Verse translation — translating poems as poems — is perhaps the most difficult and underappreciated task any writer can be tasked with. Doing so usually requires fluent command (though, as Douglas Hofstadter proves, there are exceptions) of both the original language and the target one, command that extends beyond just communication standards but knowledge of poetic norms. For example: Is reproduction of a rhyme scheme viable? a metrical structure? If it is not, how does one go about reproducing the “flavor” of the thing?
Naturally, despite the difficulty of the work, verse translators often labor in obscurity, with their names invoked only after the originator. So one might say, for example, “Hofstadter’s Pushkin” or “Falen’s Pushkin” when referring to different translations of Eugene Onegin, or “Fitzgerald’s Aeneid vs. Fagles’ Aeneid vs. Lombardo’s Aeneid, and so on (though in this case the name of the work has become inseparable from its originator, i.e. Virgil).
Yet verse translation, despite its thanklessness, is necessary. Prose can only go so far in translating a work of literature — indeed, it turns everything into novels. You lose some sense of the epic in Graves’ execrable translation of Pharsalia — or his prose renditions of Homer and Virgil which I vaguely recall reading in middle school — and a prose translation of Eugene Onegin loses its sense of verse-ness and hence the bulk of Pushkin’s punch.
In This Craft of Verse, Borges points out that “the translator’s work is always supposed to be inferior — or what is worse, is felt to be inferior” (“Word-Music and Translation”, pg. 65) despite the fact that he holds Campbell’s translation “When all the house was hushed” to be superior to San Juan de la Cruz’s original “estando ya mi casa sosegada” (pgs 60-65 ff). Why should this be?
Perhaps Borges has tripped himself up by his own choice of language here (recall Wittgenstein). It isn’t necessarily “inferiority”, which implies the original’s superiority; it’s that we feel the translator is somehow a broker, a go-between allowing us access to the original despite the fact that we cannot read the language. Thus, for example, unless they have name their names elsewhere, as Nabokov or Hofstadter e.g. have, we tend to ignore the translator’s efforts in allowing us access to this or that famous work. How many of us, for example, know that William Weaver translated Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose for our reading pleasure?
Seen from this perspective, translation is little more than ghostwriting with a byline.
Tellingly, perhaps, Borges never translated his own texts, despite being bilingual more-or-less from birth in English and Spanish and achieving fluency in at least German and probably French too (the former he tells us as much; the latter because he went to a Francophone college in Geneva). Translating one’s own work can be thought of as an act of interpretation — you’re re-interpreting yourself for a whole new audience — and can anything be more arrogant than that?* **
* Lots of things, to be honest. I can think of a few off the top of my head.
** It’s worth pointing out here that the fourth section of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, “Death by Water”, which runs like this:
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
And the profit and loss. A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Entering the whirlpool. Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
is in fact a translation into English of the end of his earlier French poem Dans le restaurant (“In the Restaurant”), which runs like this:
Phlébas, le Phénicien, pendant quinze jours noyé,
Oubliait les cris des mouettes et la houle de Cornouaille,
Et les profits et les pertes, et la cargaison d’etain:
Un courant de sous-mer l’emporta tres loin,
Le repassant aux étapes de sa vie antérieure.
Figurez-vous donc, c’etait un sort penible;
Cependant, ce fut jadis un bel homme, de haute taille.
“Death by Water” has always been my favorite part of The Waste Land, incidentally.