April 17, 2009

(Not) Lost in Translation

Over on Twitter, I have been tweeting a poet-of-the-day [1] and wondered yesterday if I had had enough. Perhaps only half a month of celebration (April 1-15) is enough, I dithered. But then I realized that I had focused mainly on US poets. A few (Simic, Ondaatje, Levertov) may have been from other countries originally but they all write/wrote in English. There is so much wonderful poetry that is not written in English ...maybe it is time to celebrate them!

So, for April 16th and 17th (tweeting both together today as, caught in my waffling about whether to continue the series or not, I did not tweet about a poet yesterday), my poets are two poets who have astounded me with their poetry, even in translation. So much so, they have made me want to learn Spanish some day, to be able to enjoy their poetry in its original form. For If their poetry can be so beautiful in translation, imagine how it must be in the original! No... not Lorca (who I am yet to read) but the poets that have me in thrall are Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz. I remember finding their poetry in the mid-to-late 1990s and they simply blew me away; especially Neruda. The music in his language, even in translation, is simply astounding. I remember it was a bi-lingual edition and just for the fun of it, I read the Spanish version aloud (not understanding it, of course). What lilt! What music in those words!

Some thoughts now on reading poetry in translation. In my mind, my experience with reading Neruda and Paz is unusual when it comes to reading poetry in translation. I think that in terms of what is lost in translation, it gets progressively worse as one goes from movies to music to books to poems. Over the years, I have read quite a few novels in translation and have wondered how much of the feel of the book was lost in translation. There is no doubt that a bad translator can ruin a book. But how much of the original is lost even when a good translator re-writes a piece? I believe Milan Kundera (one of my favorite authors - read completely in translation) has also battled with translators over this issue and has also written about the perils involved in translation in his non-fiction book, Art of the Novel. (Also read this article about the approach to translation.)

When it comes to movies, I have enjoyed lot of foreign language movies (French, Italian, Chinese, etc.) through sub-titles. Although some of the nuances may be lost through the dialogue, one fares well with movies because a lot of the movie is still retained through the visual aesthetic and in some cases, the music. (Case in point, the music in one of my favorite movies - In the Mood for Love.) Coincidentally, just earlier this week I read some other interesting arguments made comparing movies vs. the written word but that will have to be the topic of another post. (The arguments were put forth by the author Mary Gaitskill in the Introduction to Best New American Voices 2009, which she is the editor of.)

Music, of course, is the universal language... for example, even when I cannot understand the words to the songs, the music from Malian singers that I have been listening to a lot the last few years has given me hours of joy. (Actually, photography, as an art, is also a medium that requires no language and hence does not have to deal with any such barriers.)

Anyways.. I'm off now to find some Neruda and Paz poems to share on Twitter. "Follow" me there.. if you care.

[1] After reading at Robert Lee Brewer's blog that some people were celebrating National Poetry Month by writing a poem a day, I decided to start this series of tweets for the month since I have been on Twitter a lot lately and while I do not have the talent or the discipline to write a poem every day, I figured I could put a few tweets every day about a poet of my choice. Its tougher than you think -- when something becomes a daily chore, the fun goes about it!

Poets featured during the first half of the month are:
  1. Wannabe poet once upon a time, myself... featuring my "poemkus" (haikus, really...but I use that word to not annoy the purists.)
  2. Mark Strand
  3. Tess Gallagher
  4. Donald Hall
  5. Mary Oliver
  6. W. S. Merwin
  7. Denise Levertov
  8. Mark Strand (again! Oops.. Noticing now that this is a repeat!)
  9.  -- missed it! -- 
  10. Philip Levine
  11. Michael Ondaatje
  12. John Ashbery
  13. Charles Simic
  14. John Burroughs (more famous as a naturalist, conservationist, and writer than as a poet but loved couple lines of his poem, Waiting)
  15. Mark Doty
Hmm.. in addition to repeating Mark Strand, I did not realize I missed a day there! I was pretty sure I tweeted one poet every day. #FAIL, as they say in internet lingo! Looks like just about a week into the month, I stumbled! Oh well...

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