Getting Lost in Translation

Towards the beginning of this semester, I was asked to do a translation for Gandy Dancer; that is, to pick a German poem and translate it into English. It felt at the time (and still feels) like a daunting task, even some months later, after I’ve wrestled it into some workable English form. Like the punctuation exercise we did, I think part of the difficulty lies in feeling like I’m trying to step into another author’s shoes. I’m translating Bianca Döring’s poem “Allein” (you can find the original here) and in the way of German poetry, it’s straightforward and powerful in its conciseness. There’s a good number of what we American poets would call “abstractions” but a complex layering of what’s simply understood by a word in German. For example, the last line reads “der Liebe sind verbrannt and tun nur weh.” The word “wehtun’ in German literally means to “to do one pain”–and even translation, literal as it is, isn’t doing full justice to the German word. My first translation read: “the love is burned and hurts,” but “wehtun” is a very active word, something not quite captured by “hurts.” Additionally, “verbrannt” is a much more complex word than simply “brennen”–both at their most basic level mean “to burn”, but verbrennen has a more twisted or violent connotation to it, because of the suffix “ver-.” Adding in the complexity of German grammar–depending on the dative or accusative case being used, the meaning also changes slightly again, it’s a welter of various dictionary tabs and texts to German friends asking, Are you sure there’s no other weird colloquialism associated with _____?  No? Rats. Okay, well what about ____?
If you couldn’t tell, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks feeling like I’m chasing my tail.

In addition with “borrowing” someone else’s words, there is of course, the fear that I’m interpreting or changing the poet’s original meaning. I don’t want to do her the violence of taking her words and completely changing them. (This terror is only heightened because the poet requested I send her my translation when it’s finished. I half wanted to write back and go I’m only twenty-one and I have no idea what I’m doing, I’m so sorry if I eff your beautiful poem up. Although I’m not sure how that panic would get translated into polite, formal German.) Our styles of writing are very different and the abstractions like “bright” or “night” make me twitch every time I read them and I just really, really, really want to muck around with white space and punctuation more than I already have, while still trying to stay true to her original poem.

Dr. Smith suggested I just take a look at the English version I’d managed to squeeze out of the German poem and consider it from that perspective. If this was to be workshopped, what would I change? What precise tightening of the language could I do? Would the addition of a word here or there reinforce the overall tone of the poem or the feeling of the line, even if it wasn’t in the original poem? What about taking out some words? (I gleefully cut a few of the “ands.”) Translation is an interesting process for sure, and one that has made me think of language in a much different way. It also astonishes me how many things are simply understood by speaking the language–all the nuances and complexities that are simply assumed by speaking that language and understanding those connotations.

Have any of you thought about doing translations? What are your worries if you have done/are thinking about doing a translation?

2 Replies to “Getting Lost in Translation”

  1. Amy,
    I’ve never done translation work, and I doubt that I could, but objectively I think the best way to go is just making sure you keep the integrity of the original poem. Maybe instead of looking at the poem as “stepping into the author’s shoes,” think about if someone was translating one of your poems, what would be your expectations? From what I understand from translation, the “feeling” of what the author is portraying is sometimes more important than the actual specific words they use.

    In an Anthropology class I’m taking about myths and folktales of Native North American culture, we just read a book called, A Story as Sharp as a Knife: Haida Mythtellers and Their World, by Robert Bringhurst. This book was interesting because it was Bringhurst’s study of John Swanton, an anthropologist and translator of Haida myths and culture. Throughout the text there were poems that Swanton had collected from the Haida oral tradition and translated into English. Seeing these narrative poems, first in Haida then in English, really made me appreciate the daunting task of translation and linguistics.

    I think it would be cool to workshop the poem you’re translating, as a poem separate from the translation. If you’re unsure about that, just print it out and hand it out like an exercise poem and people can give you comments that way. Either way, just trust yourself and your judgments/understanding of language, and everything will be fine!

  2. A couple of years ago, Brazilian poet Salgado Maranhão and his translator, Alexis Levitin, did a reading in Geneseo. I remember they were talking about how Alexis had worked with Salgado to try to convey the right tone and feeling without disrupting the word choice or musicality of the poem too much. It’s an issue that translators often find (hey, look at all of the editions of Dante’s Inferno). You can’t necessarily sit down with Döring and ask what she means or was trying to convey at each moment but if you continue to translate poems, you could potentially do it in the future. Also you’re welcome to borrow Maranhão’s collection!

    Although I haven’t done any translations, I would like to potentially do them in the future (either Spanish or Czech ones). I’m worried about not having a vocabulary that’s expansive enough in the original language in order to get the right meaning conveyed. Also I worry about those words or ideas that cannot be translated into plain English (ie. an Inuit poem that showcases the different names/types of snow…we have “snow” and that’s about it). But I’m really excited for you and wish you the best.

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