Wednesday, 23 April 2014

A 'back-translation' experiment

I actually wrote this one yesterday, but hesitated to post it. I'd wanted to try a 'back-translation' (in this case, translating a French translation of a poem back into English, the language in which it was originally written) for a while. I imagined the result would be very different from the original poem, and that my post would compare them and speculate on why they were so different. I was surprised: they are very similar.
In order to do the exercise, I needed to find a French translation of a poem I didn't know. I didn't want to choose something obscure, so I looked for translations of some famous American poets, since my knowledge of American poetry is pretty limited. I found this:

De la seule existence

Le palmier aux confins de l'esprit
Au-delà de la pensée ultime, se dresse
Dans le décor de bronze

Un oiseau au plumage d'or
Chante dans le palmier, dépourvu de sens
Et de sentiments humains, un chant étranger.

On sait alors que ce n'est pas la raison
Qui nous rend heureux ou malheureux.
L'oiseau chante. Ses plumes brillent.

Le palmier se tient sur le bord de l'espace.
Le vent remue doucement dans les branches.
Peinturlurées de feu, les plumes de l'oiseau pendillent

Translated by Anne Wade Minkowski in L'Autre, n° 3, déc. 1991

I didn't recognise it. Here is my version:

Of Mere Existence

The palm tree at the border of the mind
Beyond the last of all thoughts, rises
In the bronze scene.

A bird with gold feathers
Sings in the palm, devoid of sense
And human sentiment, a foreign song.

We know, then, that it is not reason
That has us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers gleam.

The palm tree stands at the edge of space.
The wind stirs softly in the branches.
Daubed with fire, the bird's feathers dangle.

The sharp-eyed amongst you will have identified this poem as 'Of Mere Being', by Wallace Stevens.
Here is the original:

Of Mere Being

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor.

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Remarkably little seems to have really changed in the poem's passage from English to French and back again. The two most interesting differences seemed to me to be the change from "the reason" to "reason" (French uses the definite article for abstract concepts, so from the French it could have been either), and the last line, which I have butchered, but no more, I would argue, than has the French translation. This richly alliterative line seems to me the most attractive thing about the poem; I couldn't get very interested in the rest of it. And this brings me to what struck me as most interesting about the whole exercise: you might expect it to be reassuring for a back-translation to resemble its original - it suggests that poetry is translatable after all, that we can read poems translated from other languages and understand them as their original readers would. Instead, I felt disappointed, and not only because I'd lost the imagined subject of my blog post. We expect poetry to do interesting things. We need it to be complex and ambiguous, to challenge us; there is little reward in reading poetry that does not do so in some way. It is these complexities - of sound, structure, meaning - that make translating poetry so extremely difficult. It is often said that a translation of a poem is a new poem, a different one; so when I compared my translation to the original Stevens poem, the similarities made me suspicious. Either the French translator hadn't done a very good job, or the original poem itself wasn't doing much (or both). Looking at the French version again, it is semantically and syntactically very close to the original. I don't think it is very interesting, but then I have concluded that I don't much like the original either. Stevens is often called a "poet of ideas"; perhaps this makes his work easier to translate.
What do you think? Is the French any good? Why is the back-translation so similar to the original?

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Day 19: 'Disobedience' by A.A. Milne

Ever a slave to the whims of my friends, I have produced a French translation of A.A. Milne's 'Disobedience', because for some reason one of them needed that in his life. The rhymes were not too difficult; more of a challenge was constantly reminding myself that French poetic metre counts syllables, not stresses, so the bouncing dactylic rhythm of this poem in English is hard to recreate. English can easily slip in an extra unstressed syllable without really altering the metre, which French can't do. I found it hard to read my translation aloud without lapsing into a sort of Anglophone lollop. Some of the lines are still perhaps a bit unwieldy, but I had fun doing the translation and I hope you'll have fun reading it. The original can be found here.

La Désobéissance

James James
Mauraison Mauraison
Westminster Georges LeBlanc
S'occupait bien
De sa Maman
Malgré son âge (trois ans).
James James
Dit à Maman
Dit-il « Maman, » il dit,
« Faut pas que tu files jusqu'au bout de la ville, sans m'emmener, moi aussi. »

La Maman
De James James
Mit une robe de soie
La Maman
De James James
Jusqu'au bout de la ville alla.

La Maman
De James James
Se dit, lorsqu'elle y conduisait
« C'est bon. Si je file jusqu'au bout de la ville, je rentrerai pour le goûter. »

Le Roi Henri
Mit une affiche
La Maman
De James James
s'est - parait-il – égarée. 

La dernière fois
Qu'on l'a vue
Elle errait à son gré.
Elle voulait filer jusqu'au bout de la ville – et toute aide sera recompensée ! »

James James
Mauraison Mauraison
(On l'appellera J.)
Dit aux autres
De sa famille
De ne pas l'accuser, lui.
James James
Dit à Maman
Dit-il « Maman », il dit,
« Faut jamais filer jusqu'au bout de la ville sans demander mon avis. »

La Maman
De James James
N'a pas été vue depuis.
Le Roi Henri
Se dit désolé
La Reine et le Prince aussi.
Le Roi Henri
(Selon un monsieur)
Dit à sa conseillère,
« Si des gens filent jusqu'au bout de la ville, il n'y a rien à faire. »

(Encore une fois, à voix basse)
J. J.
M. M.
W. G. LeBlanc
S'occupait bien
De sa M****
Malgré son âge (3 ans).
J. J.
Dit à M****
Dit-il « M**** », il dit,


Friday, 18 April 2014

Day 18: A short poem by Paul Eluard

Today's offering is a snippet of Paul Eluard, from Capitale de la douleur. Eluard's poetry is difficult to translate partly because it seems so simple. This poem uses very ordinary, generic language - arbre, voix, bouge, etc. - which makes it hard to play around with much. There aren't many possible ways to translate 'arbre' without stretching the original quite a long way; this makes it tricky if the equivalent words in English don't create the same sound patterns (and they are not likely to do so). The slow drawl of the words ending in 're' in line 2 is not there in the translation, but the commas also serve to slow the line down, and the repetition of 'sh' in "shadow, shows" at least creates another repetition of sounds in that line. 

'Les petits justes', VII

La nature s'est prise aux filets de ta vie.
L'arbre, ton ombre, montre sa chair nue: le ciel.
Il a la voix du sable et les gestes du vent.
Et tout ce que tu dis bouge derrière toi.

Nature is tangled in the net of your life.
The tree, your shadow, shows its bare flesh: the sky.
It has the sand's voice and the movements of the wind.
And everything you say stirs behind you.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Day 17: 'Rhinight' - an experimental version of Apollinaire

As promised, here is a more experimental translation of the Apollinaire poem I attempted a few days ago. I have not retained the original rhyme scheme or lineation, but have instead tried to capture something of the musicality and artistry of the original through assonance and a bit of wordplay here and there. In French, 'verre' (glass), 'vert' (green) and 'vers' (verse/line of poetry) are all pronounced the same, which creates a lot of possibilities for poetry-themed wordplay.


My glass is filled with wine that flamelike quiverse
            to the boatman songslow
      oh he saw says he saw seven women sous la lune
twine their envygreen hair
                        that cascaded

Up up sing up dancing rings around
me and drown
                       the boatman's song

       Bring me the blonde girls
       the unmoving stare
       the tightcoiled plaits

the Rhine the Rhine drunk
        where the vines admire their reflection
all the gold of the nights flitters down
                                   to be mirrored there too
           the voice still singing            till breath's exspiral
those green-haired faeries whose spells
                             draw the summer to song

I right my glass shattered like a shard of laughter

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Day 16: 'Le Peu d'Eau' by Yves Bonnefoy

A highly unseasonal poem about snow for today.

Yves Bonnefoy, 'Le Peu d'Eau'

À ce flocon
Qui sur ma main se pose, j’ai désir
D’assurer l’éternel
En faisant de ma vie, de ma chaleur,
De mon passé, de ces jours d’à présent,
Un instant simplement: cet instant-ci, sans bornes.

Mais déjà il n’est plus
Qu’un peu d’eau, qui se perd
Dans la brume des corps qui vont dans la neige.

The Bit of Water

To this flake
that perches on my hand, I wish
to grant what is eternal
by making of my life, of my warmth,
of my past, of these days of just now,
a moment simply: this moment, here, and boundless.

But already it's no more
than a bit of water, losing itself
in the fog of bodies passing in the snow.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Day 15: Sapphic fun

Hi, new readers. If you were led here by the title of the post, you might want to try elsewhere on the internet. Today's translation is an essentially pointless but enjoyable exercise, involving two assistants of varying glamorousness. The first is my friend Rachel, who helpfully responded to my request for poem suggestions by sending me this fragment of Sappho:

γλύκηα μᾶτερ, οὔτοι δύναμαι κρέκην τὸν ἴστον
πόθῳ δάμεισα παῖδος βραδίναν δι᾽ Ἀφροδίταν.

I don't speak Greek, and neither does Rachel, so this was always going to be translation in the very loosest of senses. This is where I enlisted the help of my second friend, Google, whom some of you may know.

First, I got Google to translate the fragment into English. It said this:

glykia Matera, This I am able krekin the tissue
pothῳ dameisa children dinner by Venus.
Glad to have got the matter cleared up, and reflecting that Sappho was somewhat overrated, I decided to try a 'Chinese whispers' style approach, passing this baffling piece of text through Google-approximations of various languages before bringing it back into English. The non-words in the first 'English' translation stayed the same throughout, so before trying again, I accepted Microsoft Word's suggestions as to what I/Sappho/Google meant to say. That produced this:

glycol mother, this I am able cretin the tissue
pithy demise children dinner by Venus.

It wasn't John Ashbery, but it was something I could work with. Here is the result: French, German, Welsh, Chinese, and (why not?) Zulu, via English each time.

glycol mother, This I am able cretin the tissue
pithy demise children dinner by Venus.

glycol mère, je suis Ce crétin mesure le tissu
enfants de dévolution lapidaire dîner par Vénus.

glycol mother, I am moron This measure tissue
children devolution lapidary dinner Venus.

Glykol Mutter, ich Idiot diese Maßnahme Gewebe
Kinder Devolution lapidar Abendessen Venus.

Glycol mother, I idiot this measure tissue
Children Devolution succinctly dinner Venus.

GLYCOL mam, yr wyf yn idiot mesur hwn meinwe
Mae plant DATGANOLI gryno cinio Venus.

ACID mother, I am an idiot this measure tissue
Children DEVOLUTION compact lunch Venus.


Mother acid, I was an idiot this measure tissue
Children decentralized compact lunch Venus.

Umama acid, ngase isilima lokhu izicubu isilinganiso
Izingane usabalalise kwasemini compact Venus.

Acid mother, I had this stupid muscles to measure
Children distribute lunch compact Venus.

All the languages were a bit distracting; what I wanted was an English text. I tried again, this time straining the text through five languages (in alphabetical order of what Google offered me) before coming back to English. I did this three times, and produced this gem:

glycol mother, this I am able cretin the tissue
pithy demise children dinner by Venus.

Home glycol, I can sum idiot
Children's lunch Hot Venus.

Home glycol, can be summed up with the slogan and
Pre-lunch Hot Venus.

Home glycol, can be summed up in the slogan,
Hot Venus before lunch.

Thrilling though this activity was, and despite the considerable satisfaction afforded by the very last version, I still wasn't convinced I had produced a work of art. I decided to consult a translation of this fragment (Fragment 102) by an actual person. It was a revelation:

Sweet mother, I can no longer weave at the loom
conquered by desire for a boy, because of slender Aphrodite.
(Andromache Karanika's translation)
What was I to do with this? I had two equally valid translations, produced by surely foolproof methods, but they seemed to be telling me quite different things. Which could Sappho have meant? I decided to get closer to the truth by combining the two.

Sweet glycol, I, no longer summed up, loom
conquered by desire for Hot Venus before lunch.

I feel I have gained a significant insight into life in Ancient Greece. Either that, or Google Translate is for purely pointless purposes and not to be used for actual translation. You decide.. 

Reference: Karanika, A. (2014) Voices at Work: Women, Performance and Labor in Ancient Greece, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, p186.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Day 14: 'Nuit rhénane' by Guillaume Apollinaire

Tangled up in rhyme again...This one definitely needs several more drafts. It was difficult to capture much of the music without twisting the sense considerably. My version currently uses a rather unsatisfactory mixture of rhyme, half-rhyme and no rhyme. I feel this is one of those translations you read with a strong sense that much has been lost; but I do think with more time to analyse the original and see how it works, my effort might be improved. I might use the same poem tomorrow, or another day when I have more time, and try a totally different approach to see if I can make any more of it!

Nuit rhénane

Mon verre est plein d'un vin trembleur comme une flamme
Écoutez la chanson lente d'un batelier
Qui raconte avoir vu sous la lune sept femmes
Tordre leurs cheveux verts et longs jusqu'à leurs pieds

Debout chantez plus haut en dansant une ronde
Que je n'entende plus le chant du batelier
Et mettez près de moi toutes les filles blondes
Au regard immobile aux nattes repliées

Le Rhin le Rhin est ivre où les vignes se mirent
Tout l'or des nuits tombe en tremblant s'y refléter
La voix chante toujours à en râle-mourir
Ces fées aux cheveux verts qui incantent l'été

Mon verre s'est brisé comme un éclat de rire

Rhine Night

My glass is filled with a quivering flame of wine
Listen to the boatman’s slow song
As he tells of seven women seen beneath the moon
Twisting and twining their hair, so green and long

Stand up, sing louder, dancing in a ring
So I no longer hear the boatman’s song
And bring beside me all the girls with golden hair
With the tight-coiled plaits and the unmoving stares

The Rhine the Rhine is drunk where the vines admire themselves
All the gold of night flutters down to itself in that mirror
And still the voice sings on to the death-rattle
These green-haired faeries who bewitch the summer

My glass has shattered like a burst of laughter