28 ene. 2008

To translate poetry you must be a poet, because you are actually writing poetry. The activity of verse-translation is not a fundamentally different activity from that of writing poetry. That is one lesson I might draw from Eliot Weinberger's demolition of Robert Alter's Psalms.

Weinberger softens this precept a little by saying that the translator has to be at least a reader of poetry. That doesn't make too much sense to me, because translation involves the production of a text, not just an act of reception. There may be poet-translators with no work of their own, but they are still poets in the act of translating.

"On the evidence here, Alter seems to know very little about the last hundred years of English-language poetry."

Harsh, but Weinberger backs up this point with examples.

6 comentarios:

Jacob Russell dijo...

What light does the last 100 years of poetry shed on poems written in Hebrew some 1100 years ago?

Alter's translations project a radically different idea of "poetry," one that seeks to find in English, some equivalent expression of the Hebrew... which most English translations eviscerate, raping the Hebrew and forcing it to cough up its productions in Xianized English.

Jonathan dijo...

Yes, that would be Alter's argument. I'm just not buying it. How can we accept that what he comes up with is actually "equivalent to the Hebrew"? There are many kinds of equivalences. Is the Hebrew word that the KJV gives as "iniquity" really closer to "mischief," the alternative that Alter gives? They are both English words--neither is Hebrew. They are both plausible "equivalents," I am assuming, and so the choice between them has more to do with us, the readers of the translation, than with the original text.

How is Alter's use of the "apostrophe s" in place of the preposition "of" more (or less) equivalent to the Hebrew? That's a choice between two kinds of English, both of which are, I assume, equivalent to the same expression in the original.

Words like "salvation" do have a Christian tinge and so it is perfectly legitimate for Alter to alter them. I'm not seeing how that justifies the other failings that Weinberger points out in his review. Why is a search for equivalences incompatible with a translation practice that makes the original readable to a contemporary audience?

The claim that a translation is "closer to the original" can hide a lot of mischief (iniquity). I also have to ask: closer according to whom?

Jacob Russell dijo...

First, I have to confess that I'm getting in over my head. The Hebrew of the Psalms and prophetic books is a stretch for me--I'm more comfortable with the narratives, but it's not a matter of vocabulary choice--it's how the Hebrew syntax assigns associations. What is "familiar" to modern readers is exactly what stands in the way of comprehending the nature of the poetic argument in the Hebrew--a poetry that is antithetical at a deep level to how it has developed in European languages.

Jacob Russell dijo...
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Jacob Russell dijo...

I should add that some of Alter's choices of phrase and vocabulary are not too pleasing, to put it kindly. On an aesthetic level, looking at this as a translation into English,, I'd have to agree with you.

I wish my German hadn't totally evaporated over the years. I'd be curious to see how Alter's Psalms compare with the Buber-Rosenzweig translation. Speaking of which, the "Right and Wrong" half of Buber's little book, Good and Evil, is a good example of how the poetic argument develops in the Hebrew.

John dijo...

I imagine that Weinberger said that one must be a reader of poetry out of the modest hope that he may be a good translator of poetry without claiming the title of poet for himself. I agree with you that as a translator he is a poet.

His essay made me want to track down a copy of the Jerusalem Bible