01 March 2010

Found In Translation

In my quest to find a good translation of Rainer Maria Rilke poems I ran across the same problem I had in finding a good translation of The Cloud of Unknowing. Not being a native speaker of German – my grasp is far better at the written rather than spoken in several languages – how would I know what I was reading was a true and accurate reflection of what the author intended? What gets fumbled in translation, either to the translator's interpretation or to nuances I don't quite grasp?

This is where reviews by more knowledgeable scholars, not to mention Google Books and Amazon's Look Inside This Book features come in handy. I know there are those who recoil in horror at Google Books and their previews feature. How could it be a good thing to allow people to read content without paying? Well, in my case I've purchased far more books after reading the excerpts than I have based on reviews. It is the equivalent of going to a bookstore and being able to open each copy of a book I am interested in, check the writing style, see if the contents match up with my expectations. I don't live in a big city, with dozens of shops to peruse. We have one small chain bookstore, its offerings are mediocre at best, and non-existent for anyone wanting to do serious research or read poetry other than Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Whitman. (Although I've noticed a recent retail clerk fascination with Charles Bukowski - they have 7 different poetry books by him and nothing by any poet laureate of the U.S.)

Previewing the books allows me to compare and contrast translations. In the case of Rilke, I knew I preferred a book that had the German on one page, and the English translation on the other. Even though my grasp of German is thin, being able to read the words in the original, feel the rhythm and twists of the language helped me get a feel for what the poet was trying to do. On the translation side, I was looking for an interpretation that fit my understanding of Rilke and his poetry. One translation seemed very mechanical. The words were there but seemed stilted, as if the meaning was lost even though all the right words were on the page. Another translation may not have been 100 percent accurate, word-wise, but the flow and depth and loveliness of Rilke's poetry came across very well. You know which translation I went with.

I had no desire to suffer reading the Cloud of Unknowing in Middle English, although I probably could bull my way through. Since this was for private theology study, and not some college paper, I looked for a translation that kept the original wry and conversational tone of the anonymous fourteenth century English monk. I passed on thou's and other ancient affects as well as a William Johnston translation in favor of a Carmen Acevedo Butcher translation. Why? It spoke to me more eloquently than the Johnson translation did. It matched up to the idea in my head of everything I'd heard/read about the monk and his work.

I noticed the same thing while reading two versions of eighth-century Persian poet Rabia al Basri's love poetry. One translation did nothing for me. But another spoke to me, forced me to reread and savor, to confront the mysticism present in her work. A difference in a few words, the presentation, but what a difference it made.

There are those that say we shouldn't even attempt to translate poetry into another language, for the mood, tone, voice will be lost. Don't discount the ability of a poetry lover to come to the meaning without full knowledge of the language. Trust in them to reach beyond the printed word on the page and discover the nuances. After all, poetry is intensely personal. I would hate to have missed out on the transformational encounter that was my first reading of Hafiz, or Rilke, or Li Po and Chiyo-ni. What I read might not have been an exact translation, but the feel was close enough to turn my read into a profound experience. Isn't that what good poetry is all about?

I live my life in widening circles

I live my life in widening circles

that reach out across the world.

I may not complete this last one

but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.

I've been circling for thousands of years

and I still don't know: am I a falcon,

a storm, or a great song?

--- Rainer Maria Rilke

I spun some yarn to sell for food
And sold it for two silver coins.
I put a coin in each hand
Because I was afraid
That if I put both together in one hand
This great pile of wealth might hold me back.

—Rabi’a al-Adawiyya

Tired of Speaking Sweetly

Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,

Break all our teacup talk of God.

If you had the courage and

Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,

He would just drag you around the room

By your hair,

Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world

That bring you no joy.

Love sometimes gets tired of speaking sweetly

And wants to rip to shreds

All your erroneous notions of truth

That make you fight within yourself, dear one,

And with others,

Causing the world to weep

On too many fine days.

God wants to manhandle us,

Lock us inside of a tiny room with Himself

And practice His dropkick.

The Beloved sometimes wants

To do us a great favor:

Hold us upside down

And shake all the nonsense out.

But when we hear

He is in such a "playful drunken mood"

Most everyone I know

Quickly packs their bags and hightails it

Out of town.


traveling geese--

the human heart, too


-- Issa

------translated by David G. Lanoue


Kathleen Cassen Mickelson said...

No brownie points - I'm not going to write this in iambic pentameter. Maybe next time....

The intensely personal experience of poetry is definitely what it's all about and you raise some very important considerations of translated poetry. Thank you for that. I am currently bumbling my way through a translation - with the Spanish side-by-side with the English - of Pablo Neruda poetry (The Essential Netruda: Selected Poems, Mark Eisner, Ed.) and I have wondered, off and on, exactly how accurate it is and how difficult it was to take such a beloved poet and put his work into English yet again in the hope that a new audience might find connection. It's worth the effort for all involved to bring the experience of each poet's vision to new readers. And I agree - to actually see an excerpt is far more helpful when trying to choose a particular book.

Carmen Acevedo Butcher said...

Hi, Constance, thank you for the kind words. I'm thankful the translation of _The Cloud_ worked well for you. The Christocentric wisdom of Anonymous was a joy and a feast-for-the-soul to encounter and to translate. Best wishes, Carmen

Constance Brewer said...

Hi Carmen,

Thanks for stopping by. I'm working my way through The Cloud of Unknowing and enjoying the voice as well as learning a great deal. It's one of those books where little profound moments make me stop and savor/contemplate a good while before moving on.
I'm also reading Hildegard of Bingen and and I'm quite taken with the information on her background, and her poetry.

Both books are an influence on my upcoming collection of poetry, so thank you for that. :)

Gabriele Campbell said...

I've translated some poetry, and I always go for the flow and rhythm fist of all, try to stay close to the words where possible, but ruthlessly wave the rhymes goodbye. You can't have everything. ;)

Funny thing is that I get more emails with requests to reprint my poetry translations on websites and even newspapers than for permission to use my photos.

Constance Brewer said...

Gabriele - I remember some of the poems you posted. The spirit definitely came through. I enjoyed them. What to keep, what to let go has to be the hardest part of being a translator.

Oh - my German is really poor. I read Rilke with the German and English versions side by side, and a German-English dictionary in hand. I just like reading it to get the feel of the words in my mouth in their original. You'd probably run shrieking if you actually heard me SPEAK German. *g*