Neruda and Translation

August 30, 2008
By Bret

Now and then, I get in the mood to read poetry.

It doesn't happen frequently, and my knowledge of poetry is minimal, so I definitely can't claim to be an expert or even an enthusiast. However, I did get an urge to read poetry about a month ago, and I picked up the copy of the bilingual edition of Pablo Neruda's Odes to Common Things that I was given for Christmas last year.

Previously, I had always read poetry written in English, so I was curious to try reading poetry in translation just to see how it worked out. This edition has the original Spanish on the left pages (which I have a little knowledge of) and the English translation on the right pages, so it seemed like a great place to start.

I enjoyed the poetry, both in Spanish and English, but at times the two versions didn't seem to be entirely in sync. My Spanish isn't great, but I understand it well enough that I could make it through the poems with an English-Spanish dictionary at my side to help out with vocabulary. Even so, I came away feeling that the translation was good, but maybe not as good as it could have been. The thought occurred: Perhaps my expectations for poetic translation just didn't match up with those of the translators.

Not knowing much about the topic, I started reading what I could find online about poetry in translation, and discovered (surprise, surprise) a spectrum of points of view.

I think a passage from this article by Sarah Dudek is a good summary of the core issue:

“When it comes to the practice of poetry translation one is faced with a much more practical issue: literality versus free translation – a crucial and controversial point in the discussion on translations of poetry. On the one hand stand the advocates of literal translation, such as Vladimir Nabokov, who believes that 'the clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase.' Translation should cover up the original as little as possible. On the other hand stand proponents of free translation, who aim to make the result more fluent, and thus more accessible to readers of poetry, than a literal translation could ever be.”

From the (admittedly limited) reading I have done, the “free translation” school of thought seems to have more popular support, both historically and among contemporary translators. One essay I've run across that presents a lot of support for this point of view is “From Translation to Imitation” by Richard Jackson, a poet and professor at UT Chattanooga.

Something about this end of the spectrum rubs me the wrong way, though, and I think it has to do with differing mindsets about the nature of poetry itself. What makes poetry poetry, and why would we read it?

Encyclopedia Britannica defines poetry as, “Literature that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound, and rhythm.” This seems like a good description to me, but it misses part of the answer to the second question.

Let me try to explain what I think is missing. Poetry, the art form, is not a single homogeneous object. It exists as individual poems, which we necessarily read and interact with one at a time. So then, when we read a particular poem, what are we hoping to experience? What does that poem offer that distinguishes it from another poem?

The answer, to my mind, can be distilled into one word: voice.

A poem comes from a particular author, using particular words to express observations and insights (directly or indirectly) from a point of view that is all their own. We read to get a glimpse of some aspect of the world through another person's perspective, to have a literary moment of epiphany that makes us say, “I never thought of it like that.” This is what a great poem does—it takes a part of the poet's perception and inspires similar perception in readers. The words used to do this can be thought of as an expression of the poet's voice.

Because of this, I believe that preservation of the author's voice should be the central matter when considering priorities for poetry translation.

Of course, good translation is an exceedingly complex matter, and one that always involves trade-offs. Even people reading the poem in its original language will react differently based on individual biases, background, knowledge, etc. When we introduce the difficulty of translation, we must also take into account that idiom and inference don't translate across cultures, to say nothing of the linguistic difficulties involved in trying to preserve aesthetic elements such as rhyme, meter, alliteration, or puns.

(At this point, we could take the post-modern route and disavow any hope of shared meaning, but this leads to a futility that undercuts the whole purpose of poetry in the first place. If you've read this far, I'll assume you agree that this doesn't make any sense.)

How can we best preserve all the various elements of an author's voice in the translation of a poem? For each new translation, a whole series of questions cascade from this first one. How much of the voice in a poem is carried in the literal content, as opposed to the form? Where does idiom or inference carry more weight than direct meaning?

If preservation of the author's voice is paramount, a more literal approach to translation will succeed beyond what a more “free” approach can offer. This is not to say that a literal translation cannot be accessible or artful—there are many small decisions a translator can make to enhance beauty and fluidity. However, the farther we stray from the original, the more a new poem is created in a voice not the author's. It is, in Richard Jackson's words, more imitation than translation.

A literal translation cuts our losses, if you will.

If things such as idiom cannot be preserved across languages, it can only obscure the author's intent to try to substitute a phrase with similar impact. Elements so steeped in culture and history will necessarily require education for the reader to gain greater understanding. Similarly, alliteration is often lost in translation, but other linguistic qualities of the poem such as parallelism and word repetition can be maintained. These elements are purposeful choices, and we are that much closer to hearing the author's voice when they are preserved.

It is a noble endeavor to translate poetry, but a translated poem can not by nature be more than an introduction to the original. However, there is value in the introduction, and the best we can do is to make that as personal as possible.

As a small illustration of what I mean, I have retranslated the last short stanza of Neruda's Oda a la Silla (Ode to the Chair). I don't intend to single out Ken Krabbenhoft, the translator for the collection I have, whose knowledge and expertise is obviously far beyond mine. My translation is merely more literal than his as a matter of intent, and I believe it to be slightly better at preserving both the original rhythm and the original meaning, especially in the last sentence.

Last verse of Pablo Neruda's Ode to the Chair:

La guerra es ancha como selva oscura.
La paz
una sola

Ken Krabbenhoft's translation:
War is as vast as the shadowy jungle.
A single chair
the first sign

My translation:
War is as vast as a shadowy jungle.
a single

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