Saturday, March 29, 2008

Imitations and Serial Translation

Jane Holland has pointed out that Harry Mathews poem 'The White Wind' in P.N.Review 180 is a paraphrase of Wyatt's 'Whoso list to hunt', and that Petrarch's sonnet which served as Wyatt's model features a 'white hind' (una candida cerva) which has undergone a strange transformation in Mathews' title. It seems a little odd that no credit to Wyatt is given, but I guess poets have been using poems as models from the outset, and generally without explanatory acknowledgments. Even so, here at our 21st-century postmodern terminal moraine, maybe a small note wouldn't have been amiss.

I suspect several poets go in for this sort of thing in the privacy of notebooks - dismantling clocks to see how they work, or trying things to help move them towards a new voice or expand their range.

Derek Walcott, in an interview published in Contemporary Literature, Vol 20. #3 1980, remarked: "you know you just ravage and cannibalise anything as a young writer", and the 40-ish Robert Lowell explained, in his introduction to Imitations, that his loose translations were done from time to time when he was unable to do any work of his own. He said he was trying to write "alive English" and to do what the original authors "might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America."

Peter Porter, in a conversation published in Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop's 1972 book British Poetry Since 1960, said of his translations of Martial: "They're not translations at all but more - in musical terms - realisations ... They are done to give me the pleasure of reading his poems - in a very brutal and egotistical way. The only way I could enjoy his writing was to rewrite it myself." Donald Hall's drastic recasting of Horace's Odes in The Museum of Clear Ideas is another good recent example.

And of course translators typically study other existing translations when available, even build upon them. Alan Jenkins, for example, in his translation of Rimbaud, Drunken Boats (Sylph editions, 2007) states that he has stolen what he needed from Lowell and Beckett.

Indeed serial translation, where one translator builds on the good bits of earlier translations was once the norm. Felicity Rosslyn, back in PNR 111 (1996) wrote a wonderful overview of this important and relatively neglected topic.

She demonstrates how the opening of Dryden's Iliad (1700):

The wrath of Peleus' son, O Muse, resound

Whose dire effects the Grecian army found.

was clearly in Pope's mind when he wrote in his 1715 version:

The Wrath of Peleus' Son, the direful Spring

Of all the Grecian Woes, O Goddess sing!

Two days after Pope's Book I, a rival - one Thomas Tickell - brought out his ...

Achilles' fatal Wrath, whence discord rose,

That brought the Sons of Greece unnumber'd Woes,

O Goddess sing.

Pope angrily annotated his copy of this, but admired the clear initial focus on Achilles, and the unnumber'd woes, and for his 1736 edition rewrote the opening:

Achilles' Wrath, to Greece the direful spring

Of woes unnumber'd, heav'nly Goddess, sing!

Thus the completion of Pope's final Iliad can be seen as the cumulative results of many hands working in the one unified tradition - the tradition of heroic couplet translation - and thus, along with Gothic cathedrals, quantum physics and wikipedia can be seen as the flowering achievement of a dedicated community.


Jane Holland said...

I'm interested in this idea of serial translations. Like the 'world poem' idea, where everybody contributes a verse. My translations so far have been limited to the odd thing in dead languages which I've spotted and felt a compelling need to 'rewrite', as it were, in my own idiom. So other people's translations - whilst useful where the original text is suddenly opaque for whatever reason - tend not to come into the equation.

Sometimes, if going for fidelity, it's impossible to avoid similarity. But I prefer to be faithless, on the whole, and make the new poem my own.

David M Lumsden said...

Ah yes, the new poem has to be your own ... it's poetry we want after all, not some study crib. I lived in Poland for several years and spent a lot of time attempting (& failing at) translations of Herbert & Szymborska & a few others, and soon enough realized that Frost's "poetry is what get s lost in translation" is true once you get some appreciation of the subtleties of good poetry in the original. I suspect a measure of ignorance and self-confidence is helpful, which might account for Pound's particular successes in this line.

Lowell wrote in the introduction to Imitations, poetic translation "needs at least as much technique, luck and rightness of hand as an original poem."

Jane Holland said...

Yes, ignorance can be hugely important in poetry - all writing, in fact - and not just with translations. If you look something too squarely in the face, you'll never get the allusive power of that half-glance or the quick glimpse from under lowered eyelids. I'm talking about influence here as much as impression. You look once or twice, and let your imagination go to work unhindered by specifics. You stare too long and there's no mystery left.

Laurie Duggan said...

David, you asked about my (decidedly unscholarly) versions of Martial. It WAS done as an extra with an issue of Scripsi. Don't know where you'd be able to get it but I will happily mail you a copy if you send me an address.