January 27th, 2007

Let me see..

Translating poetry I: no single method

A few days ago, several of us translated a poem for Deborah P Kolodji into various languages, and myself and another Spanish-speaker provided slightly different versions. I want to discuss the issue a bit more. Isn't there a "right" translation for a poem?

No, never -- not for any work, prose or poem, except for certain legal documents, and then only by decree. Different languages do not offer a rose by another name, the way that miles and kilometers are perfectly interchangeable, and there are always several acceptable ways to translate a piece.

One way is literal translation: word for word, and at times this can be useful, especially if the exact words of the original work matter more than style or ease of understanding, though the resulting translation may sound unnatural.

Transposition is another way, substituting equivalent grammar and expressions, and at times this is unavoidable: "Twenty years ago" in Spanish is "Hace veinte años": literally, "It makes twenty years." There is no specific word "ago" in Spanish.

But sometimes a translator may need or want to employ completely different stylistic and structural resources to fully represent the author's intent. This is called equivalence. Eugene A. Nida, in Towards a Science of Translation, has defined this method as the "closest natural equivalent of the source-language message."

Let me give you an example from Manual de Traducción Inglés-Castellano by Juan Gabriel López Guix and Jacqueline Minett Wilkinson. Consider this fragment from "Going to Bed" by John Donne:

Your gownes going off such a beauteous state reveales

As when from flowery meades th'hills shadow steales.

Luis C. Benito Cardenal translated it as:

El caer de tu vestido tal bellísimo estado revela

como cuando de los floridos prados la sombra de la colina suavamente se retira.

This is an almost literal translation, with only one necessary transposition (so I won't offer a literal re-translation), but you will notice that the second line gets awfully long. Overall, it sounds a little clunky.

Here's a version by Octavio Paz:

¡Fuera! Fuera el vestido, surjan valles salvajes

entre las sombras de tus montes

(Literally: Off! Off the dress, wild valleys might arise / between the shadows of your hills)

Despite the changes, Donne's central meaning remains. Paz's version offers us poetry -- rhythmic, dynamic, and forceful, without forced language. In its own way, it follows the original, and since it gives us a poem for a poem, it is equivalent.

Both translations, I want to stress, are considered equally "correct," though these two represent the extremes of equivalence.

Next: Adaptation