Poetry & Translation
The Art of the Impossible (Poetry &...)
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|Format: ||Hardback, 256 pages|
|Published In: ||United Kingdom, 01 November 2009|
In Poetry & Translation the acclaimed poet and translator Peter Robinson examines the activity as of translation practised by poets and others, and how the various practices of translating have continued in parallel with the writing of original poetry. So, while some attention is paid to classic statements of the translator's cultural role, statements such as Walter Benjamin's, readers should not expect to find formalized theoretical debate along the lines already developed in translation studies courses and their teaching handbooks. Instead Poetry & Translation seeks to raise issues and matters for discussion - the character of bilingual editions and how they are, or may be, read - not to close them down. The aim of the book is be to increase knowledge of, and thought about, the interactive processes of reading and writing poetry composed in mother tongues and in translations. Poetry & Translation will be of value to all devoted readers and students of poetry or translation, to students involved in classical and modern languages, and to those taking part in creative writing courses, whether as students or as teachers.
Table of Contents
Preface 1. On First Looking 2. What Is Lost? 3. Thou Art Translated 4. The Art of the Impossible 5. Nostalgia for World Culture 6. Translating the `Foreign' 7. The Quick and the Dead Bibliography Index
About the Author
Peter Robinson is Professor of English at the University of Reading. Recent books include: Twentieth Century Poetry: Selves and Situations (OUP, 2005; Poetry, Poets, Readers: Making Things Happen (OUP, 2002) The Greener Meadow: Selected Poems of Luciano Erba (Princeton UP, 2007) Selected Poetry and Prose of Vittorio Sereni (Chicago UP, 2006). An acclaimed poet in his own right, The Salt Companion to Peter Robinson was published in 2007.
Informative as well as argued, polemical as well as seeking out common ground, and written in a no-nonsense, clear style, Poetry & Translation shows quite simple things to be complex and more nuanced than thought but has also a refreshing directness about dealing with things that have often been made to seem too complex to deal with. It is also written from the triple perspective of poet, translator and critic. A fine book. Scholars and practitioners of poetry translation will welcome this intelligent and insighful new book. Translation Studies has two late-twentieth-century bugbears which scare us all at the edge of the dark wood where the languages meet. One is that nothing can be translated, cultures and languages being so divided by time, space, language code, and custom as to render communication impossible except at the level of treacherous universals. The other is that translation, even if possible, only works by subordination of the foreign, making its imposition of domestically conceived norms onto the Other an act of neo-colonial hegemonic power. What has made matters worse is theorizing translation of the language of poetry, which relies on what many consider untranslateable formal features, the sound system, the rhyme patterns, the metrical and rhythmical pulses and stresses. These two monographs by Peter Robinson and Matthew Reynolds sound a counterblast to swat these bugbears away, arguing from experience that not only is translation possible; the very difficulty of matching a 'foreign' set of poetic codes and forms is what makes translation so precious and various. For Robinson, it is the very impossibility so knowingly prescribed by the theorists that makes the task of Englishing so necessary. For Reynolds, the act and fact of difference, the minor alterations, expansions, modulations of the source text's felicities, are what make translation into real poetry and not dead, flat paraphrase. Or rather, for both critics, the art of translation can stage various kinds of relation to the source; to refuse to engage at all, or falsely to stage difference as impossibility, is to wreck the complex desire to read, imagine, savour, and delight in the work of other countries, other times. Matthew Reynolds' The Poetry of Translation is a robust and engaging, even compelling, demonstration of the variousness of possible ways into the problem of cultural swerve from source to target poems. Concentrating on the most familiar of examples from the canon of English translation, with detailed meditations on Golding, Dryden and Pope, Fitzgerald, Pound, Logue, and Lowell as well as a glittering camp of pale fires from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Reynolds tests a Ricksian pragmatics of translation which is based on loose governing metaphors at the back of the translator's mind, often drawn imaginatively from the source text's tropes. These metaphors are rather odd at first sight - at second sight too. They include translation as 'passion', as 'opening', as 'bringing to life', as 'zoom', even as 'various particular metamorphoses'. They make more sense once expounded, clearly: 'opening', for instance, means something like opening up or expanding upon the source text's obscurities. It is found to be shaping the ways Dryden conceived of translation between metaphrase and paraphrase (short of imitation): a translation opens up potential significances in the source in order to customize, modernize, and interpret, and relies, critically for Reynolds, on the presence of tropes of opening in the classical sources. Two or three metaphors might combine or clash in any translator's practice, so Pope translates with passion, exaggerating the moments of sublimity and erotic possibility in his Homer, at the same time as he practises translation 'as taking a view', which implies an emphasis on distancing inspired by moments of comprehensive view in Homer's representation of landscapes. This idea of passionate inflamed Englishing blended with a distancing decorum accurately captures Pope's mixed practice with Homer, and is here rooted in close and intense reading of Pope's micro-expansions and distortions of the Greek. Reynolds is resolutely anti-theoretical, and presents his series of governing metaphors as nothing more than loose and provisional manners of rewriting, based on pragmatic, imaginative, and local forms of engagement. He argues convincingly that 'free' forms of translation cover an enormous range of these manners, from the tiny acts of paraphrase which make a line sexier or more ribald, to Logue's wholesale relishing of entirely unsourced war situations (translation as 'zoom'). They are intimate with the occasions, and cannot be called norms or strategies, for that would be falsely to stratify and classify what are acts of making (as remaking). There are very obvious objections to this line of argument. First, it is open to the counter-argument that any lines of translation contain a number of potential metaphors, and that to opt for one over any other is arbitrary. For instance, Reynolds quotes the young Byron's translation of Hadrian's Address to his Soul: Animula! vagula, blandula, Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav'ring spirit Hospes, comesque, corporis, Friend and associate of this clay! Quae nunc: adibis in loca? To what unknown regions borne, Pallidula, rigida, nudula, Wilt thou now wing thy distant flight? Nec, ut soles, dabis jocos. No more, with wonted humour gay, But pallid, cheerless, and forlorn? Reynolds registers a flicker of 'self-referential implication' here, and reads the flight of the soul as analogous to the flight of Hadrian's text from Latin to 1807 England: therefore the translation enacts the fall of the 'tough, light humour' of the original into 'pallid, cheerless, and forlorn' verse, a subsiding into 'early Byronic plangency'. The choice, however, to read this version as tactically bad is based on the young Byron's decision to reverse the last two lines of the Latin to create his last three: therefore ending with 'forlorn' and not the jocular 'jocos'. It is on this rather weak foundation that Reynolds argues that the version 'suggests a broader feeling about the comparative pallor and cheerlessness of translation'. But one could just as forcefully argue that this is an instance of translation as friendship and association, miming the relation of spirit to flesh in the Latin. If we did so, then we might be tempted to be more sanguine about the translation itself: the reversal of the last two lines and expansion to three could then be more generously read as a brilliant and friendly associating of Byron's young imagination with the Emperor Hadrian's. He hears a ghostly triple acoustic sequence in blandula-corporis-loca / nudula-solesjocos which fortifies the parallelism of animula-vagula-blandula with pallidula-rigida-nudula, and therefore creates a six-line version that formally plays up the triplet idea - the triple sounds are the ghosts being imitated. The abcabc form is conjured out of a spirit of association, a gentle, fleeting, wav'ring ghost of association with the dead and distant body of Hadrian's Latin. If there is an objection concerned with arbitrariness, then there is also an objection against the anti-theoretical plea made by Reynolds. One does not have to be a Derrida, Venuti, or Benjamin to argue that you cannot work up a monograph-length defence of the poetry of translation without a theory. For Reynolds to state that he is neither 'promulgating a theory', nor writing a history of translation is all very well: but what else but a theory is the idea that 'all translations are guided by metaphors'? It is perhaps the overly loose idea of metaphor which is the consequence of the anti-theoretical stance. If one has no theory, then one does not have really to define what constitutes a metaphor. A 'zoom' is very difficult to understand as a metaphor for translation, for instance. It may have certain analogous features, if one is to allow that the freedom to dwell on details not stated in the original source also counts as 'translation'. But it is hardly a metaphor for translation as such. To say that Logue practices 'translation as zoom' is simply to state that when he translates he also zooms into scenes; more of a characteristic form of free-dealing than a metaphor. It may be true that most theories of translation have ghostly figures that they abide by. A faithful translation implies religious observance of original rite, or an exclusive attention to what's strictly comparable. But that is not the same thing as the theory Reynolds has, which states that fidelity is a metaphor that enforces certain assumptions: yes, but not because it is a metaphor. Translating is not like fidelity - the translation is either faithful or it is not. In other words, it is not quite metaphor we are dealing with here, but analogy; and not always analogies to the act of translating, but to what the specific feature of the poem might be that captures the translating imagination. Pope may catch fire when he translates erotic passages, but that passion is not a metaphor for translation, rather it has (at the risk of a perfectly circular argument) an analogous relation to the affect one might imagine accompanies the translating act. Reynolds is more careful than I have implied here. In most cases, his 'metaphors' are terms which negotiate between the poet sensing the distance, difficulty, and likely half-truth of his version and the actual relishing of the power and beauty of the original; so the 'metaphors' all circle round the double nature of the engagement. It is perhaps more accurate, nevertheless, to say that poets when translating poets always have their imaginations alert to the self-reflexive potential of the source text's tropes. So if it is a pastoral elegy that is being translated, for instance, then the imagination is subconsciously drawn to the convention whereby the poet laments the difficulty of carrying across, in words alone, the spirit of the dead and departed. Reynolds' very fine discussion of Pound's Cathay turns precisely on this tendency; Reynolds names it 'translation as bringing to life'. But here again it is a moot point: Pound, like most poets translating ancient work, will be drawn to the analogy between the doubtful and hopeful ways the text from the distant past imagines its own future, and his own double gloom and joy when trying to render those words. In this case translation acts as a test of the durability of art, and in Pound's case, the test may also be a playful demonstration of losses as well as virtuoso display of gains. Reynolds makes this point beautifully, with a touch and tact that is beyond admirable. But Pound's practice in Cathay is still not a sensing of the ways translation is like bringing to life: translation is an arena for the exploration of temporal remoteness, of comparable affect, of changes in language and culture, of differences from cultures beyond Western traditions. The bringing to life, or the deadening associated with local instances of translation, then, are not tropes for translation, but are more-than-technical consequences of thinking through acts of cultural transmission. Reynolds dubs as doubles the tropes in the source text which are picked up by translators as metaphors. This is a very useful term, as long as it is understood, theoretically speaking, that the relation between the source trope and the analogous thought occasioned by the act of translation is not a doubling of metaphor, but more a half-conscious aligning of counterparts, source technical feature and target translatory practice. This may be a niggling distinction - but it is important if one is to accept, as Reynolds does, that his preferred examples of translation are not acts of imitation, but characterize translation at its best. Most of his instances are expansions, free and unsourced additions, or in Logue's case, frankly wildly off the wall. They are all instances which many would characterize as local forms of imitation, for they do not have counterparts in the source texts, but perform cadenza variations on (at best) features of the original which appeal most to the translator when exercising one or both sides of the double attitude. And much of Reynolds' good work in this monograph worries away at the boundaries between paraphrase and imitation, and shows Dryden in particular worrying away at those limits too. It indeed becomes a defence of his own loose non-theory about metaphor that poets are notoriously anxious and carefree at the same time as playing fast and loose with their forebears. Would it be ruinous to his thesis for Reynolds to admit that it is indeed patches of imitation which draw his eye, and which please him most? Some of the best sections in the book ponder the insertions in Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat, and the wit of the homely Englishing interpolations in Golding's Metamorphosis. These may be characterized as paraphrase in Dryden's terms, for they are amplifications. But they are amplifications which alter the texture of the original, with a view to 'run division on the ground-work', and therefore should count as local points of imitation. It is very much to Reynolds' credit to have so powerfully defended these free renderings as translation and not imitation, in the sense that it is his very convincing point that it is this freedom which defines good translation rather than the rival dull fidelities of nineteenth-century concepts of valid Englishing. But to my mind his instances are imitation-work, and it is the spirit of imitation which characterizes creative translation, not loose paraphrase. Peter Robinson's work is very much more sharply defined, elaborately and groundedly argued, a really very impressive intervention into the translation debates. His close readings of translation's work on its originals may not be as luscious and colourful as Reynolds', but the thesis is a highly imaginative, beautifully written, and knockdown demonstration of the real work done by the imagination when in two minds, two languages, attempting to recreate what was created elsewhere in other tongues and times. The essential point is a simple one, but if adhered to it would change much that is wearisome in Translation Studies. Robinson argues against those who believe that since absolutely faithful translation of a source text is impossible then anything, really, goes, and groundless liberties may be taken. In Robinson's own terms: Liberties are supported with arguments that exclude the middle term in an account of translating which states that because exact reproduction of an original is impossible, poets should take advantage of this fact to spin off 'poems in their own right' that nevertheless retain odd relations with their sponsoring originals. That middle term is 'the practice of a faithfully imitative approximation'; and it is with considerable authority and experience that Robinson then goes on to show how the relation of a poettranslator to the original may, at its best, approximate the ordinary perplexities and indecisions faced by a poet when composing. That is, the ways a translator must seek to match both form and meaning in the new spatio-temporal linguistic environment of the target culture, seeking for analogues, sensing out comparable idiom, motif-play, local sounds and senses and rhythmical effects, is not so far removed from the creative work of a poet struggling to capture an inchoate language idea. The demonstration of this is what makes this book so valuable, as well as its very enjoyably bracing and staunch tussles with the knowit- alls of the translation world: the Lowell of Imitations (dispatched as a spin-doctor parasite on good poems, 'claiming to be faithful to the poem by travestying the meaning'), the Nabokov of the Pushkin translation (guilty of such wooden crib-English, 'claiming to be faithful by travestying the form'). The chapters take us through variations on this excellent argument, criticizing the extremists at both Lowell and Nabokov ends of translation's Grub Street, and advocating real poets' concrete and creative faithfully imitative approximations. The book attacks the lazy aestheticizing arguments of Marjorie Perloff and Don Paterson and the like who repeat the dull maxim of the untranslatability of poetry - mainly, Robinson winningly argues, because they want poetry to be a special case, as though the sounds and rhythms and form of a poem were ineffably unique. Yet any sentence at all, a rhyming ad, for instance, has comparable features - the sentence I have just written half-rhymes 'sentence' with 'instance'. It is through its clearing of the Augean stable of translation mumbo-jumbo (Perloff with her dated distinction, as Robinson argues, of connotation and denotation; Paterson with his ludicrous critique of translation as replication) that this book exudes such a breath of fresh air. Robinson has praise as well as blame, looking at translations of Cavafy, for instance, admiring Mahon's exploration of the Greek poet's themes since they chime with feelings associated with translation itself: 'elegiac, disappointed or fretted with loss'. This is very close to Reynolds' way with his texts, and shows how the two sensibilities agree on the self-reflexivity of translating at a certain pitch. We have excellent sections on Sereni's translations, Robinson's own translation of his own work into Italian, a case study of translations of Mallarme's 'Brise marine', work by Hofmann, Bishop, and many others. This is, all in all, a very rich and useful (because so practically thought through and demonstrated) conspectus of the range and subtlety of good, creative translation. As such, it works well alongside The Poetry of Translation -or could have done except for one thing. Reynolds admires Robinson for the extraordinary way in which his translations manage both to preserve real fidelity to the originals, selfeffacingly so, and yet also maintain the mystery of the source poem. He is not quite sure how Robinson does it - but it is a fine compliment. Unfortunately, despite the fact that, more broadly, both books argue so often for the same variousness and tact as good translating practice, Robinson does not return that compliment. A long and I think overly bitter and involved chapter on Eric Griffiths takes issue with Griffiths' querying of Robinson's advocacy of a one-world theory in the Salt Companion to Peter Robinson edited by Katy Price and myself. Robinson then feels the need to question the volume of translations of Dante which Griffiths edited with Matthew Reynolds. Griffiths/Reynolds in their critical comments on certain translations use crib translations of their own to show how Carey, for instance, mangles his Italian. Robinson rather tetchily looks at these cribs as bad English as though this were really a demonstration of the bad faith or poor taste of the editors. The one world/many worlds tussle with Griffiths may or may not have been necessary for Robinson to engage in - but it reads as irrelevant here, a kind of Grub Street interpolation of strange polemic. The argument with the Dante translation cribs strikes one as meanspirited too - especially given the way Reynolds and Robinson agree on so many things. They are together not least in their suspicion of imitation - though Robinson's book is unyieldingly antagonistic to imitations of the Lowell kind, and defends the necessary freedoms of the faithful poet; and Reynolds, as I have argued above, is really more of an advocate of limited imitation. Both writers might take up the idea of imitation more directly or generously: why is it that a poet cannot write a poem that is 'after' another's work and rely on readers either knowing the source language, or having 'straight' translations to hand for comparison? This kind of imitation - as work deliberately staging cultural difference to make other kinds of exploration into language and environment possible - may have bred silly prejudices that plague us all, from lordly Lowell to petulant Paterson. All this being said, Robinson's monograph is a splendid achievement, and should occupy a very desirable place on the shelves of Translation Studies sections in libraries everywhere - even though its argument lays waste to so many of its neighbours. Reynolds' is more friendly, but equally valiant in its straight-talking defence of the value of translation as a true art form. Robinson's monograph is a splendid achievement, and should occupy a very desirable place on the shelves of Translation Studies sections in libraries everywhere - even though its argument lays waste to so many of its neighbours. Scholars and practitioners of literary translation would do well not to pre-judge Poetry & Translation, Peter Robinson's excellent contribution to the Translation Studies canon, by its misleading subtitle, "The Art of the Impossible," for it is precisely such tired canards about rendering poetic texts that this well-argued new volume seeks to debunk. Taking on Robert Frost's "preemptive aphorism" (107) declaring poetry to be what is lost in translation, Robinson, a poet-translator and professor of English and American Literature at the University of Reading, lists the unique qualities that have occasioned claims for the genre's exceptionalism: Poetry is then said to be untranslatable, or, more practically, poems are untranslatable, or, more subtly, in a poetic text the poetry is untranslatable, because it is the synthesized meeting point of at least five different aspects of uniqueness: (1) the entire structural, sonic, and semantic complex which is the language, or languages, in which the poem is written; (2) the particular historical state of that complex at the time the work was written; (3) the individual poet's deployed version of that language, his or her idiolect; (4) the poetic voice, or style, of the poet (at that point in her or his creative life); and (5) the particular development of that idiom in this individual poem. (80-81) Robinson effectively discredits this widely held but little examined misconception in two ways: first, by demonstrating how it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what translation entails, then by arguing for a sort of linguistic relativism regarding the project of translation in general. Pointing out that his own poetry translations "were produced with the operative assumption that it was the aim in translating poetry to be faithfully accurate and to make translations that read well as poems in their own right" (ix), Robinson underscores the need to jettison the baneful (that is, utopian and messianic) view of translation as replication producing absolute equivalence between a source-text poem and its target-text counterpart, writing: "the exact reproduction of the poetry of the original is strictly impossible. However, since no translation can be such a reproduction, while this sets a limit to what translating can achieve, it doesn't set such a limit only to the translation of poetry but to the translation of anything, and to those translations from experience which are original poems. Once this is accepted, then it becomes possible to see how poetry, like everything else, is translatable, if that word is understood to mean a remaking in the other terms of a different structure of materials" (173). In brief, Robinson affirms that poetry translation should be pursued for what it is, "faithfully imitative approximation" (32), and that "if we look back at the five reasons for poetry's being untranslatable given above, it can be seen that they could be applied to the conditions not only of any piece of writing, but of any piece of language use" (82). Poetry & Translation, then, adopts an optimistic creative outlook toward poetry translation, secure in the belief, given the impossibility of achieving sameness, that "translation confidence can be sustained because human situations are analogous, or can, at a minimum be understood analogically, and because languages display family resemblances, so they appear, at least up to a point to be talking to each other" (80). Reminding the reader that "understanding is itself necessarily approximate because it means others' ability to demonstrate the internalizing of knowledge or capacity in their own self-generated terms and actions" (106), Robinson challenges the philosophical underpinnings of translational impossibility posited by such thinkers as Willard V. Quine, who sees meaning as non-generalizable and confined to unique "stimulus situations." Viewing translation, poetic or otherwise, as primarily an interplay between signifying systems and not between a language and its would-be referents while deeming it "at best hopeful humanism or at worst colonizing ethnocentrism to assume that, behind all these differences of behavior and expression, we all feel the same emotions" (77), Robinson continues his line of thought about what poetry translation can hope to accomplish by considering the feeling at the very center of the human condition: The situational coordinates in particular uses of Pablo Neruda's 'amor', Shakespeare's 'love', Goethe's 'Liebe', Paul Verlaine's 'amour', and Gaspara Stampa's 'amore' cannot be reduced the one to the other in the interests of a universal human emotion-because of the conditions in which these concepts arose and in which they were and, evolving, continue to be acted out and upon by historically specific persons. Though they can be listed as dictionary equivalents, they cannot be taken as synonymously defining the same emotion under different conditions, for the very reason that Donald Davidson offers for skepticisms about assuming that the translation of a truth will automatically produce a truth, namely, that translations relate languages, while truth relates language to world. (78) Ever the pragmatist in light of translation's true nature and, more specifically, what a poetry translator may reasonably expect to achieve, Robinson concludes that, as poetry translators, [w]e have to go ahead as if 'love' and 'amour' were appropriately similar, because, beyond sitting tight in pristine isolation, we have no alternative; and we have to translate as much of the context as we can so that the 'love' in the poem has a flavor of 'amour' about it. This is less difficult than might be thought, because honestly made and presented translations render the historical and cultural situations in which the linguistic usage is taking place, and they expect to be read as other-language accounts of an elsewhere. Reading them requires an exercise of imaginative projection into the conditions of the other country. (79-80) Robinson is particularly vexed by the false dichotomy of methodology presented to modern-day poetry translators in the polar extremes of Vladimir Nabokov and Robert Lowell. The former's paradoxical belief that close semantic rendering at the expense of form attains the closest "literal" version Robinson considers a "polemical travesty," while the latter's use of source-text poems as little more than springboards for his own poetic exploration via "imitations" Robinson views as "an invitation to 'legitimized' slapdash" (42). Robinson rightly complains that such "[l]iberties are supported with arguments that exclude the middle term in an account of translating which states that because exact reproduction of an original is impossible, poets should take advantage of this fact to spin off 'poems in their own right' that nevertheless retain odd relations with their sponsoring originals" (32). He similarly notes that "[w]hat may be mistaken about Nabokov's approach is that while he accepts that sacrifices will have to be made in making translations, he doesn't allow the sacrifices to be evenly distributed, negotiated, or completely mitigated across the entire field of poetic composition. For him, the sacrifices have to be made in the field of sonic cohesion and formal significance" (46). The "most lamentable consequence" of adhering too closely to either of these outlying positions or "this false division of labour," as Robinson phrases it, is that "it cuts the ground from under the feet of the person who aims to make a translation of a poem that is as faithful as possible both at the level of paraphrase and at that of formal expertise" (38). Indeed, while Robinson exhibits little patience for poetry translators guided by the "mistaken assumption that there can be literal translations of poems that by definition are superior in accuracy to renderings, which attempt, for instance, to imitate the formal structuring of a poem" (86), he appears even less indulgent of those who would look beyond the verbal source text to capture the "spirit" of a work. If, after all, "the poetic emotions are not in the words of the original" (76), Robinson wonders where, in fact, they lie. He clearly views the extrapolation of a posited, intangible poetic "essence" as a pretext for the loose, non-textually based rendering he decries from Lowell and his epigones, summarily stating: "The translator can attempt to be faithful to the original text. No essences are required" (153). His commonsensical approach to this manifestation of translational metaphysics is to focus squarely on the source text's linguistic formulation. While 2 Corinthians 3:6 informs the Bible's readers that "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life," Robinson is keen to inform poetry translators of the following gospel truth: "If, in making a translation, you want to render the spirit of the original, attempt a faithful rendering of the letter. That is where the spirit abides. You will nevertheless have to understand those words, and your translation will inevitably convey that understanding; but if you begin by assuming that you can't come to that understanding by creatively rendering the original's words in your translation, you are actively alienating yourself, your text, and its readers from the only trace of the very spirit that you may be claiming to render" (155). Elsewhere in Poetry & Translation, Robinson touches on topics of abiding interest to poetry translation, three of which merit mention here. The first concerns the relationship between creative writing and translation, a difference some would level through the blinkered insistence that only poets can and/or should translate poetry. Rejecting Lowell's versioning as emblematic of a translating poet's default response, Robinson notes how translations can fruitfully encourage original poetic production, writing that "they often represent the encountering of an inspirational original that someone has chosen to translate with a craftsman-like effort to bring it to the reader. This craft-based art allows the poet-reader to envisage emulation within the dynamics of the impossible and awe-inspiring original through a plausibly achieved rendering of it" (5). Far from impinging upon the poet's own voice in his/her native language, translation can instill in a poet "a respect for his or her own occasions and imaginative materials" (169). Without specifically citing Octavio Paz, who took great pains to differentiate original writing from translation, Robinson adduces a fundamental distinction of his own that follows logically from his repudiation of poetry's untranslatability: The implicit contrast between poets who can write "what they like" and translators who must modestly photograph their originals is false, because translators can never "photograph" from one language to another, and original writers are involved in complex nets of responsibility to their inspiration, technique, language, materials, themes, oeuvres, and readers. They have greater ranges of potential for revision; but they also have no completed work of art to act as their guide. Their superficial freedom to change things around is curtailed by their obligation to find a form that rings right; the translator is reading a form that presumably rings right and must find an equivalent for that rightness in another language. Both poet and translator are working within constraints; they are not precisely the same, but they are related constraints. (38) Robinson's take on translation as the refashioning of a poetic source text's organic unicity, coupled with his call for a focus on the original poem's linguistic composition, seems to point to a primarily semiotic approach to the endeavor now taking a back seat in Translation Studies to the "cultural turn." Second, Robinson wonders whether certain poetic texts lend themselves more readily than others to translation, and presents the much re-translated work of C. P. Cavafy as a kind of case study. Pondering "the possibility that Cavafy's poetry may translate more than, say, Mallarme's because it is a poetry of situation, observation, and reflection, one in which the 'poetry' is less in the words than it may be with a self-consciously 'pure' poet of the later nineteenth century" (13), Robinson implies, following Eugenio Montale, that the linguistic complexity of both Aesthetic and Symbolist poems seriously challenges their successful rendering. Robinson goes on to add that "[E. M.] Forster also notes that Cavafy's poems 'are all short poems, unrhymed, so that there is some hope of conveying them in a verbal translation', and, after quoting some samples, he adds, 'such a poem has, even in translation, a "distinguished" air'" (15). Robinson thus underscores the difficulty of rendering formal qualities of conventional poetics, summarizing comments by W. H. Auden's as meaning the "poet's sensibility can be translated" when Auden specifically writes of Cavafy that "what survives translation and excites...[is s]omething I can only call, most inadequately, a tone of voice, a personal speech. I have read translations of Cavafy made by many different hands, but every one of them was immediately recognizable as a poem by Cavafy" (17-18). Attention to such formal characteristics of poetic discourse remains a criterion some claim distinguishes poetry translation from the translation of other types of language, although Robinson would be quick to point out that this putative difference is simply one of degree, and not of nature. Lastly, Robinson broaches the question of translating living versus dead poets, an issue often phrased in terms of whether a distinction may be drawn between the first translation of a poem and its subsequent rendering(s). On this point, Robinson appears to join the majority of critics who see initial translations as hewing more literally to their respective source texts by demonstrating a clear bias toward semantic correlation. Quoting Nabokov's wish that Lowell "would stop mutilating defenceless dead poets," Robinson entertains the thought, following Michael Hofmann, that "[b]ecause most of his poets were not living contemporaries, and had already been multiply translated, they appear more available for mutilation than the living" (157). Underlying these broader questions are, of course, issues surrounding the much ballyhooed "need" for retranslation in light of the purportedly inevitable dating of target texts. Here, Robinson insightfully introduces a middle term between the archaic and the "now no longer, colloquially current," positing that "[b]eing 'dated', in this sense, means confined in a transitory state between 'up to date' and 'of the past'" (53). This new category offers hope of a greater shelf-life to many a worthy rendering of source texts from all eras hastily (and wrongly) rejected for not reflecting the comforts of target-language immediacy. Robinson, primarily a poet with fifteen titles to his credit listed on Poetry & Translation's dust jacket, remains ultimately realistic, though upbeat about expectations for poetic renderings. Wondering, again, whether translations can approach their originals in quality, he guardedly concludes: "The aspirant translation could be poetry, but it wouldn't be so in its character as a translation. Its poetic quality would be something created entirely in the terms of the translating poet's skills as a composer of verse in the receiver language. Though poetry has been achieved, as it were, the contribution of translation as an activity has dropped out of the equation" (26). Scholars and practitioners of poetry translation will welcome this intelligent and insightful new book. Scholars and practitioners of poetry translation will welcome this intelligent and insightful new book.
Liverpool University Press|
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