Monday, July 18, 2005

Day in the Life of a Low-Res MFA Student (2.3)

FRIDAY, 30 JUNE 2005, 2:30 p.m.
LECTURE: MIHAELA MOSCALIUC “Translation: The Art of Treason”

MOSCALIUC'S LECTURE ON THE art of translation was fascinating - mostly because, prior to the lecture, translation of poetry was virtually uncharted territory for me - at least until last semester.

(As an aside, last semester I did a unit on Spanish language poetry with Anne Waldman and, when I decided to read Neruda, she asked, "Whose Neruda?"

My internal response was, "Well, Pablo Neruda, of course!"

It was only when I dug in and started making comparisons between different translators' versions of the same poem as I was trying to memorize "Love Sonnet XII" from One Hundred Love Sonnets in which I saw line 6, for example, variously translated as:

with smothered air and abrupt storms of flour (Steven Mitchell)


of suffocating air and brusque storms of flour


with drowning air and storms of flour (Stephen Tapscott)

- that I realized the nuances of translation - that I realized what a difference a single word could make - that I realized that translating poems is as much of an art as writing them.)

Moscaliuc began with a rather colorful etymologyical history of the word, translation, which set the tone for the lecture as being inviting and pliable as opposed to being insular and rigid - i.e., that translation is as much an art as it is a science.

Yes, she gave us plenty of technical jargon - SL (source language) vs. TL (target language), intralingual (from one dialect to another dialect within the same language) vs. interlingual (from one language to another langauge) - but in a tongue-in-cheek fashion which was refreshing and which said that translating could be fun!

Moscaliuc raised several key concerns of the modern translator starting with the premise that it is an impossible art: "Nothing in poetry is accidental. In this way, a poem is untranslatable," and also "Translation is a utopian dream - there is no such thing as a perfect translation."

A translator must make decisions what to keep and what will be lost - what will be sacrificed. Maintain meaning at the sacrifice of... music? Maintain syllabic consistency at the expense of... rhyme?

For instance, a sonnet which rhymes in Italian is not the same sonnet if it loses its rhymes in the 'carrying over' to English. And if the rhymes are kept, then - no doubt - some of the subtleties in meaning will be lost. (How tragic!)

(As another aside, on the second-to-last day of the program, senior student, John Rippey ,gave me a captivating one-on-one talk about the challenges of translating poetry into English from Japanese. He demonstrated how, in moving from the Japenese kanji (ideograms) and hiragani (phonetic symbols) into English, double entendres and ironies can only be imitated, and are impossible to carry over in their original form.)

Moscaliuc showed that there is a human side to the translative art - that translators inevitably bring their own personalities into the translation. Which, for me, immediately raises the question: Are there many people who look like me who translate poetry? Are there any people who look like me who translate poetry? At what level do the translator's personal politics censor what information I receive as a reader? At what level do the translator's personal prejudices inform what poems even get translated?

Furthermore, the translator faces the decision of domesticizing versus foreignizing, something which I'd never considered. Does the translator translate in a way to reflect the values/aesthetics of the target language culture, or to retain the values/aesthetics of the source language culture? For instance, Joan Larkin's extremely liberal translation of Sor Juana de la Cruz's Love Poems would no doubt have been handled differently by, say, a religious scholar in Nigeria. (The religious scholar may decide to omit all poems containing lesbian references, or may decide to rewrite them in a way to reflect heterosexual love.) Is censorship, then, a form of translation?

To further demonstrate the impossiblity of translation, Moscaliuc noted that if one translates a poem into a language, one would typically end up with a different source text if one translates it back. Which reminds me of irreversible reactions in chemistry. Yuck!

Toward the end of the lecture, I asked Mosaliuc how she would handle a particular intralingual to interlingual translating dilemma: How would one translate the African-American dialect of English into her native language, Romanian? (I think, in particular, of Langston Hughes, who is the most prolific - and possibly most widely-read - of all African-American poets. I think of Hughes' his "Madam fo You" series - "Madam and the Rent Man," "Madam and the Phone Bill," etc. How would one translate the blues sensiblity of the stanza:

I'm mad and disgusted
with that Negro now.
I don't pay no REVERSED
charges nohow.

The presentation here is essential blues - the dialect, the rhyming, the peculiarity of the syntax. It would be difficult, even to do an intralingual translation of this stanza to a different American dialect. The simultaneous humor/sarcasm/sadness/music are what make it bluesy. And losing any one of these elements is to lose the blues of it.)

I didn't ask the question necessarily because I thought she'd have an answer, but more to see if she had ever considered it. Based on her answer (and I appreciated her honesty), it appeared that she had not, in fact, considered it. (She did approach me at lunch the next day to say that it was something that she thinks is important and something which she will definitely be thinking about in the future. Two points!) But when she confirmed what I believed - which was that she had not thought about it - suddenly I saw the importance and, dare I say, the need for me as an African-American poet to invest in learning the skills of translation. If I don't do it, then who will?


The most priceless moment in the lecture came when Moscaliuc recounted a story, decades ago, of a certain American translator who, in translating a French love poem into English, was confronted with translating the French word, cyprine.

It turns out that the literal English translation for cyprine is… cervical mucus. Yes, cervical mucus! As in, cervical snot! Aside from creating a syllabic issue (5 syllables instead of 2), cervical mucus sounds disgusting! Not to mention infectious!

Word has it, the translator decided to take it upon himself to use the word, gleet, which sounds equally disgusting in itself and is downright repulsive if you read its full definition. Not sexy!

Which again demonstrates the importance of translators and the need for diversity among translators (for example, no woman would have ever translated that word as gleet!)

Thanks, but no thanks, mister. I'll be taking my cyprine straight.

1 comment:

misha/melisa said...

Ayo, I was also moved by this same talk and doubly so by your particular insight. I took away thoughts on the term "foreignizing." The sentiment is that foreignizing is more true to the original text, leaving in some of the original language--perhaps challening for the non-native reader--but more true to the text, finding ways to footnote around it to help the non-native into the work (perhaps). Well I hate the word "foreignizing." Maybe it's "humanizing" or "globalizing" or "dignifying." You raise excellent questions about translations of dialect--dictionaries and translators have challenges with so-called standards, so how to capture the cadences that sing through race, ethnicity, region, sex. As a mere blip on the translation experience, I would suggest that translators look to the music in their own local dialects to capture the experience from the margins, the poetry then requires the translator to be bilingual and multidialectal--no easy task. But just as AAVE/AAE/BEV/Ebonics etc. exists in the US, so too there are multiple Frenches--turning to Alsatian or even another language such as Haitian Creole to capture the feeling of Hughs in French (for example).

There are so many translations of self in a poem that the translator's job seems an impossible gift, a door opener, a window that keeps opening by cracks.

Great to read your writing on this,