18 oct. 2006

Has anyone noticed that Pound's Cavalcanti is often just not very good?

Voi, que per gli occhi miei passaste al core
E svegliaste la mente che dormia

It's a pretty simple concept: you, who passed from my eyes to my heart / and awoke my sleeping mind." The Italian is easier to understand than Pound's

"You, who do breech mine eyes and touch the heart
And start the mind from her brief reveries"

Obviously Pound is going after a 16th-century Wyatt/Surrey feel. The mimickry is convincing on and off, but results in padding. "brief reveries" sounds more 19th century than 16th anyway.

"Guardate a l'angosciosa vita mia,
Che sospirando la distrugge Amore"

"Look at my anguished life / that sighing Love destroys"

Pound: "Might pluck my life and agony apart / Saw you how love assaileth her with sighs"

Once again, a relatively simple original / convoluted translation.

We find other gems in Pound's version like "so brute a might" "a new face upon the seigniory," "wherefrom my pain," and "First shot's resultant! and in flanked amaze..." The last is surely one of the worst lines of poetry in Pound's poetic works.

Cavalcanti's poem does seem "dated," in the sense that it follows the conventions of the dolce stil novo of the 13th Century. The donna will be gentile and the lover will be pierced by Cupid's arrow. Yet it is perfectly readable even today. Stylistically it is fresher than Philip Larkin. I don't even know Italian and I can understand it fine by looking up a few words. The translation is dated in a different, and far worse way. It gets in the way of itself, unable to decide whether it wants to be 13th Century, 16th Century, 19th Century, or 20th Century.

Now I know that that Lawrence Venuti has defended this exact kind of "heterogeneity" in modernist translation practice, pointing specifically to Pound. This puts me in the awkward position of questioning not only the greatest translator of the 20th century, but also the most interesting theorist of translation of the present day (Venuti). It's a nice theory, and I tend to go along with it... until I see the results. I stand here in flanked amaze at how bad they can be sometimes.

Now you could say that I am invoking a standard of badness or goodness based on what's "acceptable" to me as a reader, and hence falling back into a comfortable conservatism. I would answer that Pound is committing the typical sins of ennoblement, expansion, destruction of rhythms, and rationalization that Antoine Berman analyzes in "Translation and the Trials of the Foreign." The translation trips my WTF switch too many times. "che m'ha disfatto..." [which has undone me] becomes "hath drawn me down through devious ways."

None of this has anything to do with questions of simple accuracy. In other words, I would have no objection at all to slight shifts in meaning (the shift from past to present in the first line for example). I think I could even tolerate the archaisms. I think the padding and the constant "overthinking" are much more objectionable. The changes go in one direction: toward less simplicity, elegance, and concision. This shift contravenes Pound's modernist prescriptions. I'm not saying he should have translated Calvacanti into "Imagism," but on the other hand I don't see why he has to translate away from imagism, in the opposite direction.

11 comentarios:

Katherine dijo...

I find it hard to take Pound's translations seriously, considering some of his most well-known poetry translations were written in free verse (from metered originals), from a language he didn't even speak. It's possible to defend them, of course, by using the cover of Imagist artistic license, but that doesn't make up for the sheer arrogance it would have taken to change their structure and meaning so completely. I realize that in literary translation, especially poetry, the translator is allowed greater latitude to express the essence of the original in a new language, but his omissions, additions, structural changes, changes in tone, etc. went too far.

It reminds me of the québécois "translators" who wrote a version of Uncle Vanya without knowing Russian, relying only on existing French and English translations.

I consider both to be the height of unprofessionalism in translation. They only perpetuate the popular myth that translators don't really need to know the source language very well or have much skill at all; they'll do just fine sitting hunched over at their desk surrounded by dictionaries. Another version of this is, "Any bilingual person can be a translator." Both are, of course, just about the farthest from the truth that you could get.


Jonathan dijo...

I wish it were that simple, Katherine. Pound was a scholar of Romance languages and knew Italian quite well, yet his translations from the Chinese, which he didn't know very well, are quite superb. I don't think you can dismiss "re-translation" either. It may be that the best translation comes from someone who doesn't know the original language, working from other texts or with a collaborator.

Pound was indeed arrogant to the extreme yet he revolutionized translation.

C. Dale dijo...

Fresher than Larkin? Really?

Jonathan dijo...

Mais oui. Larkin me recuerda la gris posguerra inglesa, Calvacanti, la frescura del renacimiento italiano.

C. Dale dijo...

Okay, I follow you now. Larkin is definitely Grey Flannel.

Rocco DiStreitlmahn dijo...

I never took Venuti all that seriously, either personally or professionally -- his ideas look good on paper until, as you mentioned, one actually puts them into practice. (On the personal side of things, I had him for a grad seminar once, and dude came off as an utterly pretentious prick -- it's odd how some scholars come to resemble their writing styles, or vice versa.)

Jonathan dijo...

I don't know about that. I think his work is absolutely brilliant as a theorist of translation and his Translation Studies Reader is wonderful--the second edition even more so. I've never had the pleasure of his acquaintance, so I can't comment on that.

If I disagree with Venuti on occasion, that's just because I have my own opinions and reservations. It's not at all a lack of respect. He is definitely someone I take seriously. Any critique of his idea would have to be just that, a serious effort to consider his ideas, not just "I didn't like him as a professor." It's not altogether clear that his ideas don't work in practice. It depends on what we want translation to do for us.

Rocco DiStreitlmahn dijo...

Fair enough -- my comment was, admittedly, a bit ad hominem.

In so far as Venuti argues for a consideration of translation as a literary genre in its own right, I agree -- I think literary translators are underpaid and under recognized for the particular kind of creative work they are engaged in. He's right to critique ideas of linguistic transparency and to acknowledge the inherent cultural and ethical complexities the issue of translation presents.

However, I part company w/ Venuti's assertion that translations should always render the inherent "otherness" of the original language and, by extension, the culture that speaks it. Maybe it's just a matter of tone or temperament, but I'm always resistant to anyone, brilliant or not, who starts making prescriptions about how artists should do this or that.
I think the issue of how a literary text should or should not be translated is best decided by individual translators. I guess it's this polemical aspect of Venuti's work that I don't like, his advocacy of his own particular strategy as a translator as the really proper approach.

Jonathan dijo...

I take your point Rocco. I find I don't really need him to be balanced. That is, there are enough people out there promoting more conventional ideas of translation, so I would rather that Venuti just be Venuti--push his own point of view as strongly as possible and let others make other arguments if they want to. For example, in a translation I recently completed I went after a kind of acceptability--what I personally would accept as a reader of English, and purused that goal relentlessly. I take Venuti's prescriptivism to be a heuristic device, not somthing that any translator is going to follow al pie de la letra.

Katherine dijo...

I think you may have misunderstood me.

What I was dismissing was the idea of those kinds of literary works (Pound's Cathay, the Canadian French translators' writings, etc.) being called translations. They may well be examples of fine writing; I wouldn't know, as I haven't read them. But I can give them the benefit of the doubt and trust that they stand on their own as works of literature. As translations, as texts that attempt to reproduce the meaning (and other elements) of the original work in a different language? No.

The case of the retranslations from European French to Canadian French, without the benefit of the original language source text, just reminds me of a different process: adaptation for different audiences. To use an example from popular culture, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (U.S.) v. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (U.K.). How are the two situations different?

An interesting point you brought up is that the best translation "may come from ... working from other texts or with a collaborator." Parallel texts, corpora, glossaries, reading previous translations, reading translations into other languages, and consulting native speakers are all some of the best ways to come out with a good translation. A paper I read recently detailed one translator's experience of translating a novel written by a Spanish author into English; it had already been translated into French, Italian, and a few other languages. It was interesting to compare the decisions each translator made, and how their decisions ended up influencing the Spanish > English translator, e.g, of proper names of (sometimes obscure) characters from Spain's history. Let me know if you'd like to read it and I can send it to you.

Jonathan dijo...

I don't know the point of denying that Pound's Cathay is a translation. Is it a purely terminological question for you? Isn't there more to be gained in having a more inclusive definition of the word?

It stands up fine against other translations, even in terms of accuracy. For example, if you read his translation of the River Merhant's Wife against all other existing versions of the same text, the semantic variation is quite small.

Historically, translation is a set of practices of which the subset of what you want to call *translation* in the strict sense is just one part.

I would be interested in the article you mention. If you can send me the reference or bring the article to class that would be great.