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Can poetry in translation ever be as poetic in its new language?

by Roger Pulvers

A friend who was visiting recently from Germany posed me a difficult question: How can poetry be translated?

I have often read that poetry is untranslatable, that “nothing is lost in translation except the poetry.” Yet, if this were true, we would hardly be able to read, let alone appreciate, poets writing in other languages than our own.

In fact, great poetry really is translatable.

The Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) put his finger on the difficulty of the task when he wrote that reliable translators get the literal meaning right, but may miss the tone; and he added that in poetry, tone is everything.

What Pasternak meant by this, I believe, is that textual correctness — the literal meaning of the original — is a prerequisite of a good translation, but not the deciding factor in the art. It is akin to actors getting their lines down. Memorizing lines alone does not make for a good performance.

Fine, but then what is meant by “tone”?

Another Nobel Prize winner like Pasternak, Chinese-born Gao Xingjian (1940- ) writes . . . “If the language of a written work lacks vitality, then however often lines of poetry are pulled apart and put together . . . it cannot salvage the language.”

Is tone, then, this “vitality”? Is it “musicality,” a quality that Gao strives to achieve in his own writing?

Perhaps the answer to this — and the key to capturing a poem’s messages and signals in translation — lies in the word “voice.” This would be my answer to my friend’s question: that a poem has to speak to readers in the translated language with the same voice it does to readers of the original.

The translated poem has to come naturally out of the voice of the translator in the new language. In other words, no matter how “faithful” it is to the text and the spirit of the original, it has to be a poem in its own right.

But this may be begging the question, which is the “how” of it. How do you get a new poem that sounds and feels like the original and stands independently as a poem at the same time?

In translating from languages that are linguistically unrelated, such as Japanese and English, the key to the “how” lies in the word “re-creation.” You don’t just translate the words. You absorb the poem and assimilate it in a process that can only be described as “organic.” Then, to mix the metaphor, you drag it through a wormhole into another universe, one controlled by the laws of your own language. Actually, this is the wrenching and harrowing process one must follow even when translating from and into two related languages; although in the case of unrelated ones, a few more dimensions must be skipped through in order to get to the destination.

Let’s take that most famous poem, “Ame ni mo makezu” by Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933), which is known to virtually all Japanese. Makezu is a negative form of the verb makeru, which means here “to give in to, to yield to.” A literal translation of this line might be . . . “Not giving in to the rain” . . . or . . . “Unyielding to the rain.”

These, of course, are perfectly correct. Miyazawa is expressing his desire not to let the rain get to him, not to let it conquer him. He must continue on, to sacrifice himself for the good of other people. (This poem is a prayerful wish, portraying the kind of person that he strove to be.) The poem repeats negative forms of makeru, to urge this person not to give in to the wind or the summer heat or the snow.

Translators ask themselves what seems like the simplest question: What is the poem trying to say?

In this case, Miyazawa, who did not have a robust constitution, is wishing for the strength to carry out his charitable duties, as he sees them. In some cases, translators should familiarize themselves exhaustively with the circumstances surrounding the poet’s life; and in Miyazawa’s case, this is essential. What was life like a century ago in the small town of Hanamaki in Iwate Prefecture, where he was born and made his life? Why was he so intent on persevering to help the poor farmers of the district, despite the personal hardships?

The voice of the translation of this poem has to have the musicality, the rhythm, the tone and the quality of a prayer. To use another word often associated with translations of poems, it has to have the “flow” of a sustained, quiet wish.

I chose in my translation of this poem, published in a collection of Miyazawa’s poetry by the British publisher Bloodaxe Books, to reverse the negative of the opening lines into a statement of positive will. A faithful translation between Japanese and English, either way, should often do this. Watashi wa zettai ni makenai! may be literally rendered as “I absolutely won’t give in!” But, in some instances, this is closer in tone and voice to “I’m definitely going to get through it!” The wormhole of re-creation turns a negative force into a positive one, and the resulting language has a quality that mirrors the language in the realm of the original.

So, I took the first three “I won’t give in to” lines and made them into this . . .

Strong in the rain Strong in the wind Strong against the summer heat and snow

Distancing yourself from the syntax of the original may be the way to get closest to that original.

I am in no way claiming that this is the only valid translation of these lines. Far from it. I am only saying that translators have to remake the poem in the qualities, both concrete and abstract, of their own language.

In this particular poem, the first words of the first three lines are ame (rain), kaze (wind) and yuki (snow). These words create an image of Miyazawa’s Iwate. Due to the differing word order of English, it is hardly possible to start the lines with these words; yet the voice of this poem requires that there be an emphatic rhythm from the outset. Beginning with a negative of a verb, to my mind, sends this poem off on a tangential journey.

Poems can still exist as poems in translation, if the translators are deeply inspired by the original and have assimilated it sufficiently to re-create it in their own language. The “how” requires a thorough knowledge of the original’s context, as well as technical creative skills in the translator’s own language.

When it works, a poet’s messages resound in a new universe, and we recognize that we share our sentiments — our very humanity — with people who have lived a world away from us.