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Lost in Translation

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

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!