Lost and Found in Translation

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I have read many novels, short stories and poems translated into English from other languages, but I wonder how much of what I read is true to the original intentions of the authors?

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote many short stories and poems, all of them in his native Spanish. Although I did buy one collection in Spanish, my own knowledge of that language has always been too poor for me to do anything other than read it slowly and laboriously and, undoubtedly, to miss many of the nuances in the writing. So for that reason, I’ve had to read them in translation.

And in any case, even if I spoke Spanish well I could do little more than read it as translation in my head. Unless I spoke it like a native speaker, I would still likely miss much that the author intended to convey.

And so I buy translations.

Zima Junction by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko is a long poem that tells of the poet’s visit to his home town in Siberia, having left some years before to go to live and work in a city. It is a beautiful depiction of rural life in Russia at the time, seen afresh after a gap of several years away, and describes the poets now ambiguous relationship with it.

Long poems can be good vehicles for describing journeys; my own poem The Night Bus does just that, and was written because in that instance I could not find any other medium that worked as well to convey what I wanted to say.

Another favourite of mine is Dart by Alice Oswald, which describes a journey from the source to the sea along the River Dart in Devon, England. She gives voices to the various people encountered along this journey, and to the animals living there…Since it is written in English, I am not left with any worry I am missing things the poet wanted to say, other than perhaps my own occasional inability to understand her.

I have a book of poems from North East India. It is an anthology that I bought in India, with contributions from a huge number of poets. A few of them wrote in English, but the majority of them wrote in other languages – some in Bengali, but the majority in one or other of the plethora of languages to be found in the North East States. And, sadly, most of the translations appear to have been done as a straightforward translation word for word, with no thought given to the feeling of the poem. Any rhythm the poems may originally have had seems to have been lost. The sentences are often clunky and uncomfortable to read. Their meanings have become lost in translation.

But Zima Junction has a natural and comfortable rhythm

The translator of a poem has, to my mind, a task that is more difficult than the translator of prose. Yet, paradoxically, they also have more freedom. More difficult, because they have to get across to the reader ideas or meanings that may be partly concealed in idiomatic language used by the author that perhaps we have no parallel for in English, and hence they may have to completely alter the structure of that part. This will affect a line of poetry far more than it would a line of prose. Immediately, the rhythm of the poem is disrupted, the word count of the line changed.

Yet the reader of a poem has a right to expect a poem. And so, strangely, the translator has the freedom to re-write the poem. In the need for the end result of their translation to be a poem, they may have to completely alter much of the structure to enable the translated words to reassemble themselves as a poem. And so the translators of poems must, by essence, be poets themselves.

So to return to Borges and Yevtushenko, when I read the poems I do wonder whether I am actually reading their poems, or someone else’s?

Desert Island Books

There is a weekly program on BBC radio that has been running for almost seventy five years now, called Desert Island Discs. The format is that a well-known, or not so well-known, person is interviewed for forty five minutes on the premise that they are to be stranded on a desert island, and that they can take eight pieces of music with them, so which ones would they choose and why? They are also asked to select a favourite book and a luxury item, and are given the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. This, then, is my take on it, substituting books for pieces of music. The obvious advantage of this is that I don’t have to rescue a gramophone from the shipwreck as I crawl through the surf towards safety. The disadvantage becomes obvious just as soon as I look at our bookshelves or glance through my Goodreads lists. What not to take?

So, I bite the bullet. I think that I’ll do this in a kind of chronological order, and the first choice actually proves to be an easy one; it is The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame. I still have the copy that my father bought for me when I was seven, and this book was probably the first one that I read that had real substance. The story can still captivate me and although there is some surprisingly deep writing for a children’s book of the time (The chapter ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, especially), there is an enchanting innocence flowing through the book, too.

The second book would be The Journey to the East, by Hermann Hesse. I discovered Hesse when I was eighteen and, having ploughed through the mountain of crime novels that we had in our household, this was the first modern ‘serious’ or ‘literary’ work that I had read by choice. At that time I had, of course, been introduced to works such as ‘Sons and Lovers’ and Shakespeare and Dickens, at school, but this was the first time that I had read a book that really seemed to resonate with my life. There are other works by Hesse that are better, and which I enjoy more, but this was probably the single work that changed the way that I read as an adult. A very short, but deceptively deep and complex book, the Journey to the East is ostensibly the story of a movement in Germany in the early years of the last century, based on spirituality and not a few drugs, and charting the spiritual progress of the narrator within this movement. It still has the power to speak to people today, and not just to old hippies!

The third book would be SeleFeatured imagected Poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. I picked up a copy of this second hand when I was really beginning to discover poetry, and was captivated by the long poem Zima Junction, in which he describes  a visit that he makes as an adult to his family home in the small Siberian town of the same name.  Descriptions of eccentric family, strawberry picking, meals and drinking, cart rides in rainstorms…by the end of the poem you feel that you know and understand the countryside and the society there. It is a poem that I continually go back to re-read.

The fourth book would be The Lord of the Rings, by J R R Tolkien. This is another book that I discovered in my late teens. All of my friends and acquaintances at that time were either devouring this book, or Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, and this happened to be the one that I picked up. And, having picked it up, I really did sit up reading it through the night, taking a short nap the following morning and then reading through to the end that evening. I don’t suppose I need to describe it to anyone, since the plot is known to most, either through the book or through the Peter Jackson movies. There is a tendency to denigrate the story in many quarters, yet I feel that this has a lot to do with the fact that elves and dragons are not to everyone’s grown up tastes. The story, though, is well constructed and true to its author’s created world. It is just a damned good page-turner, really.

I have to include a travel book in my list, since I read so many of them, and this is the hardest choice that I would have to make. However, the fifth book would be The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane. When it was released, there was so much praise for it from almost every reviewer who read it, that it seemed impossible that it could ever live up to the hype. But it does. It is a beautiful evocation of all sorts of ancient paths around the world, from Neolithic footprints in the sea to desert trails. It is also a book that should be embraced by anyone with sympathies for the slow book movement.

The sixth book is Devices and Desires by P D James. Although it is not the best murder mystery that I have ever read, or even, perhaps, her best, it was a surprise when I discovered it to find that there were more exciting ways to write in that genre than the ones that I had read before; Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers and others. I read the first chapter and suddenly literary murder seemed dark and terrible, whereas before it always seemed a bit of a jolly game and an intellectual puzzle.

The seventh book is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. One of those books that is technically written for young adults, it is a powerful, emotional rollercoaster of a read. As the Second World War looms, Liesel arrives at her foster home in a suburb of Munich. She has seen her brother die, and been left by her mother who can no longer care for her. Now she has a new family; the foul-mouthed Rosa and her husband Hans. As the family and their neighbours try to survive amidst the increasing horrors of the war, an unexpected visitor comes to stay – Max, a Jew fleeing the slaughter. Funny, sad, devastating and hopeful, often all at once, with a cast of characters you will fall in love with, the book builds to a very powerful climax.

The eighth book is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. My choice has nothing whatsoever to do with the hype and hysteria currently surrounding the release of Go Set a Watchman, but is because I only got around to reading it this year, and found it to be far better than I had imagined it could ever be. And, talking of that hype, in Atticus Finch I discovered a literary hero.

My luxury would be unlimited reams of writing paper and pens. And the book? Uh, I think we’ve covered that one. Perhaps, since I’ve changed the pieces of music to books, I should substitute the choice of a piece of music for the book that the BBC guests choose, but then I’d be back to dragging that gramophone through the surf, and so I really can’t be bothered. It would only spoil the peace and quiet of the island.

‘Thank you, Mick.’

‘No, thank you, Kirsty.’