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dropping names: Barnstone’s “ABC of Translating Poetry”

April 6, 2013

“I include this primer on the translation of poetry with pleasure and diffidence since I dislike dogma or prescription,” writes Willis Barnstone in his essay, “An ABC of Translating Poetry.”  He has a particular, stated purpose for playing with ABCs, with the format of a primer, as if another translation of a divine original, “written with black fire on white fire.”

I include the people he includes in his primer.  I’ve dropped Barnstone’s name here because I find it interesting how many names he drops.  In my blogpost, I want to suggest that there’s more to it than we might first understand.  I’d like to draw particular attention to what these names are doing here, as if Barnstone, the poet, the translator, the theorist, the practitioner understands the personal — with pleasure and diffidence — to be key human qualities, perhaps traits of persons who find value in the practice of the art of poetry translation, or who commit acts, as sins, like treason.  The “essay” as a primer, as creative prose, as poetry?, appears first in The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice My own preference, in the excerpted bits below has not been to show the CAPITAL letters of the alphabet that Barnstone showed.  (If you read how he writes this, then you see how he uses capitalization:  “A Translation is the ART of revelation….  B Translation is an art BETWEEN tongues….”).  Rather, I have put the bold font on the names dropped, on the people presented by Barnstone as agents and/or subjects of translated poetry, as if it were as easy or elementary as for students in grammar school, as if for children learning and for teachers showing them how to learn.

Why not show preferences, to use Jorge Luis Borges‘ favorite word for choice, judgment, discrimination, and taste?….

Translation is the art of revelation. It makes the unknown known. The translator artist has the fever and craft to recognize, re-create, and reveal the work of the other artist. But even when famous at home, the work comes into an alien city as an orphan with no past to its readers. In rags, hand-me-downs, or dramatic black capes of glory, it is surprise, morning, a distinctive stranger. The orphan is Don Quijote de la Mancha in Chicago….

Moving between tongues, translation acquires difference. Because the words and grammar of each language differ from every other language, the transference of a poem from one language to another involves differing sounds and prosody. And because there are no perfect word equivalents between languages, or even within the same language (as Borges proves in his story of the mad Menard), perfection in translation is inconceivable.

Translation is sin, Eve‘s courageous breakfast leading to forbidden knowledge of the unknown. Outrage in art is desirable, and a bit of felonious deception and license are also healthy….

A translation dwells in exile. It cannot return. Those who invoke its former home wish to disenfranchise it. The translated poem should be read as a poem written in the language of the adopted literature, even if it differs because of its origin from any poem ever written in its new tongue. Fray Luis de León wrote that translated poems should not appear foreign but as “nacidas en él y naturales” (as if born and natural in the language). Yet why not some flagrant unnaturalness? Why not shake up English poetry with the sudden arrogant figure of Vladimir Mayakovsky, standing tall in his coalminer’s cap, shouting his syllables out to the sky from the Brooklyn Bridge? Why not the ghost of the “disappeared” Osip Mandelstam, reading his alchemic lyrics about Stalin‘s mustache or his EXILE poems from the snows and ice graves of Voronezh?….

Although it is best when one poet can chat with the other poet, the ability to chat in the foreign tongue does not create a poet. Nor does knowledge of the language of the original text qualify a translator any more than good knowledge of English makes every English speaker Milton. Poems prepared by a taxidermist, to use Robert Lowell‘s words, “are likely to be stuffed birds.” So from the King James Version of the Bible to contemporary versions of modern Russian poets, putting together a responsible, literalist informant and a meticulously honest but imaginative writer is preferable to commissioning work from a scholarly nonwriter.

In a translation, without art there can be no friendship between poets….

In the art of literature and scholarship, the Platonic good lies in tradition, a code word for theft. Translators are hardcore stealers, but unlike ordinary literary confidence men, the translator gets caught. For a translator, to be “honest” means that if he steals the original for his poem, as Chaucer did, or invents or omits passages from it, as the two Roberts, Lowell and Bly, have frequently done, he will declare the theft or omission openly, as the Roberts do. Give the art a name like paraphrase, imitation, or verse transfer, and the translation police will not arrest you. A poet translator survives as a good confessed thief. The best poet translators—the “original” authors of the Bible, Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Saint John of the Cross—wear masks and have not been caught….

So all literature is translation and all translation is unique and therefore original. Octavio Paz goes so far as to declare, “Every text is unique and, at the same time, is a translation of another text.”….

Instability—eternal transformation—may be uncomfortable, but it is best to live with it. Because the dream of capturing and stilling words must really be seen as an allegory for death, a bad joke, it is better to accept movement—translation—and live with peppy Proteus and Heraclitus, the two Greek jokers….

A translation aspires to the kabbalah, wherein the universe is a system of permanent though fiery words; yet it wakes down on earth in the knowledge of its instability and impermanence.

Given the inconstancy of words and texts, can we demand miracles from human translators who work today to grace us with a poem? Yes. The poet translator should at the very least compete with the Creator. In our ignorance, we need her work of restoration and we need to be saved. When we look at a poem in a language unknown to us, we are looking helplessly into the formless void that puzzled God until he found the right words to translate chaos into form and light. In that sequence of translation and retranslation from the earliest original creation, from God‘s self-translation into being, up to the text before us, we depend on the secular powers of the translator to turn the formless void into light.

In the Zohar (the Book of Radiance), the infinite (the eyn sof) lies not in a stationary mass but in two forms of undulatory movement: darkness and light. Within the most hidden recess, a dark flame issues from the mystery of eyn sof like a fog forming in the unformed, which springs forth into light through which Adam saw from one end to the other of the world.

Translation is a movement from darkness into light and back to darkness. Even for the Kabbalists the infinite of God‘s creation of Adam‘s vision is only a flash of light….

Religion is God‘s bureaucracy. As in translation, in the hierarchy of power a fidelity to the word is essential. Fidelity to the letter, preceding the word, makes an even better, higher form of faith. Kabbalists like meaningful letters.

In their old drawings we see a tree of life whose leaves are letters and a man whose body is covered at vital spots by the ten letters of the sefirot.

Before God created the earth and heaven, he created the book. The Torah was “written with black fire on white fire, and is lying on the lap of God.” Thereafter to create the world through his word, he devised the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet. They “descended from the terrible and august crown of God whereon they were engraved with a pen of flaming fire.”

Horace and Jerome removed themselves from the literalism of the letter and condemned even the word in order to champion phrase and sense. Yet any way—the way of Kabbalah’s letter, God‘s word, or Jerome‘s phrase and sense—works if the created poem is beautiful. Foremost among fidelities is fidelity to beauty in the original poem. Should the new poem not have beauty, the translator has traduced our faith in sense, word, and letter….

The translator plays with nothingness, with la nada, and from nothing comes everything. “De nada a todo,” Saint John of the Cross inserts into a concrete poem drawing. The unlikely and impossible to translate are rich. In la nada the Spanish poet-saint found God…..

Think of a hilly field on a Greek island, with that rational light of the Mediterranean in which seven centuries before the common era Archilochos wrote about figs and wanton women and his own wild shameless sexuality. His poems with their sun in the time of the Dogstar—now modernized as fragments—are all preserved in the multiple trees in a Greek orchard on the afternoon hill….

A translator’s reward for a mistake must be capital punishment. Freedom to invent, to stray from the text, even to scratch out words and passages succeeds in a defined method, such as imitation, which Chaucer and Shakespeare boldly practiced. But not freedom to make errors. Such practice puts a poet on the hot seat. Only a punk sees freedom and error as synonyms….

The writer’s skills, as Quintilian already knew, are increased by exercising the act of translation. Of course Quintilian, being an eloquent grammarian, suggested the translation of quality oration rather than of the poem. Even Latin grammarians and orators have troubles with poems and tend to Q them behind the eight ball….

A close rendition requires the greatest imagination and holds the greatest danger, for in staying close the poet may easily be seduced by the facile surface of literality. So a paradox. In close translation, given the imperative of a soaring imagination in order to compensate aesthetically for nearness to the source text, the translator poet needs a good space suit, deft fingers while working in space, or else must keep a pillow on the floor. Robert Fitzgerald soared yet remained intimately close. The Chinese call the method of the great Tang poets of working imaginatively while being bound by strictures “dancing in chains”….

A translator poet must be a translator. In the act of rendering poetry from nothing into something, the translator is first a poet, even if outside the recreation he never writes poetry. If a poet—and among the grand translators are Mary Herbert, Hölderlin, Pasternak, Rilke, Valéry, Lowell, Moore, Pound, Quasimodo, and Bishop—we are lucky. But as Octavio Paz has written, good poets are not necessarily good poet translators….

Readers of the original text read the language of their own time, unless the author, like Spenser, deliberately imitated an archaic mode….

Although Antigone and Lear sometimes speak in exotic tongues, subverting God‘s rage against the monolingual builders of Babel writers still scrawl their words in a thousand scripts, pile them up on mounds of hope and futurity, awaiting translation. Translation is a zoo and a heavenly zion,

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 6, 2013 11:45 am

    Religion as God’s bureaucracy – I asked my wife what she thought of this – and within seconds, she said, “man’s bureaucracy, God is not a bureaucrat”… Barnstone is hard on mistakes – capital punishment! But if its only that capital letters must be used, then the old square script gets it without effort.

  2. April 6, 2013 1:32 pm

    Bob, thanks for commenting and especially for sharing your wife’s response; if you read Barnstone in the “original” he is the one making LETTERs uppercase in the L section, and he doesn’t use my adjective “capital” for any of that. Anyways, I’m able to (re-)read what is written as “Religion is because of humans and our Babel God’s bureaucracy.” I’m guessing Barnstone might appreciate our close readings here. Don’t know about God.

  3. April 6, 2013 10:09 pm

    This post made my jaw drop — you really got the drop on us (they were dropping like flies). I dropped in my tracks, I dropped out, I dropped by, I dropped in, I dropped by the wayside, I dropped the ball, and then I dropped out of sight. You could have heard a pin drop, as we were waiting for the other shoe to drop. I wanted to drop the subject, but she was drop-dead gorgeous, even as she dropped a bombshell (this was before she dropped me [like a hot potato] because I was a drip.) Water, water, every where, and all the boards did shrink; water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink. (Even if it is just a drop in the bucket).

    Thanks for dropping a line.

  4. April 6, 2013 10:28 pm

    Lol, Theophrastus. We really ought to drop the fun of language if we want to be prescriptive and dogmatic. Dropping things sometimes leads to their breaking. Unless it’s a plural noun, in which case it can be bird residue. You took it the right way, of course, and yes I was doing the thing where I thought I’d just try to impress with highlighting names I seem to know. (I should have said that one of my children is now in college taking a class with a poet and translator, a professor who is one of Willis Barnstone’s children. That one had his father speak to the class and read some of his own poetry and name some of the poets whose poetry he’s translated. I was impressed that my own daughter has learned some now from the wonderful Willis Barnstone himself. How’s that for name dropping?)

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