Starting with the '80s, we have witnessed an extraordinary
boom in translation research worldwide. Translation studies have
achieved institutional authority, manifested by an unprecedented
proliferation of academic training programs, professional associations,
publications, and conferences. Traditional linguistics-based theories
focused on assumptions of equivalence between target language and
source language, and granted the source language and source text
the status of being universal and stable, according to the Romantic
notion of original genius and inalienable authorship. Gradually,
equivalence-based theories came under attack and began to give way
to function-oriented translation research, which nowadays takes
into account the wider context within which translation takes place
in the receiving culture. "The cultural turn" in translation
studies coincides with the change of the canon in literary criticism.
Both phenomena obviously belong to poststructuralist cultural practices,
emphasizing the dislocations of centers and margins, plurality and
differences. Translation, seen as a form of acculturation, plays
an important part in the complex process of creating literary/cultural
canons. Being never "innocent", translators should become
more and more aware of their double power: the power of representing
the source culture, and the power of manipulating the text's
reception in a target culture.
Whatever prominent role - as
linguistic and cultural brokers, mediators, image-makers, etc. -
in intercultural transfers may translation theories grant them,
translators still complain of invisibility, or a very pale visibility.
They still feel marginalized and have to struggle with all kinds
of textual and extra-textual constraints. Nowadays the target cultural
authority is much more permissive than during the mid-twentieth
century, when, for example, Robert Graves excised the homosexual
act from his translation of the Lives of Suetonius in accordance
with the Anglo-Saxon tradition (I exclude from this discussion all
kinds of oppressive régimes, where censorship acts as the
'cosmetologist', according to its own rules, of any
text). But, if we only leaf through the book-reviewing press, we
can easily see what incredibly small space is allowed for the commentary
on translations; usually obsolete clichés about translation
slip easily into the very end of the book reviews, and it is common
for the translator's name to be completely absent.
I would like to leave such intensely debated topics, and instead
note some thoughts inspired by two poems.
of my favorite poems by Robert Lowell is "Skunk Hour":
myself am hell;
skunks, that search
moonlight for a bite to eat.
march on their soles up Main Street:
stripes, moonstruck eyes' red fire
the chalk-dry and spar spire
back steps and breathe the rich air -
skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
jabs her wedge-head in a cup
cream, drops ostrich tail,
will not scare.
The skunk's hour is before dawn, when it is still "dark
night". The image of the bold mother skunk with her column
of kittens swilling the garbage pail, and eventually being rewarded
with a cup of sour cream, suggested to me the translator's
struggle for existence, in obscurity, rummaging through somebody
else's words. And the translator "will not scare." But the poet knows his own terror, he will scare, maybe
this is one of the reasons for which Lowell never did translate
other poets, but wrote Imitations. He pointed out in the "Introduction" to Imitations that the volume
is "partly self-sufficient and separate from its sources,
and should be first read as a sequence, one voice running through
many personalities, contrasts and repetitions." Lowell recreated
poems belonging to other cultures and times, in search of a poetical
voice able to reflect "the dissolution of ourselves into others,
like a wedding party approaching a window" ("The Landlord" - an imitation after Pasternak).
Returning to the image of the skunks:
a friend of mine told me that once he heard a famous Romanian actor
shouting from a phone booth to his interlocutor: "But take
care, don't make it stink like a translation!" Translation stinking like a skunk! Is the translator leaving behind
him a stinky trail? In a postmodern age, incorporating into the
target language bits from the source language should be a part of
the game. Pound, who was only a modernist, used to include idioms
or phrases of the source language, translating them with high fidelity.
I would like to refer to another wonderful poem, at once a memoir
and an ars poetica, a labyrinthine meditation on loss and
recollection: "Lost in Translation," by James Merrill.
In this poem, "translation" becomes a Proustian "madeleine"
which makes links with all missing or regained pieces of life's
and art's puzzles. The poem is dedicated to Richard Howard,
a prominent translator of Baudelaire, Foucault, Cioran, as well
as an exquisite literary critic and a very interesting poet. The
motto is from Rilke's translation of the poem "La Palme"
by Valéry. James Merrill himself translated Valéry's
poem into English.
In "Lost in Translation,"
his rereading of Valéry's poem in French makes the
poet search for Rilke's translation. The memory of the French
and German poems calls up "his French Mademoiselle," in whose care he spent a summer vacation during his uneasy childhood,
and to whom he dedicated his first innocent love:
coffee. Mail. The Watch that also waited
to her heart, poor gold, throws up its hands -
sugars draw pops back into his mouth, translated:
chéri. Geduld, mein Schatz.'
reading Valéry the other evening
seeming to recall a Rilke version of 'Palme,'
sunlit paradigm whereby the tree
a sweet wellspring of authority,
hour came back.. Patience dans l'azur.
im; Himmelblau? Mademoiselle.)
the poem, key words and images subtly echo "La Palme."
"Translation" becomes a metaphor for the process of
"Ransacking Athens" for
Rilke's translation of "La Palme," Merrill evokes
it with an amazing concern for detail, but, at the same time, synthesizes
tons of theoretical debates on what is lost and what is regained
in the translator's struggle to preserve the "underlying
sense" of the original:
much of the sun-ripe original
Rilke made himself forego
loved French words - verger, mûr, parfumer)
to render its underlying sense.
already in that tongue of his
Pains, what monolithic Truths
stanza to stanza's symmetrical
pavement. Know that ground plan left
and barren, where the warm Romance
by stone faded, cooled; the fluted nouns
taller, lonelier than life
capitals in the afterglow.
owlet umlaut peeps and hoots
the open vowel. And after rain
reverberation fills with stars.
palimpsest of translation re-echoing translation - namely,
past into present via art, world into art via art, art into art
via art -, Merrill's poem ends with the image of a palm-tree,
rustling with its angel: a "reverberation" of Jacob's
wrestling with the angel in order to be blessed:
nothing's lost. Or else: all is translation
every bit of us is lost in it
found - I wander through the ruin of S
and then, wondering at the peacefulness)
in that loss a self-effacing tree,
of context, imperceptibly
with its angel, turns the waste
and fiber, milk and memory."