A recent discussion on the ALTA Talk e-mail list about the translatability of poetry led me to a well-written, provocative article by Art Beck in the newest e-issue of Rattle Poetry. In particular, I was struck by this passage.
In June, [Rainer Maria] Rilke sent her [Marina Tsvetaeva] a copy of his just released Vergers, a volume of poems he’d written in French. He vaguely wondered whether he should be writing poetry in a non-native language. Marina’s reply was immediate and ringing:
Dear Rainer: Goethe says somewhere that one cannot achieve anything of significance in a foreign language—and that has always rung false to me… Writing poetry is in itself translating from the mother tongue into another, whether French or German should make no difference. No language is the mother tongue. Writing poetry is rewriting it. That’s why I am puzzled when people talk of French or Russian, etc., poets. A poet may write in French; he cannot be a French poet. That’s ludicrous. I am not a Russian poet and am always astonished to be taken for one and looked upon in this light. The reason one becomes a poet (if it were even possible to “become” one, if one “were” not one before all else!) is to avoid being French, Russian, etc, in order to be everything,…Orpheus bursts nationality…
This passage, from a self-exiled White Russian in Paris, might well serve as the Internationale of poetic translators. Poets of the world, unite! Translators, lose your chains. The idea that a poem isn’t just a function of the language in which it appears, but of some underlying, pre- Babel, mother tongue—elevates poetry to an almost mystical evocation.
It also evokes a quasi-mystical observation found in various forms and similes across a broad range of commentators on literary translation. Which might be boiled down to the working translator’s instinctive sense (or illusion) that apart from: a) the source poem and, b) the poem as transcribed in a new language; there’s yet a third poem, an ur-text, as it were, that both the original and tran- scribed poems draw from.
An implication is that authentic poems, (as well as all great literature but particularly poems), have a life of their own that not only outlives their authors— but may actually precede the author. Not all poems: There are verses like Joyce Kilmer’s Trees, “made by fools like me,” that entertain a generation, then pass away. But then there are those, albeit rare, works of another dimension, whose hallmark is a certain inevitability. Poems that needed to occur and, once brought to life, live and migrate generations, languages and cultures in ways not dissimilar from music.
As a person who translates a great deal of poetry, moving from two profoundly different languages (Japanese and English) that have very different notions about what sounds “poetic,” I wonder about the idealism of the idea that poetry is not produced by a language but represents some quality underneath, something that predates language. So much of poetry is language, and even the most banal observations can become rich and poignant if the language works well.
Yet at the same time, part of me wants to agree with this idea. There is, it seems, a certain kind of logic that is often work in multiple styles of poetries of different traditions, regardless of where it comes form—the desire to see things in radically different ways, the use of juxtaposition to bring unexpected things together in new ways, the bringing of a new dimension to the familiar.
Although few people, even in the poetry world, tend to read poetry in translation, translation involves a fundamentally a poetic gesture—the attempt to bring something beyond one’s quotidian experience into one’s own language—even if that involves breaking or modifying the rules of the target language.