Forum / strannikov @ the Center for Translation Studies

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    Mar 12, 12:43am

    Shortly after beginning to post verse compositions here @ Fictionaut, I undertook a search of YouTube presentations that I thought might help me gain an appreciation for poetic craft.

    An early resource was the series of (ten?) Mycroft Lectures presented by Dr. Andrew Barker, many of which I viewed more than two or three times depending on the poem and the poet.

    By the end of 2021 and into 2022, after beginning to embark on paraphrases and adaptations of foreign language poetry already translated into English (again, with a view to expanding my perspectives on practices of poetic craft), I found YouTube videos from Rainer Schulte, founder and director of the Center for Translation Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas and editor of Translation Review. His presentations on Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarme, and Bonnefoy I found particularly informed and helpful, so in late summer 2022 finding his address online, I sent him some of the paraphrases and adaptations I had posted @ Fictionaut, hoping maybe for polite acknowledgment and encouragement.

    Some months passed, during which I sometimes wondered whether my unsolicited mail had gotten lost in transit. I was therefore amazed to get an email communication from Professor Schulte in August 2023 and still more amazed to receive an invitation to be a guest on his CTS podcast "Translating the World" series.

    Our podcast episode was recorded on 1 February and was posted on 20 February:

    (Episode 28 follows the podcast with a CTS colleague of Schulte's and translator of the comparatively recent Romanian novel Solenoid, both of which have been well received. An earlier podcast with translator Mark Polizzotti deals in part with his 2022 [publ.--NYRB] transl. of Rimbaud's The Drunken Boat. Professor Schulte also has a recent YouTube feature with guest Patricio Ferrari, co-translator of a series of works by Fernando Pessoa [et al., under his numerous heteronyms].)

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    David Ackley
    Mar 12, 01:17pm

    Congratulations, Edward! I'm looking forward to listening to it.

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    Mar 20, 01:49am

    Professor Schulte's CTS colleague, btw, is Sean Cotter. His acclaimed 2022 translation is of the 2015 novel by Mircea Cărtărescu.

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    Apr 21, 12:49pm

    The following "Notes" (here offered as a postscript) were assembled prior to recording the podcast in February but which found no place in the podcast itself given the spontaneity of the exchange there.

    = = =


    I here want to pose and address three questions—

    One: what is it that I do when I compose a paraphrase or adaptation of a poem already translated into English?

    Two: why do I engage in such work? and

    Three: how do I go about this task when tackling a specific project?

    (Herein, do keep in mind that, except at the very end, I restrict my comments to my adaptations of poems and poetry translated into English from French, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese sources.)

    The late scholar of Chinese language and Chinese philosophical history Angus Graham, in the Introduction to his volume Poems of the Late T’ang, repeated the sensible approach known among translators, that “there are few exceptions to the rule that translation is best done into, not out of, one’s own language.”

    For my purposes the most notable exception to this rule cited by Graham might be the task of translating into one’s own language from out of one’s own language.

    When working in prose in satiric mode, I sometimes joke about the stark need for English-to-English translation in the American public discourse of today.

    In satiric moods or no, when approaching poems and poetry, I do engage in “English-to-English translation” with comparatively serious intent.

    I think of myself as an English-to-English translator, in the innocent terms of George Steiner’s observation that “to understand is to decipher, to hear significance is to translate”. Steiner’s observation makes sense at least as far as we’re willing to assert that poetic composition—both between languages and within languages—constitutes or qualifies as “translation”.

    In no way do I aim to challenge or undermine the work of competent and capable translators, for whom I have deep respect and upon whose work I do in fact depend.

    In approaching my work, I enjoy the benefit of working with texts that have already been identified by literary historians, critics, and translators as “works of merit”, as accomplished poetic achievements. Selecting texts to work with is therefore easy, and I can then choose works that (one) have impressed me favorably and (two) are available in multiple and various translations.

    My paraphrases and adaptations embody my striving to come to terms with practices of poetic craft and craftsmanship, as executed by the original author in the original language and as attained by the capable translator who has rendered a perfectly acceptable translation into English. Sometimes I do take liberties with the texts I work with (sometimes considerable liberties). These flights and departures, this “stretching” of content or expression, occur not because I can credibly impute such “stretched” content or expression to the language of the original text but because I think or believe that I can find a way to enlarge upon or augment the scope of the source text without inflicting serious damage.

    I am telling my readers only how I hear and read translations—while continuing to learn how to compose original work in English that only I can compose. I paraphrase and adapt English translations, that is, to help me learn about the nature of poetry and the insights it offers, the structures and contents and forms that poetry exhibits, and those instances of human experience foreign to me: because I am continuing to labor to compose original work in English.

    Obviously, this is but one way to come to terms with the composition of poetry. I cannot say whether it takes more or less effort than simply reading and studying excellent poems composed in English over the years, decades, and centuries: but I can and do say that studying poetic craft as practiced in foreign languages—remote in time and space from the United States of 2024—I find richly rewarding and immensely instructive when not utterly invaluable.

    If I have at least begun to address satisfactorily the first two questions I posed at the outset, let me spend my remaining time addressing three specific instances of how I have worked.

    When paraphrasing or adapting a poem already translated into English, my practice is to work with at least two separate translations (the more, the merrier): the tension this offers is akin to that of a tightrope in perhaps more than a merely metaphorical sense. With the help of the translators I rely upon, I am eager to enter the imagination and the perspective of the original author: I am looking to gain insight into the poet’s experience and into the creation of that specific poem. As I read each work through, I
    gain a sense of what kind of prosody or syllabic count or cadence will suit my purpose, arriving at my own intuitions and decisions about diction and word order, how to measure the lines, how to achieve poetic effect while hoping to arrive at something at least approximate to the original poetic content and poetic form. While reconfiguring existing English translations, I do sometimes consult bilingual dictionaries for guidance (French, Russian, and Japanese, particularly).

    The first piece of translated poetry I ever thought to adapt and paraphrase is a piece known as “The Ten Ox-herding Pictures of Kaku-an”. Early versions of this text began to appear in Chinese in the Sung Dynasty period (sometime in the eleventh or twelfth century of the Common Era) and were elaborated and enhanced over succeeding centuries. Sometime afterward, a late version was translated into Japanese to become something of a Zen classic. (The ten four-line poems of the work usually accompany ten evocative illustrations, and/or vice versa.)

    I came across the piece as an undergraduate in a philosophy textbook whose author and publisher had excerpted the translation from Paul Reps. I did not come across a second translation of the work until almost two decades later, that provided by D. T. Suzuki.

    My version entailed a line-by-line summation of my sense of what the two translations were each saying. Once I had each line of the forty-line work accounted for, I went back four-lined poem by four-lined poem to even out any semantic or any auditory perturbations that struck my ears or eyes, smoothing out the diction to gain some consistency, regulating line length as I saw fit or was able to manage, and all the while keeping as close attention as I could apply to the narrative sequence of the given imagery.

    My paraphrase of “The Ten Ox-herding Pictures” works as well and as poorly as it does: but the effort in assembling it was a necessary labor for me in beginning to come to terms with the attainment of a mature poetic craft. This effort gave me sufficient encouragement to continue my work (but let no one blame Kaku-an —or Paul Reps or D. T. Suzuki, for that matter—for my defects and deficiencies).

    About a decade later I wound up attacking the Chinese classic Dao De Jing in its eighty-one chapter entirety by consulting seven English translations based upon both older manuscript traditions and manuscript discoveries from the late twentieth century.

    In going on to adapt poems by Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Reverdy, by Pushkin, Gumilyov, Akhmatova, and Khlebnikov, by Liu Ch’e, T’ao Ch’ien, Du Fu, Li Bai, and Han-shan, by Saigyo and Yosa Buson, I have been able in most cases to work with three or four (or more) translations to produce my own versions.

    I’ll now begin to close by mentioning one other piece of paraphrasing and adaptation I derived from two available translations. This piece is unique in my output because it is, in truth and in fact, an “English-to-English” translation in at least two senses, since the text I worked on is an excerpt from the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf.

    “The Lay of the Last Survivor” appears in lines 2247 through 2266 of the epic. I relied chiefly on the two translations I had at hand: that of Charles W. Kennedy and that of Seamus Heaney. —but oddly, in this one case, I was able to rely also on George Orwell.

    Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language”, readers may recall, offers a summons to writers of English prose at least to acquaint themselves with contemporary English words derived from Anglo-Saxon roots. Years ago, taking Orwell at his word, I consulted the helpful Dictionary of Indo-European Roots assembled by Calvert Watkins that served as an appendix to early editions of The American Heritage Dictionary and which later was issued itself in at least two editions as a separate volume.

    Using Watkins’s Dictionary, I compiled a glossary of almost eleven-hundred contemporary English words—nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, prepositions—having roots in native Anglo-Saxon soil. As I began to consult the Kennedy and Heaney translations of Beowulf, I consulted my glossary to keep my version as far within the bounds of Orwell's summons as I could manage, hoping not to mangle text or meaning as I did so.

    As I close I want to reiterate that, in composing my paraphrases and adaptations, I do not find myself dissatisfied at all with the works of the competent and able translators of poetry upon which and upon whom I rely: in fact and in deed, I have found their work to permit me to participate in their work of getting to the heart of poetic craft, poetic practice, poetic composition, and poetic inspiration.


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