When I was flying back from my time in Rome, I sat next to an American translator. I expressed my usual amazement and admiration for a person who could, I assumed, speak two languages with native sensitivity (I can't even do that with one). But then he revealed to me the translator's dirty secret, and it wasn't hubris. “It's not that I speak Italian very well,” he said. “It's that I speak English very well.”
Aha! Paradigm shift to emphasizing fluency in the recipient culture, and suddenly you're an expert, not an impostor. All attempts at translation are doomed to fail, but if you have a grasp of how to elucidate concepts in the absorbing argot, you can at least gesture in the direction of the original.
Douglas Hofstadter wrote a wonderful book about translation (and everything else) that spiraled out of attempts to translate a bit of French doggerel. Read it, but if you don't have time, I will sum up the six hundred pages of Le Ton Beau de Marot here: undertaking translation is undertaking everything; not “just” the words in front of you, but every iota of social history and personal experience that both sides bring to the equation. And, yes—some translations are empirically better than others.
That's why I reread War and Peace when the electrically charged Pevear/Volkonsky translation came out. It had a haiku-like narrative concentration and emotional intensity that resonated with Tolstoy in a way my dry old Penguin paperback never had. I was also a different person, fifteen years later, so there was a fresh translation between Tolstoy's mind and my heart. We translate between languages, ages, and cultures, but we also translate between moments in different people's journeys, and that may be the most difficult translation of all. Reading it at the age Tolstoy was when he wrote it, I was primed to commune with the mind that thought up that warm, flawed, human cast of characters. At an earlier or later point in my own evolution, I would have related differently. Seen and missed different things.
We are all always translating. The minute we externalize an element of our internal landscape, we're translating. The act of communicating a part of ourselves is a game of telephone. As soon as we decide to share, we lose something, by choosing how to frame our ideas so they have the best chance of optimally fertilizing the other person's brain. We have a big hazy mess of idea, but we can only send so much of it down the telephone wire. And whatever the other person receives is not going to be exactly what was inside us, and it's not going to be exactly what we said, either: it's going to be some new third thing.
The more like us our recipient is, the (theoretically) greater chance we have that the information we disseminate will be interpreted in a way that harmonizes with our original intent. But more often than not, we're trying to communicate with people who are not clones of ourselves. They come from San Francisco and you come from Buenos Aires. They're a computer programmer and you're a massage therapist. And then there's the most intriguing translation of all, from which all social dance and most poetry springs: the act of communicating with someone of the opposite sex.
Patently improbable? Sure. There's a reason they call them opposite sexes. But it's also patently improbable to achieve enlightenment, and that doesn't stop monks from devoting their lives to the pursuit (ok, the non-pursuit) of that state. We'll never get there. But it's lots of fun trying. And pretty much everything worthwhile in life and in history is the result of people chasing impossible dreams. We learn what the journey is by what we collect en route.
I once loved a man who lived far away. So the only way I could be with him was with my words. Writing to a man was wonderful literary practice, because I had to pick a point, get straight to it, and then shut up. He wanted to hear what I had to say, and there was a chance he might even understand some of it, but I couldn't allow myself to dillydally. Men teach us forward momentum, from which I learned the artistic power of choice. Save your fatty ramblings for your mother. When there's one word, it means everything. When there's a thousand, they mean nothing.
Choice is particularly explosive when translating poetry. There's a boggling amount of telephone-game going on: idea to language, culture to culture, word choice to word choice, and that's just the beginning. We have to choose which aspect of the poem we think is most key in getting the idea across. Is it meter? Rhyme? Literal meaning? Word play? Sound? Do we choose blank verse over ruled lines if we think that will get the flavour across better? Do we say it the way someone in our culture would express the same idea, in which case Hector Varela's “Silueta Porteña” becomes Roy Orbison's “Pretty Woman” and a lot is lost, but on the other hand, something fundamental remains that we might lose if we stuck too literally to the words? Maybe we step away from the words in order to step closer to the general feeling. Or we actually change the specifics of the poem so that its gestalt will make the journey less disastrously.
Tango songs lend themselves particularly insidiously to translation. It can't be done. We can't translate the culture, history, slang, life experience, etc that are the dirt from which the songs grow, but more than that, we can't translate the raw feeling that grabs us by the gizzard when we hear our pet favourite tangos. The best ones are the authors' hearts and souls bleeding all over the sheet music. You don't need a translator for them. You need a mop. But because they're such outpourings of emotion, we connect with them, and they burrow around in us like tapeworms, driving us nuts until we have to do something about them.
You can't win. But it's lots of fun trying. You shouldn't inflict your horrible poetry translations on other people, either, except as a spur to salon-style intellectual games where you all try to do marginally less poorly than the others. None of you will get it right—which is actually quite freeing: if you know beforehand that every choice you make will be crap, you can play however you want. But the process of translating is the process of being in the moment with that poem. And as such, it is dancing.
Oigo Tu Voz I Hear Your Voice
Mario Canaro y Francisco García Jiménez One of my (shameless) translations
Miedo de morir, Dread of dying,
ansia de vivir, longing for living,
sueño o realidad? dream or reality?
Algo quiere ser Some sun wants to rise
un amanecer within my loneliness
en mi soledad Forgotten songs
Canto que olvide abandoned places
sitios que dejé lost joys
dicha que perdi Today they all return
Hoy en la emocíon flooding into in my heart!
de mi corazón
todo vuelve a mi!
Oigo tu voz I hear your voice
la que mi oído no olvida it's what my ear won't forget
Me trae tu voz Your voice brings my hidden pain
hasta mi pena escondida the sunshine of life
la luz y la vida I return to hear
de un rayo de sol your voice speak my name
Vuelvo a escuchar without knowing
el nombre mío en tu acento if it's that word I hear
sin descifrar the lying wind
si es la palabra que siento just some crazy dream
mentira del viento
delirio, no más
Tiemblo por saber I tremble to know
si en mi puerta estás are you at my door
si es tu proprio voz is that your own voice
y no quiero abrir I don't want to open up
para no llorar let the tears come out
muerta mi ilusíon for the death of my crazy dream
Déjame pensar Allow me to think
que a salvar viendras you'll come back to save
el deshecho amor our forsaken love
Déjame creer Allow me to believe
que eres siempre, al fin, always, in the end,
tú mejor que yo! you're better than I!
Oigo Tu Voz I Hear Your Voice
Mario Canaro y Francisco García Jiménez Another of my (shameless) translations
Miedo de morir, Dread of death,
ansia de vivir, angst of life,
sueño o realidad? dream or truth?
Algo quiere ser Something's got to dawn
un amanecer because I can't go on
en mi soledad in my solitude
Canto que olvide Long-forgotten song
sitios que dejé, places left behind
dicha que perdi fickle fortune abandoned me
Hoy en la emocíon Today my heart wells up
de mi corazón it all rushes back to me!
todo vuelve a mi!
Oigo tu voz I hear your voice
la que mi oído no olvida the one my ears can't forget
Me trae tu voz I chase your voice
hasta mi pena escondida that shines on my secret pain
la luz y la vida the light and the life
de un rayo de sol of a ray of the sun
Vuelvo a escuchar I'm back listening
el nombre mío en tu acento your lips lilt my name
sin descifrar I can't even tell
si es la palabra que siento if it's a word that I feel
mentira del viento a lie of the wind
delirio, no más delirium, no more
Tiemblo por saber Trembling to know
si en mi puerta estás, is that truly you at my door
si es tu propria voz, is that truly your voice I hear
y no quiero abrir I can't open that door
para no llorar I don't want the dream to die
muerta mi ilusión I don't want to have to cry
Déjame pensar Let me think one day
que a salvar viendras you'll remake our unmade love
el deshecho amor Let me believe, in the end,
Déjame creer you're a better man than I!
que eres siempre, al fin,
tú mejor que yo!