It’s a truth universally acknowledged–or if it isn’t it should be–that the old debate between literal and free translation has lost currency, that the only opposition worth discussing is between foreignizing and domesticating translation styles. Friedrich Schleiermacher gave this dichotomy its Ur-expression when he claimed that a domesticating translator “brings the writer towards the reader,” while a foreignizing translator “brings the reader towards the writer.” Schleiermacher says that the two styles don’t mix, that you have to do it all one way, or all the other, but I don’t agree. I want to suggest that, while poems with a more or less familiar sort of lyricism may be well enough served by a foreignizing translation style, a more culturally specific, less transferable sort of poem demands a smoother, more naturalizing style if it is to have any chance of connecting in its new context.
The first question a reader of Ned Balbo’s Upcycling Paumanok (Measure Press, 2016) will most likely ask is, “Upcycling?!” Balbo makes us wait until the penultimate, and, as it happens, title poem for the explanation:
“Upcycling 2.0,” a plan requiring
what we throw away to serve some purpose,
trash not just recycled but improved,
suburbia changed, transformed to paradise.
…..In spring, the Cretan quinces grow
…..flowering by the streams that flow
…..irriguous where the virginal
…..gardens of the Maidens are, and all
the vines increase and twine their shade above
the blossoms on the grapes. But for me love
…..never at any season sleeps–
…..like Thracian Boreas, when he sweeps
…..crackling with lightning and wild fire
from the Cyprian in fits of mad desire,
…..and scorching, murky, shameless, shoots
…..and shudders my heart at the very roots.
…..ἦρι μὲν αἵ τε Κυδώνιαι
…..μηλίδες ἀρδόμεναι ῥοᾶν
…..ἐκ ποταμῶν, ἵνα Παρθένων
…..κῆπος ἀκήρατος, αἵ τ᾿ οἰνανθίδες
Aeneid Book VI: A New Translation
by Seamus Heaney
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 112 pgs., $23
The equal of a god that man appears,
better than gods, if it’s not blasphemy,
who sits across from you, and stares, and hears
your lovely laughter, which, in my despair,
siphons my senses; soon as I look upon
you, Lesbia, I’m dumb, and don’t know where
my voice has gone;
my tongue grows heavy, underneath my skin
a thin flame drips, my ears ring with a bright
and tinny sound, and my eyes are veiled within
a two-fold night.
Free time, Catullus, that’s what’s killing you!
Free time fuels your fidgeting and your flings.
Free time has leveled prosperous cities, too,
and mighty kings.
(previously published in Agni 83)
He seems like the gods’ equal, that man, who
ever he is, who takes his seat so close
across from you, and listens raptly to
your lilting voice
and lovely laughter, which, as it wafts by,
sets the heart in my ribcage fluttering;
as soon as I glance at you a moment, I
can’t say a thing,
and my tongue stiffens into silence, thin
flames underneath my skin prickle and spark,
a rush of blood booms in my ears, and then
my eyes go dark,
No more, you honey-voiced maidens whose songs have a holy power,
can my frame bear my weight. I wish, I wish that I were
a kingfisher aloft with you halcyons over the sea-foam in flower,
holy, the color of ocean, light in my heart, and sure.
οὔ μ᾿ ἔτι, παρσενικαὶ μελιγάρυες ἱαρόφωνοι,
γυῖα φέρην δύναται· βάλε δὴ βάλε κηρύλος εἴην,
ὅς τ᾿ ἐπὶ κύματος ἄνθος ἅμ᾿ ἀλκυόνεσσι ποτήται
νηλεὲς ἦτορ ἔχων, ἁλιπόρφυρος ἱαρὸς ὄρνις.