ours flo­wing into our veins
that's never mana­ged to bury Gómez.

Gómez was the dic­ta­tor of his oil-rich but back­ward coun­try for much of the ear­ly part of the 20th cen­tu­ry. He was infa­mous for his sha­dy deals with American com­pa­nies. His dubious finan­cial deals aren't cen­tral to what I'm saying but this does give an illus­tra­tion of how it can be revea­ling to read first-hand accounts of life in other socie­ties.

We in Wales* should be par­ti­cu­lar­ly sen­si­tive to poe­try in trans­la­tion. It is the only way many of us can have any chance of appre­cia­ting poe­try in Welsh. Gwyneth Lewis, in her book Keeping Mum (ne pas piper mot de…), inter­es­tin­gly explo­red the theme of lost lan­guage (and Welsh is all but lost to many of us in Wales, no mat­ter what the offi­cial cen­sus figures say).

The simple poem that sticks in my mind is What's in a Name. In the ori­gi­nal Welsh and English, this tells us that : ‘Lleian wen is not the same as “smew” /​ because it's ano­ther point of view, /​/​ ano­ther bird. There's been a cull : gwylan’s gone and we're left with “gull” /​/​ and blun­ter senses till that day /​ when “swal­lows”, like gwen­nol, might stay away.

A more tra­di­tio­nal look at poe­try in Welsh can be found in Tony Conran’s superb book, Welsh Verse, publi­shed in seve­ral edi­tions by Seren. Tony Conran has done a remar­kable job of illu­mi­na­ting a poe­tic tra­di­tion that stretches back four­teen cen­tu­ries, of brin­ging its unique qua­li­ties to robust life for rea­ders who have lit­tle or no Welsh. Beginning with a scho­lar­ly but very rea­dable intro­duc­tion, he brings to the rea­der a wide selec­tion of Welsh poe­try in trans­la­tion, from Taliesin wri­ting on the bor­ders of Scotland in what was still at that time a new lan­guage deri­ved from old Brythonic, through the times of the pri­fardd (chief bard or poet) and their cywyd­dau mawl (poems of praise), and then comes more up to date with a look at poets like Alun Llywelyn Williams and Nesta Wyn Jones.

For anyone in Wales who alrea­dy has even a pas­sing know­ledge of the tra­di­tio­nal forms the pre-eminent ques­tion will be ‘how has Tony Conran attemp­ted to ren­der them in English?’ The ans­wer is the best pos­sible one : he has given prio­ri­ty to the mea­ning and ima­ge­ry, but tried to give some­thing of a fee­ling for form in ima­gi­na­tive and ori­gi­nal ways. With non-Welsh forms like the son­net, for example, he has tried to fol­low the ori­gi­nal in mat­ters of rhyme scheme and line length. With the Welsh free metres, he has where at all pos­sible used the Welsh schemes in his trans­la­tions, and elsew­here tried to find a rough­ly equi­va­lent English scheme.

His grea­test chal­lenges came from the tra­di­tio­nal Welsh forms of cywydd and cyn­gha­nedd. In the case of the for­mer, he has adap­ted an Irish form, the deib­hidhe, which uses cou­plets of seven-syl­lable lines, to achieve a rea­so­nable com­pro­mise bet­ween metre and cadence. In the case of the lat­ter, he has rea­li­sed the dan­ger of pro­du­cing tongue-twis­ters, and only used cyn­gha­nedd to any­thing like full extent in single lines.

Not eve­ryone will be inter­es­ted in form and such mat­ters as the adap­ta­bi­li­ty of the englyn for wri­ting in English. There is, howe­ver, much in the way of content. A poet like Dafydd ap Gwilym, wri­ting in the four­teenth cen­tu­ry, speaks more clear­ly to us through Conran's trans­la­tions than do many wri­ters of today. Take his mock-lament to The Ladies of Llanbadarn. In the English trans­la­tion, this begins :

Plague take the women here –
I’m bent down with desire,
Yet not a single one
I’ve trys­ted with, or won,
Little girl, wife or crone,
Not one sweet wench my own !

I’ll look at the ala­bas­ter sta­tue of Dafydd ap Gwilym in Cardiff City Hall a lit­tle dif­fe­rent­ly from now on.

There were in past times other lan­guages in these islands*. Nearly all of us can only approach this poe­try through trans­la­tion : few of us are fluent in Anglo-Saxon. If you get the chance, I would recom­mend that you read a trans­la­tion of Wulf and Eadwacer. Even through the veils of a dead lan­guage, rather more than a mil­len­nium, a socie­ty very dif­ferent from any modern one, and even a not whol­ly agreed ‘sto­ry­line’, we can still empa­thise with the Saxon woman cal­ling for her Viking lover and feel for her as she says (in Modern English) ‘For a wolf /​ Shall car­ry to the woods our wret­ched whelp. /​ Men very easi­ly may put asun­der /​ that which was never joi­ned, our song toge­ther.’ There are lon­ger works worth explo­ring, too. To get a hint of the sound of Old English lis­ten to The Battle of Maldon in the ori­gi­nal Anglo-Saxon, and then read a trans­la­tion. And Seamus Heaney – who can hard­ly be accu­sed of being an Anglo-Saxon – gave us a ter­ri­fic free trans­la­tion of Beowulf as recent­ly as 1999.

I’d bet­ter stop there. Otherwise I'll want to go on about Li Bai, the Chinese poet who was rough­ly contem­po­ra­ry with the ano­ny­mous wri­ter of Beowulf. Still, I must men­tion that I do have part of one of his poems han­ging on my wall. I had it espe­cial­ly drawn up for me about twen­ty-five years ago !