On translating poetry into bloggish

This entry is part 14 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology

I’m not a real translator, but I play one on my blog. I don’t know the languages I translate from — Spanish, Japanese, Chinese — at all well, and I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable with sending my translations out for publication elsewhere, but I have no qualms about posting them here (and occasionally at Moving Poems), and in fact treat such posting as part of the process. Some of my readers have native fluency in the languages I translate from, and will let me know if I’ve messed something up, especially if I include or link to the original. Others are learners like me, and enjoy putting an oar in on occasion. Plus, anyone with a good ear for poetry in English is qualified to critique a translation to some extent, I think. I am pretty confident that Edward Snow is Rilke’s greatest English translator ever, for example, even though I don’t know a lick of German — his translations just feel right. And I am equally confident that some perfectly fine poets fall short as translators because, no matter the language they’re working with, their translations always sound exactly like their own poems.

Several times I have solicited feedback on difficult phrases, sparking interesting and useful discussions, both here and on Facebook. Last June, for example, I asked for help with a line from a poem by Jorge Tellier, and the responses from people with better Spanish than me was sufficiently contradictory that in the end the arbitrariness of my choice was scarcely diminished — but it was a much better informed choice than it otherwise would have been. In December 2009, my posting of some annotated translations of Buson’s haiku elicited, among other things, a helpful response from a Dutch translator (and Twitter contact) who had written an entire essay about one of the poems discussed. Back when Via Negativa was still on Blogger, a lengthy exchange with an Indian student of classical Japanese (subsequently lost — curse you, Haloscan!) helped me whip my translations of tanka by Izumi Skikibu into shape. Which was a good thing, since that post has drawn a lot of search-engine traffic over the years. Such crowd-sourced collaboration is of course one of the great distinguishing features of literature on the web, and it’s a source of conviviality and delight.

Including the original texts sometimes involves copyright violation, but since this is a “just” a blog and I can take down anything right away if the current copyright holder complains, I don’t feel I need to go through the hassle of trying to track down said copyright holders to gain permission. A strict interpretation of international copyright law would also deem the translations themselves to be in violation, as derivative works, but I tend to agree with the spirit of “fair use” in U.S. copyright law that holds that a sufficiently creative transformation of source material shouldn’t require special permission. Still, as managaing editor for qarrtsiluni, I felt we had to take quite a stricter line for submissions to our current Translation issue. And I got to see first-hand how hard it can be to locate copyright holders for works whose authors have died more recently than 70 years ago (the point at which they enter the public domain).

Online dictionaries are one of the greatest things on the web, right up there with Google and blogging, and when you’re a dilettante translator whose knowledge of the source language barely covers the grammar and a basic vocabulary, good dictionaries are a must. Nor is it only foreign-language dictionaries I depend on; English dictionaries with lots of synonyms and/or online thesauruses are also helpful in grinding out translations quickly enough to satisfy the ever-voracious blog. Translating a poem is just like writing an original poem, only more so: that constant groping for just the right word is rendered all the more acute by the need to stay faithful to a template. And with a closely related language like Spanish, one has to constantly struggle against the impulse to use the cognate, or the first word given by the bilingual dictionary (which often is the cognate). Plus, I like to search for other translations online and see what they’ve done — knowing that this will put even more pressure on me to come up with something original.

Note by the way that “original” doesn’t necessarily mean “unique.” Often the best choice, or at least one of the best choices, will indeed turn out to be the most obvious one, but that decision should only be arrived at through struggle. This is what originality means for a writer: to dive down to the origins of language and meaning as often as possible.

This kind of part-time, half-serious translating for the blog may seem irresponsible, but for me, it’s a way of paying homage to literary heroes and sharing my enthusiasm for their work — and what is blogging about if not the sharing of enthusiasms? Sometimes it takes a more serious cast: when Hondurans were fighting against a coup government in the summer of 2009, I blogged a six-part series of Honduran poetry, trying to show how some of the country’s leading writers have perceived its political, social and economic situation over the decades with poems by Oscar Acosta, Roberto Sosa, Clementina Suarez and others. One of my more astute readers responded: “Thanks for dwelling with Honduras. There seems to be some glare at this time that keeps me from seeing too far into the poems, but still I get a feeling of being somehow present in that landscape where I’ve scarcely, but memorably, been.” I’d like to think I got beneath the surface of two or three of the 16 poems I translated for the series, but in general, yes — I’m afraid there was a bit of surface glare.

If I did know the source languages well, would I still feel compelled to attempt translations? I am far from the first poet to treat translation as a species of decipherment. And I’ve been assured by a few professional translators that there’s nothing wrong with this, that it’s considered perfectly respectable within their discipline. That’s all to the good, I suppose. But I am still going to self-identify as an apprentice translator, because translating poetry for me is very much an act of apprenticeship: I want to study how master poets have played with language and meaning. I want to practice slow reading of the most deliberate kind.

In general, as a writer, I try and work on cultivating a better quality of attention to the world around me, and translating helps me do that. We flatter ourselves that we understand a little about the inner workings of the universe, but every day brings news of fresh discoveries from biologists and physicists that turn accepted ideas on their head. And if even the scientists don’t know what’s going on, where does that leave the rest of us, who probably can’t identify half the species in our own back yards, let alone begin to untangle their relationships? To say nothing of the mysteries of human nature and society.

So in a very real sense, every act of writing is an act of translation, and every honest effort to translate involves “going to the pine,” to paraphrase Basho. How can I translate another’s words when I have yet to interpret my own? For example, I have been writing about darkness forever, but just yesterday an online friend from the city on his first writers’ retreat deep in the country marveled: it’s dark here! I was struck by the realization that although we’ve been in conversation for severn years and have talked about concepts of light and darkness more than once, he and I have had very different ideas about this word “darkness” all that time.

Languages too are full of mysteries. I’ve done just enough translating to experience the rare joy of a serendipitous echo across the gulf between languages — a kind of discovery hardly differing from those one makes when writing one’s own poem and suddenly learning what it is one really thinks or feels. There’s more than one way to rescue something from that great blankness beyond language. Everyone talks about what’s lost in translation, but you rarely hear about the found things, which are of course equally numerous. Regular readers may recall this list of things I’ve found in one sort of translation or another:

  • The steam that rises from a slaughtered hog on a cool morning in October, mingling with our breath.
  • The missing links from a game of Chinese whispers, complete with shrugs.
  • A hole in the wall just big enough for an empty hand, a hand without a fist in it.
  • A spotted feather dropped by a striped bird.
  • The tribal woman pressing her face into the anthropologist’s wet clay, then raising her head and laughing, so that flakes of clay fly off.
  • A formula for silence that doesn’t involve wind or distance.
  • The reptile claws of ferns before there were fiddles.
  • The self-censorship of clouds on a clear day.
  • Tears of a potato rendered chemically unable to sprout.
  • A nest of spray cans under the railroad trestle and the deep-sea visions of those who used them in lieu of oxygen.
  • The royal carpet a thistle extends to bees.
  • The silver hair of water going over the concrete spillway that no one stops to look at on their way to the pig roast.
  • Young thrushes practicing their song over the noise of the mining trucks, perched in the shadow of the disappeared mountain.
  • A stranger’s finger on your face, causing you to forget your own name for a few seconds.
  • Foghorns and their incidental summons to a new life.

Of course I blogged this as if it were a poem, as if it were something original to me. The comments were forgiving: “A waking dream,” offered one. Yes, that too. Such imprecision would doubtless make a professional translator balk.

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24 Comments


  1. Well, as a professional translator: agreeing to take down a translation if someone complains doesn’t make it any more legal or ethical to post it in the first place. Many writers are very concerned – especially if they do not have a reputation in the language that one is translating into. A “debut” of any sort with a poor translation can harm their reputation and does leave you open to legal action. “Only a blog” won’t hold water because, if anything, it is even more available to a google search.

    You are only safe from this kind of thing if you are translating from countries that have not signed the international agreements (Afghanistan and some others I can’t remember off-hand.). While they are not laws, they are recognized agreements and will be enforced in the country you live in under its own copyright laws. A translation isn’t considered fair use. Although, having said that, I agree with everything you said about translation being a fantastic apprenticeship. – Sorry to be a wet blanket.

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    1. Just to clarify, I realize that “fair use” doesn’t actually apply to works originating outside the U.S., I just think it’s a good model. I happen to feel strongly that translations are, in fact, as original as any work in close response to another — an ekphrastic poem, for example — so I’m afraid I don’t recognize any kind of ethical claim to the contrary. Trying to control how and whether other people explicate one’s work is absurd, and fundamentally that’s what a translation is: a detailed explication in another language. As for reproducing the texts, that’s legally suspect too, as I’ve acknowledged. But it’s very much in the spirit of the widespread blogging practice of reproducing whole poems for the purposes of explication, so again, since I’m not making any money here (in fact, spending it), since my use is transformative, and since my purpose is to promote and critique, I don’t have an ethical conflict about it.

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  2. Thanks for this — I feel pretty similarly about the translations I do blogside, although mine are mostly prose rather than poetry and I try to stick with either work which is out of copyright or short excerpts of copyrighted work. The blogging translation has inspired me to try and publish some translations, with a bit of success — my first translated story will be published in September at Words Without Borders.

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    1. Hey, good deal! I really like that journal. Thanks for the comment. Yeah, if I were wise, I’d stick to out-of-copyright works, but… death plus 70 years? You gotta be kidding me! No freakin’ way.

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  3. All that is interesting, and I feel entirely sympathetic to what you say. However, I also feel sympathetic to what Renkat says!

    The fact is, we play rather fast and loose with texts and images when it comes to blogging… and I believe that it does erode copyright protections. There ought to be an international directory for writers like the Poets & Writers directory in the U.S. Maybe there is. Wouldn’t it be nice to touch base with the writer along the way?

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    1. Marly, clearly the ethical approach to things involves stopping and asking, “If everyone did what I am doing, what would happen?” If the answer in this case is “erode copyright protections,” then I feel I am doing the Lord’s work.

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        1. Consider the source, eh? :)

          Outside of this instance, I am very hesitant to make free with others’ works here, as you might’ve noticed. With Smorgasblog, for example, I try hard to quote only a sample rather than the whole thing, though sometimes I break that rule for very short poems.

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    2. Of course, I doubt very much that anybody could possibly track down all such things that are happening in the blogosphere! Or that anyone would want to discourage the Bontasaurus from translating his or her work.

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  4. I understand your standpoint and your views on copyright. The fact is that posting translations is playing legal Russian roulette really, if you get a writer who has strong feelings about his or her work being published without permission you can be sued. It won’t be a matter of whether you earned money off it, it is a matter of damaging someone’s reputation. I am not writing this to inform you, I’m sure you know this. But the people reading your blog may think that opinion matters when there are laws in place that can be enforced whether we like it or not. Everyone breaking the law doesn’t make it legal. Knowing one is participating in a kind of literary civil disobedience is fine, but one should know the potential legal consequences.

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    1. That’s cool. I appreciate your adding these notes for the edification of readers.

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  5. Marly, a google alert will track down online mentions. It is pretty easy. And I have met plenty of writers – worked with plenty of writers on translations, who mind very much… Most countries do have unions or guilds that can help you track down a writer. You can also write to the publishers. Most writers aren’t difficult to track down.

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    1. Renkat,

      Well, I was being carried away by the Bontasaurus….

      I suppose that I have been spoiled–publishers have arranged all my translations, and that gives one a certain amount of security in both legal matters and in the quality of the translator, one hopes. But it is certainly true that there are many sorts of writers and many sorts of translators, and that there is a sort of free-for-all spirit on the web that tends to eliminate or ignore gatekeepers. And that can lead to all sorts of translation issues, I imagine. The law of unforeseen consequences kicks in.

      And then there is the issue of translators needing to make a living as well… Although that is probably not too applicable to poetry except in a very few cases.

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      1. If our experience at qarrtsiluni is any indication, getting permission from living authors tends to be relatively easy, as Ren says (presuming one knows the language well enough to draft a letter in it). It’s the not-so-famous, out-of-print authors who have been dead for several decades who are a bit harder. Alex Cigale also assures me that it’s acceptable practice to go ahead and publish translations for which one has failed to track down the copyright holder, accompanied by a note stating that a reasonable effort had been made. I’d still feel nervous doing that if I were a print publisher, though.

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        1. I have corresponded with a dead author’s agent, so I suppose that works some of the time–and one can always extract something out of a publisher, though that may take repeated effort. But now there are people publishing without agents or publishers… should add some extra difficulty in the future!

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  6. Whenever I get terribly frustrated with the in’s and out’s of translation rights and copyrights, I remember that if there had been such a thing as copyright in the 16th Century we wouldn’t have any of Shakespeare’s work.

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      1. I mean, when I think that copyrights should be respected and all questionable use siding with “don’t” touch – I think how sad a place the world would be without Shakespeare’s version of all those stories… It reminds me to think more in terms of long-term contributions to culture. Not the who but the what.

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  7. Gosh, having read carefully everything you and Ren have to say, I just don’t know what to think about the copyright issue for translators – what a wuss!

    I do know what I think about translation and your translations in particular: it isn’t a perfect command of two languages that makes a good translator, and all the more especially of poetry. Especially in these days of all the great online vocabulary sources, a successful translator is a sensitive, attentive reader and a good writer in their own language. Your translations are fantastically good, always a pleasure to read, and I loved the Hernandez poems. Orhan Pamuk’s translator, Maureen Freely, is always saying that she feels a bit of a fraud because, although she spent much of her childhood in Turkey, her Turkish isn’t perfect. She’s a writer and novelist herself and obviously has a deep feeling for Turkish, even if her knowledge isn’t perfect. Her translations are wonderful.

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    1. Well, geez, thanks for that, Jean. Your good opinion means a lot to me. (And if you notice anything in the Hernandez translations that doesn’t quite seem right, please don’t hold back.)

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  8. I hope Jean (and everyone) realizes my objections and references to poor quality are entirely hypothetical in regard to the legal issues at hand. The determination of whether a work is of such poor quality as to damage a reputation is something an author might claim, ABSOLUTELY nothing that I was accusing Dave of having done :-)

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    1. Nice of you to clarify that, Ren, but I’m sure no one thought you were casting aspersions on my translation!

      I was thinking that if the legally approved permissions process actually did prevent piss-poor translations from getting published, I might re-think my opposition to it. But I haven’t seem much evidence of that, have you?

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      1. Can’t say I have… mine included. Actually, having dinner with my kid tonight I heard myself talking about how Shakespeare was really not a single genius, but the final chain in the development of great stories told in great verse. You are a confusing, if not corrupting influence, Dave.

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        1. I refuse to believe that your translations are anything but inspired.

          No corrupting at all? Nuts.

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