Translating into words

I am a typical (North) American, with his disability for languages. This comes from our collective occupation of much too large a geographical area, and speaking English over it every day — or an unreasonable facsimile thereof. We do not benefit from the virtue of necessity.

In Canada, we should speak French by preference, in its late mediaeval form, in solidarity with our pioneering, mostly Norman, ancestors — French, in the floral, formal tone of Pierre de Ronsard, or Joachim du Bellay, the restorers of the classics. Or we might follow the advice of my (Cape Breton) grandmother, who acknowledged Canada’s “two official languages” — and mentioned that they were Scots Gaelic, and Ecclesiastical Latin. By now, even the teaching of these vernaculars has declined (almost to extinction) in our public schools, where the students are taught to reject any manifestation of class or culture.

This leaves very little demand for poetry in translation, or poetry at all. So I have put them on my list for anti-Woke revivals. Indeed, I think back on the heroic age in which I came to mindfulness, when Poetry in Translation was among the foreign journals available at any branch of the (now defunct) Lichtman’s newsstand chain. Penguins and the other mass-market paperback series also catered to this taste, and I was especially enamoured of their original texts, with prose translations in small type at the foot of each page. But to raise amour through excitement, there were many (actually American) poets doing shockingly splendid translations into verse: all the progeny of Ezra Pound. And they were not writing exclusively for deadly academics.

One could not acquire a language through reading translations, but nevertheless, might learn it better by this technique; for following the rules of poetical translation, the best work was obviously not word-for-word. That is what Google or AI robots can do — provide a crib for idiots and the terminally lazy — but literature, even in prose, continues to require the human touch.

In my own lost, abandoned ventures, I would take care to make each transformation reasonably complete. Even line-for-line was usually beyond my competence (in the few languages I would attempt); and I came to think it should be beyond anybody’s. The best will gather the most telling imagery, and their many sharply converted acts of speech, in the order commanded by the new language; and will not neglect the rhythms that emerge with those commands.

All of this comes before confronting such pesky little problems, as rhymes.

After making fine concessions, with all the leisure that requires, there will be no time left. It takes a hundred hours to make a new poem, properly; sometimes it takes several years more; until one’s success is no longer ambiguous, and one discards all evidence that one ever laboured. The old poem has become, astoundingly, a new poem; that sings in a voice that we had longed to hear.