24 mar. 2010

Someone (Joseph H.) asked a very, very good question in a comment on a previous post. If poetry is so close to music, then what do I do with translation? How do I explain the need for translation? Let me think out loud for a moment about this question and see if I get anywhere.

Music doesn't need to be translated. Can't be translated. You do have to know the particular musical language in which it is composed to really understand it, but it can't be translated into another language because there is no musical message detachable from that language. Bach would rewrite pieces for different instruments. You can arrange a piece for Tuba for string bass. So sonority (timbre) seems detachable (to some extent) from melody. Not totally, because the piece might not really work for its new instruments.

Vallejo said poetry is not translatable, because it depends on its tone. Robert Frost said poetry is what gets lost in translation. In other words, the elements we think of as poetic are exactly those elements lost in a translation: rhythm, tone, linguistic particularity. On the other hand, poetry does get translated; many people get enjoyment out of poetry in translation, including me.

It's absurd to say, though, that what you're getting out of translation is the poetry. You might be getting the poetry of the translator; that's what Pound did, but you're not getting the poetry of the original. You're getting the "literary" dimension of the poem, some visual imagery, some ideology maybe. You're not getting the organic whole. Imagine a plate with some salt on it in a small pile, next to a larger pile of flour; there's a glass of water standing by the plate, with some yeast fermenting in it. You wouldn't call this plate "a loaf of bread." I couldn't convince you it was a loaf of bread simply by saying that it has everything needed to bake a loaf of break. What's missing from my plate, I argue, but you just shake your head.

Imagine a reader for whom reading the original and the translation was basically the same experience. We'd conclude that this person is not really a reader of poetry at all. It would be like a person trained to read a musical score but who didn't know what music was. The person would be able to tell you what the notes of the musical score were, "that's an 8th-note rest followed by a b flat quarter note." This person can read musical notation but cannot read music.

Even very good translations can be very bad from the point of view of the poetry. Our standards of judgment are so low that we are content with very little.

4 comentarios:

Henry Gould dijo...

I understand the desire to emphasize the poetry/music affinity, being something of a hack musician myself.

But lately reading some critical writings of Russian poet Nikoai Gumilev, I'm leaning toward the idea that poetry is at least as close to architecture as to poetry.

Gumilev emphasizes what he calls the "integrity" of words, and of languages as a whole (the bundle of meanings words have within fairly ordinary vernacular usage). He says the integrity of poetry is based on the poet's care for the integrity of words.

His integrity has a lot to do with Aristotle's concept of "wholeness". The art work has integrity - it is "integral" - because it exhibits an organic unity (beginning-middle-end), within which the individual elements also retain their integrity. Coleridge emphasizes this too. It is a basic principle of harmony (proportion of parts ot wholes).

This of course is where music also meets architecture...

& maybe there is a window from here onto translation, too. If words & languages exhibit wholeness/integrity of sound/meaning - and if the human mind shares some universal DNA relating variations of sound in language to meaning - then perhaps the translation of poetry DOES carry over some fraction of the real substance of the original...

making any sense?

Jonathan dijo...

Yes, a lot of sense, I think. Integritas, the way Stephen Dedalus explains it in Portrait of the Artist. All the arts are one, in my view. I think dance is close to architecture too.

Jordan dijo...

On the contrary -- poetry in translation is the invaluable imaginary other, the excluded term that makes poetry in one's own language possible. Without it, poetry is only the boring power struggles of wastrels. The church, basically.

Ray Davis dijo...

One of the impressive things about the Baudelaire-and-Mallarme book I recommended was Abbott's attention to the contradictory uses to which both poets put their "music" comparison, contradications which wouldn't have come so naturally to lyricists who literally wrote words-for-songs. As regards translation, Mallarme's frequently mentioned fantasy of silent music seems useful: that poetry is not just song-without-notes but somehow song-without-sound. And it's that music, the silent music, which might be silently re-approximated within a different noise.