Trapped in a translation binary

I’ve only just read Adam Plunkett’s review of Merwin’s Selected Translations for The New Republic. Plunkett seems to be trapped in a couple of typical binaries, the first and most obvious when considering works of translated literature: faithfulness and departure. Plunkett spends a good part of the review taking Merwin to task for not being faithful to the originals, but unlike other reviewers who fall into this trap, he actually attempts to define what he means by faithful. Plunkett is specifically concerned at first with the fidelity to the rhythmic patterns of the original:

Unfortunately, Merwin’s distinct rhythmic sense seems to have distracted him from faithfully reproducing rhythmic attributes of the poems he translates.

At least he identifies what he would have preferred fidelity to, and identifies poetics as being as important to poetry at at least the same level as literal meaning of the words, if not moreso.

Still, what a strange measure of a translation. It completely ignores that different languages construct different rhythmical patterns which become part of the poetics of that language, and which carry or embed linguistically-specific effects. An iamb in English is a natural unit, but not in Chinese. If a Chinese translator were to try to reproduce “faithfully” the iambic pentameter of say, Shakespeare’s sonnets, they may succeed in metrics but loose all the “beauty” that the metrics construct in English. Hypothetically, of course, I don’t read Chinese and so have very little understanding of how poetic metrics work in that language. The point is slavish reproduction of a foreign language’s form, rhythm, rhyme scheme or metrics is not always the most (to use his terminology) “faithful” choice. Because what he’s actually lamenting is the perceived loss of the beauty in the change of the rhythms of the original, and (despite the extreme subjectivity of that evaluative standard) beauty is constructed differently based on the natural, inherent sound and breath patterns of each language.

It’s not merely in the rhythms that Plunkett is dissatisfied with Merwin’s translations. He brushes on concern with rendering of the original meanings of the words (and backs off just as quickly, returning to his concern with the “beauty” of the poems) discussing Merwin’s translations from languages he doesn’t read.

How can you translate from a language you cannot at all understand?

He is unsatisfied that working from a translation into a language you can read, or working from previous translations, or even with a native speaker provides enough understanding:

But even these techniques seem unlikely to preserve enough of the original to make something worth reading as poetry.

What, I might ask, makes something “worth reading as poetry”? I suspect what Plunkett means is that he is unwilling to read these as the original author’s poetry. What if we were to read them as Merwin’s poetry? Because, of course, they are… Anyway, I would venture to argue the opposite – sometimes the greater distance you have from the original, the better the translation is as “poetry.” The trap of fidelity often strips a translated poem of its poetry, in an attempt to accurately or faithfully reproduce some aspect or aspects of the original. So the idea that the better the linguistic capacity to understand the original, the more faithful the translation, the more poetry it is actually seems dead backwards to me.

And leaving aside the long, illustrious history of translating poetry from languages you don’t read (ahem, Pound?), the concern that these poems are being misrepresented is pretty silly. It’s a kind of concern-trolling. This “it makes me uncomfortable because I don’t understand how it works, so please don’t do it because you might be making a mistake” attitude, were translators to give in to it, would be extremely harmful to the continuation of a global literary conversation in English. I’ve written a lot about translating from languages you don’t know, so won’t say any more here.

Anyway, he can’t seem to get beyond the two basic binaries: faithfulness and infidelity, and meaning and poetics. As evidenced by his dismissive summary:

[Merwin] is too unfaithful for accurate translations and too faithful for beautiful ones.

I haven’t yet had the chance to read Merwin’s Selected Translations so I have no idea what I think of the overview of Merwin’s illustrious career as a translator. But I do know that a poet of his caliber, and a translator of his importance, deserves a more careful reading.

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