Monday, 22 June 2009

Translation via a third language, and the GULag

My Swedish is good, my Latvian somewhere between beginner's and lower intermediate level. After reading three books of Juris Kronbergs' poetry translations into Swedish, of poems by Vizma Belševica, Imants Ziedonis and Knuts Skujenieks, I once felt like translating some of Skujenieks' poems into English - without having an adequate knowledge of the source language to go it alone. But I did read the poems in the original, however imperfectly, alongside Kronbergs' Swedish translation; I have a decent Latvian-English dictionary.

This is one of those translation (translatology? translation studies?) questions that straddles theory and practice: is it legitimate to translate poetry, poetry especially, via a third language? And the question covers everything from not being able to read the source language at all (e.g. you can't even read the alphabet) to a situation such as mine, where I know the source language to an extent, but not well enough to cope on my own. Some people in this situation form a team with a translator from the source language, or with the author, as Fiona Sampson did with Jaan Kaplinski.

Why Knuts Skujenieks? I had already translated a book of stories and read novels by the Estonian Jaan Kross about what life was like in the Siberian labour camps. So I was on the same wavelength as Skujenieks, who had witnessed very similar scenes, but had turned them into poetry, rather than prose. Here's one of Skujenieks' poems. Was I right to bring it to English via Swedish, in lieu of any other method of liberating it from the GULag of language?



The dull, rancid light from a bulb
Hanging limply down from the ceiling.
And on our cheeks, our mouths
Forms a crucifix of black shadows.
Peace on Earth. It is Christmas now.
The nineteen hundred and sixty-sixth.
The solidity of prison. Good cheer to mankind.
People want to joke a bit now and again.
The black cross swings slowly,
Shuts out, writes and crosses over.
People want to joke a bit now and again,
Even the Redeemer wants to now and again,
Wishes you heavenly music,
Next to you verbal rape is being committed
In the dull, rancid light from the bulb
Your mother and your great-grandmother,
Hearing near sounds from afar,
When a bunch of keys torments at the door.
Never say the Saviour has no sense of humour!
Instead of a tree the bucket stands in the corner,
For a week not even the smell of chlorine.
Praise to the Lord in the highest,
Watching on duty too over the Earth!
Only the frozen window panes glimmer,
With the cheap glitter of childhood.
But beyond them... Let’s leave that for now.
For there again is the cross, the cross, the cross...
Hidden, saved, brought right up to the flesh
Makhorka shag portioned out like the wafer.
Pax vobiscum! The peace of the Lord be with you!
Peace be with them that own Nazereth,
The crib in Bethlehem and the little donkey,
Golgotha and the right-hand of the Lord!
Peace with all, only not with us.
The dull, rancid light from the bulb.
Blue harshness flows from our cigarettes.
Silence. Peace. Only not with us.
It goes through our eyes, our fists,
The way of the cross from Appia to Rome.

The Romans too knew how to joke...


Translated from Swedish by Eric Dickens


David McDuff said...

Well, as a poem in English it works, Eric.

Michael Peverett said...

That's my view too. But I suppose there is no simple answer to Eric's question. It potentially involves the expected audience, the occasion, the original author, and the translator. Not knowing Latvian wouldn't commend it to, say, a conference of Latvian linguists. If one is selling one's work more on one's reputation as a poet than as a translator (as, say, Pound or Lowell) then indirect acquaintance with the original and even creative misrepresentation can almost be turned into added attractions. For a general poetry audience, happy (?) to get a flavour of a remote poet on any terms, say in a magazine, then two or three poems like this would be fine, especially if transparently footnoted "out of the Latvian using Kronbergs' Swedish as a crib". But then again, it mightn't seem so acceptable as a modus operandi for a whole book of Skujenieks ...

Eric Dickens said...

Yes, Michael, "out of the Latvian using Kronbergs' Swedish as a crib" is exactly the way I translated that poem, a few years ago. Because although my knowledge of Latvian is pretty rudimentary I can tell a noun from a verb, and dictionaries give some idea of the various meanings of a word. For instance, the dictionary said "rancid" where Kronbergs had "hoarse". My Latvian isn't good enough to catch the nuances here.

However, I am uneasy using this method as a whole, when nuances come into play, and publication in intended. I did this for a blog and simply felt that it was a great shame that Knuts Skujenieks was so poorly represented in English translation.

I'm not of the Zukofsky school (whose name I'm inclined to spell with an :"F"...) of "anything goes with regard to meaning, as long as you get the sound right". That smacks to me of Pseuds Corner. And if you only know the bare dictionary meaning of a word, and not the multiple connotations it has for a native-speaker, you are also in trouble as a translator.

I have to say that Ezra Pound as translator is one of my pet hates. When I look at his translations of straightforward and charming mediæval poems from Provence and Italy turned into archaïcising doggerel, I wince. I think translators like him like adopting guru status, browbeating the English-speaking plebs into submission, because Provençal and Old Italian are rarely studied in the USA and the UK.

Actually, Skujenieks knows enough English to say whether the translator has gone completely off at a tangent. But were I to ever tackle his poems for serious publication, I would team up with Juris Kronbergs who may, some twenty years on from the original publication of his translations, also want to alter things.

The interesting thing when working with a translator into another language to your own is that sometimes things emerge that you wouldn't have thought of yourself.