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Without the foregoing MINIMUM of poetry in other languages, you simply will not know where English poetry comes. One of the definitions offered by poetry is that it is untranslatable. What remains after the attempt, intact and uncommunicated, is the original poem. It was so affirmed by du Bellay, 2 the French poet and rhetorician of the early sixteenth century, and more recently, by Robert Frost. 3 According to him, a poem is "language charged with an intense mode of expressive integrity, language under such close pressure of singular need, of particularized energy, that no other statement can be equivalent, that no other poem, even if it differs only in one phrase, perhaps one word, can do the same job". 4
It can be said that the poem stays a poem because nothing exactly like it has been before, because its very composition is an act of unique designation and inchoate experience. George Steiner adds to this the nature of poetic language:
The distinctive beat of any given tongue, that sustaining undercurrent of inflexion, pitch relations, habits of stress, which give a particular motion to prose, is concentrated in poetry so that it acts as an overt, characteristic force. Poetry will not translate any more than music. Verse forms, the shape of the stanza, the conventional or innovating directives of rhyme, the historical, stylistic discriminations which a language makes between its prosaic and poetic idiom, the counterpoint it sets up between colloquial and formal, these also defy translation. As does the immediate visual code of long and short words, of capitalization and accentual mark in German, say, or Spanish. And how can a translation carry over into a Roman alphabet the pictorial suggestions, the relations of space and graphic incitement which are a vital part of the total statement made by a Chinese or Persan lyric? 5
Furthermore, he sustains that because a poem enlists the maximal range of linguistic means, because it articulates the code of any given language at its most incisive - all other poems in that language being a part of the informing context - poetry may be paraphrased, at other times imperfectly mimed, but "indeed it cannot be translated". If the argument is observed closely, it then comes as no surprise that it implicates even rudimentary acts of linguistic exchange, such as the attempt to translate any words or sentence from one language into another.
There are no total translations: because languages differ, because each language represents a complex, historically and collectively determined aggregate of values, proceedings of social conduct, conjectures on life. There can be no exhaustive transfer from language A to language B, no meshing of nets so precise that there is identity of conceptual content, unison of undertone, absolute symmetry of aural and visual association. This is true both of a simple prose statement and of poetry. 6
The point is worth stressing. Where they engage, as they must, the root fact of linguistic autonomy, the fact that different grammars delineate different realities, it seems that arguments against verse translations are arguments against all translations. The difference is one of intensity, of technical difficulty, of psychological apprehension. Because a poem springs from the core of a language, commemorating and renewing the world view of that language at its deepest level, the risks taken in translation are greater, the waste or damage done are more visible. But a gritty colloquialism will frequently offer a resistance as vital and obstinate, because,
Each act of translation is one of approximation, of near miss or failure to get within range. It tells of our fragmented legacy, and of the marvellous richness of that legacy - how meagre must the earth have been before Babel, when all spoke alike and communicated on the instant. The case against translation is irrefutable, but only if we are presented, in Ibsen's phrase, with 'the claims of the ideal.' In actual performance these claims cannot be met or allowed. 7
Translation, as an act of creation , as a re-enactment in the bounds of the translator's secondary, but educated consciousness, as Donald Davie emphasizes in "The Translatability of Poetry", is equally essential to humanism, to the continued life of feeling inchoate in texts.
We translate perpetually - this is often overlooked - when we read a classic in our own tongue, a poem written in the sixteenth century or a novel published in 1780. We seek to recapture, to revitalize in our consciousness the meanings of words used as we no longer use them, of imaginings that have behind them a contour of history, of manners, of religious or philosophic presumptions radically different from ours. Anyone reading Donne or Jane Austen today, or almost any poem or fiction composed before 1915 (at about which date the old order seems to recede from the immediate grasp of our sensibility), is trying to re-create by exercise of historical, linguistic response; he is, in the full sense, translating. 8
A major, perhaps a predominant cultural element in the fabric of man's consciousness, is inevitably translation. "Say what one will of its inadequacy", wrote Goethe to Carlyle, "translation remains one of the most important worthwhile concerns in the totality of world affairs". 9 But there is a more special argument that poetry should not be translated into poetry - that the only honest translation of a poem is a prose paraphrase. This is clearly implied in Dante's statement, "nothing which is harmonized by the bond of the Muses can be changed from its own to another language without having all its sweetness destroyed". 10 It is the conclusion arrived at most drastically by Nabokov: "The clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase". 11 To say that Dante or Nabokov did themselves produce brilliant verse translation, that the art of poetic translation is almost as old as poetry itself, that it continues intensely alive, is true enough. But it is no refutation. The case for the interlinear or the prose paraphrase is, in fact, a strong one. "It can be met", claims Steiner,
only if the exercise of poetic translation exhibits advantages, means of critical understanding, qualities of linguistic gain which no prose version matches. It must be shown that there is even in the inevitable compromise of verse translation, even in its necessary defeats - perhaps characteristically in these - a creative residue, a margin of experienced if not fully communicated illumination which no trot or prose statement offers. It is precisely this, I think, which can be shown. A "clumsy literal translation" of a living poem is none at all; a prose paraphrase is an important auxiliary, but no more. To find active echo, a poem must incite to a poem. 12
This argument can be extended by contrasting the ranges of prose and poetry; the poem does not accept the routine and short-hand of experience set down in prose and thinned out in the inert figures of daily speech: rather, by constant definition the poem works against the grain of the ordinary and this creative insurgence is the very start of the poem. He admits that though there are styles which appropriate the sinew and directness of prose the two media are in essence different; because it is unalterably itself in its own language, a poem yields little of its genius to prose, and he concludes that even at its most spacious a "prose paraphrase signifies a good deal less to a poem than does a piano transcription to an orchestral score". 13
Though always imperfect, a verse translation, in that it re-presents, re-enacts that selection of language, the specifics and innovation of syntax inseparable from the nature of poetic composition, is said to be more responsible to the purpose, to the movement of spirit in the original than a downward transfer into prose. But this allows for a second point, that poetic translation plays a unique role inside the translator's own speech in that it drives inward and brings about changes in his /her uni-vocal expressions; in significant measure, it seems to me that poetic translations are inherently creative counter-proposals to the constraints and ultimately limiting conditions of all native languages, and in so being, they work as instruments of storage and transmission of legacies of new poetic experiences. The idea is that anyone translating a poem or attempting to, is brought face to face, as by in no other exercise, with the genius, bone-structure and limitations of his native tongue.
[Because that tongue] is our constant landscape, we almost grow oblivious to its horizon, we take it to be the only or privileged space of being. Translation taxes and thus makes inventory of our resources. It compels us to realize that there are raw materials we lack, stocks of feelings, instruments of expression, inlets to awareness which our own linguistic territory does not possess or has failed to exploit. 14
The poetic translator takes larger risks. The circle he traces around the original illuminates not only the text he is translating but his own art and person. From a linguistic point of view, inside a language, synonymy is only very rarely complete equivalence, for re-wording unavoidably produces 'something more or less', therefore definition through rephrasing can only be approximate, self-reflexive and evaluative. Only creative transposition is possible, from one poetic form into another in the same language, which means that in order to transpose creatively one has to alternate the look and relation of things, which sends us back again to the issue. It can be argued that all theories of translation - formal, pragmatic, chronological- are only variants of a single, inescapable question. In what ways can or ought fidelity to be achieved? What is the optimal correlation between the A text in the source language and the B text in the receptor language? The issue has been debated for over two thousand years.
In point of forms and technical achievement, the theory of translations has divided its subject matter, starting with the eighteenth century, into three basic categories. The first is inclusive of "the strict literariness", the face-to-face arrangement of the words in the interlingual dictionary or, the so-called interlinear translation. The second is the larger central area of "transposing" by means of a closer, yet independent rephrasing, in which the translator follows the original closely, but creates a natural and self-existent text in his own language. A third class is represented by the imitation, recreation, variation and interpretative parable of texts. This covers a large and diffuse area that goes from transpositions of the original into a more accessible idiom up to the most liberal, often allusive echoes of the original.