Thursday, 19 March 2009

Rhyme, rhythm, doggerel

I find rhymed poetry the hardest thing on Earth to translate. Indeed, I sometimes avoid translating a poem altogether, because there are so many factors involved; and a translation would become pale doggerel, rather than a successful rendering. One such poem, I have already quoted in a reply on another thread here. It is from Eva-Stina Byggmästar's 2005 collection "Knoppar blommor blad och grenar". The poem is untitled:

Finns lindring i lindar!
Finns lönnfack i lönnar!
Men låt hundarna leka
att de gömmer sig i glesa
gluggar. Låt dem resa,
låt dem stå på glänt
mot allt som glindrar,
glittrar, glänser, glimtar.

The alliteration, the coïncidence of meaning leading to puns, and the many "gl-" sounds, all conspire to make a good translation of this poem nigh on impossible.

Some translators, however, say "it's doggèd that does it", but end up, alas, with doggerel. One such translator was the well-meaning Estonian translator William Kleesmann Matthews (1901-1958), known mostly as W.K. Matthews. He wrote a most useful introduction to his "Anthology of Modern Estonian Poetry", 1953. But some of his own translations prove only too clearly that the wages of forced rhyme is hilarity. Take this poem by Jaan Oks. I have never found the original, but somehow even without it, the translation is, shall we say, interesting:

As I Gaze Towards Ashen Arches

As I gaze towards ashen arches
Past the tall and rigid trees,
I can see a grin that starches
Lips, a nakedness of knees.
In my eyes are tips of flowers,
Black seed wedded to the earth,
Forests built by virid showers,
Madness in the throes of birth.

For me, this translation not only uses Procrustes' bed to obtain the rhyme, but uses imagery that becomes inadvertently amusing. Somehow, "ashen arches" remind me more of fallen ones than the lofty image Matthews is trying to create. "Rigid" somehow jars with "trees". For me "starch" is an old-fashioned way of stiffening shirts, rather than lips by way of a grin. "A nakedness of knees" sounds as if "nakedness" here is a quantity, like "a pound of butter". The tips of the flowers appear to be poking the poet in the eye. Can "seed" be "wedded"? "Virid" is a strange archaïc word. The last line is, for me, virtually the only one that avoids clashes and oddness.

Judging by other Matthews translations, where I have found the original, he tries his best with rhythm, and very laudably; but he forces the rhyme. Maybe the fact that he was not entirely a native-speaker of English led to such results. He went to the Russian grammar school in Narva, the son of an English textile engineer and an Estonian woman. He learnt English in Blackpool, studied both Slavonic philology and economics in Manchester, ending up at King's College, London studying comparative literature. He became a lexicographer and compiler and translator of poetry anthologies for Estonia and Latvia.

When Gustav Suits' poem "Risti-rästi" became "Criss-cross", Matthews got the rhythm perfectly. That was a commendable achievement. But his forced rhyme detracted from that achievement. The first stanza:

Ei läinud, kuhu kästi,
teed käinud risti-rästi:
kas halvasti või hästi,
kas vägev ma või nõrk?

becomes

I paid no heed to thunder;
My ways have gone asunder;
And did I gain or blunder?
And am I strong or weak?

The literal meaning is:

Didn't go where ordered,
criss-crossed on the roads:
whether badly or well,
me, strong or weak?

The third stanza:

Kas kuulsid sa mu huiget,
kas silmasid mu tuiget,
kas märkasid mu muiget:
meist üle kummast kumb?

which becomes

Did you not hear me singing;
Blood in my temples dinging;
The pole and canvas swinging?
Which of us holds the field?

Literal:

Did you hear my whooping,
did you spot my pulsating [/throbbing],
did you notice my [wry] smile:
which of us is [/has come out] on top?

The really important question is simply: could another translator get nearer to the literal meaning without forcing the rhyme? Can a balance be struck between meaning and sound?

6 comments:

  1. I think I've seen some of W.K. Matthews' work in Estonian Literary Magazine. The examples you cite are certainly very different in the measure of their success.

    The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, whom I knew fairly well and talked with quite often, was of the opinion that a poem and its translation are really two different poems. In his own work he always had two versions of each poem he wrote - one in Russian and the other in English, and he tried to extend this idea to the translation of other poets. I worked with him on some versions of Tsvetayeva, and that was how he saw the results of the experiment, as far as I remember. Of course, if other translators became involved, there were three poems or four, or however many. That was doubtless why in the mid-1980s Brodsky fired all his translators, and decided to be his own.

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  2. Brodsky's idea about two separate poems is worth bearing in mind. Nevertheless, I think it the duty of a translator to salvage as much of the original as you can: meaning, rhythm and, if possible without doggerel, rhyme.

    There's often a gap between what a source-language readership intuitively knows, and that known by a target-language readership. The author must, to an extent, be sensitive to all the layers of the target language if, like Brodsky, he "goes it alone". How many years had Brodsky been living in the USA before he got rid of his translators?

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  3. Brodsky had been in the U.S. for some 15 years when he took the step of "firing" his translators - actually, he didn't fire them all, just let it be known that in the case of his newer poems he preferred his own versions to those of others he'd seen - he had previously worked together with his translators (some of whom were academics) to produce the English versions of his poems, so in one sense the older translations were really "his" in any case. He quarrelled quite badly with Daniel Weissbort about this at one time, and indeed that may have been the crisis that precipitated the universal "firing". I don't think Joseph ever thought in terms of "source language" and "target language", seeing such terms as the product of an academic environment (which they surely are), but rather in terms of how he could recast his poems in his own English language and English poetic style (which were Auden-influenced, but unique). Of course, he got a lot of flak for that from snobbish commentators who compared his English unfavourably with that of literary figures like Nabokov.

    With Brodsky, you sometimes had to make a trip into regions of the English language that were not in any way "English" or "American", but were rather a manifestation of what English can become when it migrates to other countries where it's not the native tongue - often with surprising results and inspirations that would never occur to a native English-speaker. The issue of "rhymed versus unrhymed" became almost secondary, part of a more general cultural leap that sometimes left readers behind, but always opened up new and fascinating insights into the possibilities of language.

    So the "Russian" and "English" versions of Brodsky's poems (in some ways it's wrong to describe Brodsky as a Russian poet, he was much more than that) were separate, yet were linked by a cross-cultural aspiration and yearning - he used to talk of the "nostalgia for world culture" that Mandelstam wrote about.

    That last theme - the nostalgia - is one that's been followed by one or two other practitioners since then. Pia Tafdrup is a notable example of a poet who admits her indebtedness to Brodsky (with whom she was personally acquainted), and she considers herself to be not so much a Danish poet as one who just happens to write in Danish.

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  4. It's a thing worth pondering on: how much someone who is not originally a native-speaker can enliven an established language.

    But even native-speakers can do wonders. I find "Finnegans Wake" unreadable. That sort of thing is great for ten pages, but the sheer surfeit of messing around with words overwhelms you. But with most poetry, the canvas is much smaller. Then you have to ask yourself about source and target expressions and what is acceptable.

    One of my favourite poets is the Pole, Boleslaw Lesmian, whose work is full of neologisms and odd takes on a semi-folkloric reality. Had he continued to write in Russian, which he did at first, no Pole would have dreamed of translating those poems into the kind of Polish Lesmian himself used. Alas, for a non-native-speaker, his poems are really difficult to value when it comes to what is neologistic, what is ordinary Polish, and so on. But the American Pole Sandra Chciuk-Celt made attempts at publishing literal and more polished translations. They work to an extent and certainly give huge insights into this remarkable poet.

    I wonder whether anyone in the Nordic countries has so much neologistic prestidigitation. Eva-Stina Byggmästar comes fairly near. But Lesmian often used rhyme.

    I've read very little Brodsky. I'd like to compare his Russian and English versions" of the same poem.

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  5. You can read some original Russian texts of Brodsky's poems, together with English translations, some of which are by the author, at this site. There are several other similar sites on the Web, including one which contains more or less the entire body of Brodsky's work, both poetry and prose. To see the Cyrillic, you'll need to turn on KOI8-R encoding in your browser, though.

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  6. WK Matthews is my grandfather's brother, he moved to Blackpool around 1913 age 11 as the Bolshevik revolution was on the cards and Narva was a hotspot. Narva and indeed Estonia would have been a great mixture of Estonian, Russian and German cutures and with his English father he wouldve been exposed to all these languages. His father (my great grandfather) Joseph Matthews was indeed sent as a textile engineer by Mather and Platt in Bolton in Narva Joseph met Anna Maria Kleesmann and the rest is history. I'm so happy to find some information has been gathered about Uncle Bill, he died very young and was perhaps one of the worlds greatest ever lingual scholars. I now live in Estonia, the language is daunting to say the least, I unfortunately do not have his ability although I did grasp Dutch.

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