On Translation

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On a muggy morning in Corfu, at Ionian University, some of whose departments are housed in what, if I understand correctly, was once a lunatic asylum, I find myself in a classroom drawing an arc from left to right across a whiteboard. The marker’s running out of ink – a familiar dilemma that brings back One Washington Park, the Business School building at Rutgers-Newark where I taught only last week and will teach again next week. I enjoy smuggling a literature course into this building under the radar of finance. My literature students are the outliers at the Business School; the black-suited business majors rarely make eye contact in the elevators. An aging poet like me is invisible. But here on a Greek island, in this long, narrow classroom, all eyes seem to be fixed on what I’m scribbling.

Paschalis, our host, has scurried out to fetch a fresh marker, so I can finish what I’m putting on the board. The marker he now hands me is black, but a rainbow would have been more appropriate than this monochrome line to convey the blurry gradations, the endless degrees and compromises and subtypes, that translation entails. On the far left of the arc I write LITERAL/WORD FOR WORD. “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life,” is how some versions translate Paul’s words in the third chapter of 2 Corinthians. I’m tempted to write this sentence on the whiteboard; if the Greek were at my fingertips, I’d write it out as well. But I dismiss that idea (no time for it) while my hand is still busily writing.

Is a word-for-word translation ever even possible? The better we know the source language, the more choices and possibilities we see, and the more obstacles and ambiguities crop up. The rising arc as I sketch it takes us toward a middle ground – a kingdom of compromise between literal and what Paschalis at dinner last night called licentiousness. This middle realm – isn’t it where most of us live? If we’re conversing in another language, we fumble along some invisible line of demarcation near the middle of the range of possible renderings. If we’re translating a text, how close to the literal do we want to stick, even if we could? The separate words, the connotations of the original: how close can we approach to these, even supposing we know what they are?

With ancient texts, we don’t know and we can’t know. Quoting a boastful translator of Homer only to dispute him, Matthew Arnold declares in “On Translating Homer” that “we cannot possibly tell how the Iliad ‘affected its natural hearers’…”It is our translator’s business, Arnold continues, “to reproduce the effect of Homer, and the most powerful emotion of the unlearned English reader can never assure him whether he has reproduced this, or whether he has produced something else….No one can tell him how Homer affected the Greeks; but there are those who can tell him how Homer affects them. “ Arnold is right. It’s pointless to claim, as Arnold’s confident contemporary did, that each new translation brings back the flavor or effect of the original. What flavor? What effect?

Further along the right-hand, downward slope of the arc as I sketch it, the strictures of translation loosen up. Toward this edge of the territory, translators begin to feel more able to stray, to follow their noses, to take liberties. Liberties: the word suggests freedom to stretch their wings, the wings of the target language, and flutter or even fly some distance from the source language – a distinct relief after the cramped constraints at the literal end. But (and this thought comes to me in the stuffy oblong room at Ionian University, where I’m still scribbling on the whiteboard) such freedom can also, paradoxically, mean the very opposite of airy fluttering. That is, such freedom provides a sense of being grounded – of feeling the confidence of connection with one’s own world.

For as a translator approaches his or her own idiom and era, they have no choice but to gain confidence in their own language. If they don’t, their translation will be dead in the water. Wallace Stevens writes in “Of Modern Poetry” that modern poetry (or what he calls “the poem of the mind in the act of finding/what will suffice”) “has to be living, to learn the speech of the place. / It has to face the men of the time and to meet / the women of the time.” George Seferis writes in his Three Secret Poems that “our words are the children of many people. / They are sown, are born like infants, / take root, are nourished with blood.” Auden writes of the dead poet in his “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” that “Now he is scattered among a hundred cities / And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections…The words of a dead man/Are modified in the guts of the living.” None of these powerful passages has translation specifically in mind; but all of them concern language, communication, and change. All of them eloquently evoke an energy and authority that transcend the poet alone in his or her study. There is a past, an almost biological past, that the poet draws on; and there’s a potential audience out there who must be able to understand. Between the past and the future, what is required is change – “to learn the speech of the time,” as Stevens puts it. Auden’s verb is “modify,” but not just any modification – this one takes place in the gut. Seferis too hews close to biological process: [words] “are sown, are born like infants, / take root [like trees or plants], are nourished [like animals] with blood.”

Blood. And at this juncture, I find myself talking about Konstantine Karyotakis (1896-1928). My translations of two of Karyotakis’s poems are on the handout Paschalis has distributed; and since there’s not enough time to read both, I decide to read my rendering of “Spirochaetea Pallida,” a poem about syphilis and love, about imagination and risk and madness. Is it a coincidence that on the same handout is my translation of Baudelaire’s sonnet “La Fontaine de Sang”?

Blood again – and again, a poem about love and illness, infection and desire.

The resulting vortex of associations makes a mess in the middle of the whiteboard. I have to erase the arc I drew earlier to fit this new idea in, for what I’m now scribbling is a tangle of intersecting lines, a traffic jam or bird’s nest of associations. Karyotakis, who may or may not have suffered from syphilis, died too early to know about AIDS; Baudelaire (1821-67), who knew more about syphilis than Karyotakis did, knew nothing of AIDS either. And yet while I was translating their two poems, sometime around 1990, I was thinking about blood and infection. My student and friend Charles Barber (1956-1992) was dying of AIDS. Charlie’s daily infusion of meds through his Hickman catheter certainly influenced my solution to the problem of how to render Baudelaire’s description of love as a matelas d’aiguilles, a mattress of needles. A mattress stuffed with pins? Nah. The solution I came up with was “Love led me to a thicket of IV’s/Where bristling needles thirsted for each vein.” Aha! The tingle of having solved a puzzle, that little spritz of triumph as one prepares for the next challenge, is what has led my husband to call translating my Sudoku.

Such successes, small and local, can make a difference. With luck, each fresh rendering may take its place in the crowded field of translations of Baudelaire, or the less crowded fields of translations of Karyotakis or of another poet whose name came up this morning – Solomos, whose statue we were admiring yesterday. At best, one has managed to substitute one trope for another, and – as I always try to do – one has also managed to maintain some poetic verve in the process.

But it’s not only a matter of verbal acrobatics, crucial though deftness in the target language is. Only now, in this airless room in Corfu, am I belatedly beginning to understand some of Walter Benjamin’s thoughts in his essay “The Task of the Translator” – an essay I’ve read on and off over the years and even tried to teach last spring. Until today, some of what Benjamin says in this essay seemed to me too obvious to need pointing out: “…a translation comes later than the original, and since the important works of world literature never find their chosen translators at the time of their origin, their translation marks their stage of continued life.” Well, of course, I always thought; the original would indeed come before any translation of it. Less self-evident to me was Benjamin’s further declaration that “in its afterlife – which could not be called that if it were not a transformation and a renewal of something living – the original undergoes a change. Even words with fixed meanings can undergo a maturing process.”

But the images I’m considering this morning, and the attendant mess on the whiteboard, somehow make Benjamin’s words clearer. Indeed, they illustrate his words. To move Baudelaire’s images of blood and havoc into the world of AIDS, as I did almost intuitively in 1990, was indeed to transform and renew the French poet’s constellation of meanings and feelings – not to violate or distort it, but to extend it, or as Ryan Wilson phrases it in his splendid recent essay “The Polyvocal Poet: Tradition, Translation, and the True Original,” to carry these meanings forward. Terry Eagleton says in his little book on Shakespeare that Shakespeare had clearly read Marx, Freud, Derrida, and so on. Baudelaire just as clearly knew all about the world of desire and infection I was exploring with the poets in the workshop I was running at Gay Men’s Health Crisis between 1988 and 1993 – a world that my students, through their poetry and conversation, were helping me to venture toward. Since Karyotakis had read Baudelaire, his vision of desire and infection was also affected (inflected? infected?) by the contagion of the French poet’s imagery. In translating Karyotakis, wasn’t I rendering homage in two directions at once, back toward Baudelaire and forward towards the world of GMHC?

Examples accrued. When Charles Barber wrote a poem about his Hickman catheter entitled “Thirteen Things about a Catheter,” he was -precisely as Benjamin puts it – transforming and renewing something living, so that the original, Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” underwent a change. Yet of course the Stevens original is still there for us to read. I’m reminded of the wise words of a very wise old woman in George MacDonald’s Victorian fairy tale The Princess and the Goblin, that you can give someone else your name and keep it at the same time.

At the end of the day, we strolled – bats wheeling through the Old Fortress- past a building which had been the British officers’ barracks sometime in the early nineteenth century. Now it was the music school of Ionian University – the same university I’d visited that morning, in the literature department on the grounds of a former lunatic asylum. To repurpose, to retrofit, to keep to the original beautiful structure without tearing it down; to then fill that structure with something new, something perhaps wholly different in nature and purpose – this, I saw, is as true of translation as it is of architecture. The new stuff in the old container will inevitably be reshaped and changed by the constraints of its new surroundings.

Does the new wine inevitably burst the old bottles into which I poured it, as Matthew and Mark would have it? My father Moses Hadas, a classicist, called one of his last books Old Wine New Bottles: A Humanist Teacher at Work. That way of looking at the passing on and transforming of tradition – venerable contents, new contexts – makes sense too. Container, contained, durable, flexible – translation encompasses all these ideas. “New thresholds, new anatomies!” wrote Hart Crane. The other day I learned from the Times Literary Supplement that in 1893 William Morris predicted the end of the book, saying “within fifty years printing books would be an extinct art – we should all be carrying our books about in bottles with patent stoppers” – another variation on the theme of that old wine.