My intention when I face a text to be translated is to be as faithful as possible to the original while at the same time creating a poem to be read with pleasure. Poem, because for years I’ve concentrated on translating poetry, for the challenge and because poetry is my business in life. I’m well aware that what I’ve said begs a lot of questions, and I’ll try to be more precise.
It seems to me that what one may have read of theory and specifics of translation may not in the end make a lot of difference to how one translates. It’s a matter of one’s capacity and one’s relationship to language or particular languages. When I read the text to be translated, echoes of the other language start up in my head and the dialogue between the two begins as they reach out to each other. They approach as close as they can, the target language observing differences, making compromises, compensating at times with a flare of its own for expressions that have lost force in transit. (Something very similar happens when I compose a poem of my own, except obviously that in that case I am responsible for the result in both languages, English and Spanish. Sometimes I can’t say in what language the poem was “written.”)
In this process the register of the language used mostly imposes itself. Decisions that have to be carefully made concern syntax (word order), rhythm and the strength of images. Sounds have to be controlled and exploited. With any luck — and luck is important in looking for words — the translation in the end will correspond satisfactorily to the original and read as if it was a poem in its own right.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate some free translations, but I feel that to have the right to recreate rather than be faithful to a poem one should have the talent and perception of an Octavio Paz. And even then, I would like to be given a more literal translation of Donne’s “Elegy to His Mistress Going to Bed” as well as Paz’s wonderful version.
My toughest experiences of translation have been with the poems of the dalit (“untouchable”) poet Mudnakudu Chinnaswamy, whose language is Kannada. My knowledge of the language is extremely limited; I can read the script and once I've been given the meanings of the vocabulary I can work out the relations of the words to each other (word order being completely different from English) and appreciate to a certain extent the sound effects. The dislocation between the original and my English was inevitably much greater than between Spanish and English, and it seemed that all that was left was the images (often without their Indian associations) and some of the emotion of these harrowing poems. I have never felt happy with the translations, although they have been extensively published in India and fulfill an important political purpose.
But that is a different aspect of translation. When I’ve translated poems for the sake of the poetry, I’ve often been lucky enough to have the close cooperation of the poets themselves. In the case of Rafael Cadenas (Venezuela’s most celebrated living poet), we went over together practically every word of the Selected Poems I was translating. Cadenas has a considerable knowledge of English and wanted the translation to be always as close as possible to his originals, and we sometimes had arguments over “false friends” and the different divergences in the two languages from Latin roots. Which was enjoyable and good exercise for me.
With Igor Barreto the process has been different. His knowledge of English is small, and when we have worked together I have asked him questions, often silly questions, to get him to talk and illuminate for me the points where I have doubts, about expressions and images, in the context of the particular worlds of his poems: often the great plains in the Venezuelan south where he was born. For the anthology from which the two poems being published by Waxwing are taken, we had fun identifying and finding English equivalents for the many birds, animals, and plants that inhabit the texts. When bird books, plant books, and Google all failed, we sometimes substituted (I avoided as far as possible leaving the names in Spanish and depriving the creatures of their physicality), and once, when a bird turned out to be probably mythical, invented.
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