dimanche 5 décembre 2010

A Polynesian Mask -- J. Tennant

This article is taken (admittedly, without permission) from Icarus ; whoever feels injured by the shameless copy/paste below, please let me know. Thank you.

There would appear to be somewhat of a proliferation of translations by contemporary poets. Notable examples include Jo Shapcott’s Tender Taxes (2001); Peter Fallon’s The Georgics of Virgil (2004); Sean O’Brien’s Inferno; Don Paterson’s Orpheus; Derek Mahon’s Adaptations;  Bernard O’Donoghue’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, both Simon Armitage’s The Odyssey  (all 2006) and his Sir Gawain (2007). Do these translations, or ‘versions’, signify stagnation in  terms of original verse? A brief look through this year’s catalogues of ‘upcoming publications’ confirms the fact; interesting new collections are conspicuous in their absence. Their centenary year will leave us with some elegant new editions of Auden and MacNeice, but to this cynic Morrissey’s lyrics come all to easily to mind: ‘Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!/ Re-evaluate the songs/ Double-pack with a photograph/ Extra track (and a tacky badge)’.

Any discussion of the value of poetry in translation will at some point touch upon Robert Frost’s much-quoted remark that poetry ‘is what gets lost in translation’. Whereas literal ‘word-for-word’ translations are clearly possible—Frost, Pasternak, indeed most translators and critics, argue that the ‘tone’ of the poem is impossible to catch perfectly through translation. Frost’s aphorism has the epigrammatic surety of wisdom, but can never be answered satisfactorily since it is such a sweeping generalisation. From an absolutist point of view, however, it holds true, the ‘poetic’ translation of poetry is not possible.

With this inherent deficiency in mind, the translator must decide how to render the foreign poem into his native tongue. Should the translator adhere to the metrical form of the original? Can rhyme be relocated whilst being ‘faithful’ (whatever that means) to the original? Contemporary Russian poetry is still dominated by quatrains with masculine and feminine rhyme endings. Brodsky and Leonid Aronzon never made these heavy rhymes sound pat—but how can the ‘literal’ translator avoid this pitfall? Our Germanic language, with all its glottal stops and fricative consonants, precludes the scope for vowel-rhyme that a Romance language has. In the preface to his Imitations (1961), Robert Lowell states ‘Strict metrical translators still exist…their difficulties are bold and honest, but they are taxidermists, not poets, and their poems are likely to be stuffed birds’.

Ezra Pound once exhorted translators of verse to ‘make it new!’. It is often difficult to ascertain what is translation, adaptation or original composition in Pound’s poetry. Pound was the first appropriative translator; the publication of his ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’ (1919) provoked outcry from scholars and Latinists. They accused Pound of grievous errors in the translation, whereas in reality Pound’s poem consciously intends to show certain aspects of Propertius in an ironic light. Whether or not it is really a translation has always been a contentious issue—many sections have been proven successful and diligent renderings by any standards. What Pound’s ‘version’ clearly is, is a homage to the persona of Propertius—a subjective response to the character where all the factors that led to this response are included. A similar approach was taken by Pound in ‘The Seafarer’ (1912) which he translated from the Anglo-Saxon. The translation was not so much an act of translation directly from the source-text, as an ‘updating’ of the poem as a poem. Pound had in fact closely studied the forces of the original, with the aim of his ‘translation’ being to ‘show where the treasure lies’. Here there is no fundamental distinction between rewriting and translating. He believed that translation is the ultimate form of criticism; it represents a fusion of both the critical and the creative faculties. In an article published in The Guardian in 2002, Daniel Weissbort (who co-founded the excellent review Modern Poetry in Translation with Ted Hughes in the 1970s) reiterates Pound’s theory to an extent—‘what the reader of a translation is reading is a previous reading. Even if not the originator of a work, the translator is inevitably, to an extent, its re-writer’.

Robert Lowell’s Imitations arise directly from Ezra Pound’s theories on verse translation and are part of the same ‘modern’ school. As he fully admits in his introduction, ‘I have been reckless with literal meaning, and labored hard to get the tone’. Although he has entitled his collection Imitations, it soon becomes clear that Lowell sees them as ‘translations’. He claimed he wanted to fuse the original foreign text with what he termed ‘the nervous system’ of his own language and time. In striving to capture the elusive ‘tone’ Lowell has taken enormous liberties with the source-poems. He avowedly takes Hebel ‘out of dialect’; Mallarmé has been ‘unclotted’; one third of ‘The Drunken Boat’ is left completely out and two stanzas have actually been added to Rilke’s ‘Roman Sarcophagus’. The poems we are left with are good ones, yet the title Imitations is ambiguous. If Lowell is really only copying the ‘tone’ of the original, why pretend to be a translator of individual pieces? Surely these are simply ‘new’ poems? Randall Jarrell once said to Lowell ‘You don’t write, you rewrite’—this collection could equally have been called Reworkings or Responses. Recently, Don Paterson produced a book of successful poems ‘based on’ the poetry of Antonio Machado called The Eyes (1999). Paterson makes little pretence at translation per se, aptly subtitling his collection ‘versions’. Works of ‘translation’ nowadays are often subtitled ‘versions’, which presumably offloads much responsibility to the original poems.

Every poem wears a mask to some extent—it has to tread the boards of ‘poetic truth’, which of course owes little to ‘truth’. Blake was expressing the quality of poetic truth when he said, ‘everything possible to be believed is an image of the truth’. Nevertheless this mask does not symbolize the Janus-face of dichotomies found in either Blake or Yeats; this is the mask of the ‘tone’ or ‘stance’ taken by the poem towards the regarded theme, or object. Very occasionally you will encounter a poet with an integral tone, where the same thread of tonality is perceptibly woven through the whole oeuvre. But usually each poem will have a kind of autonomy. This is the autonomy to ‘strike a pose’ differently in each poem. The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa embraced this idea by creating what he called ‘heteronyms’. These were in effect distinct ‘personae’ through which Pessoa would write poetry. They were all independent of each other but integral to the disunity of Pessoa’s psyche. They were not merely noms de plume because each heteronym was, at face value, utterly independent of the author. Technically Pessoa did not feel he wrote the poems—only parts of him were poets. A nom de plume can prove invigorating (‘for we are many’); it not only gives the illusion of distance between the ‘poet figure’ and the by-product, but also between the poem and its presumed audience (it highlights the artistry of the poem as an entity). This idea of an artistic mask would strike a stronger chord in a more canivalesque culture than our own. Reverence of the mask is prevalent in many cultures in Africa for example: the Yoruba cultures and the Dogon Tribe of Mali in particular. The use of the mask in Greek Tragedy and in the shamanic rituals of the North American Iroquois is well known. Japanese Kabuki theatre uses heavy make-up to a similar effect.

At present translation by an ‘established’ poet is viewed as some kind of recreational sport, to be practiced while biding time during low ebbs of inspiration. But what translation allows for is a mask of ‘burning gold’ more resplendent than any other. The translator has not only to inhabit the object poem as an autonomous work, but he has also to inhabit the original narrator’s voice and language. The poet/translator must speak through the mask of tonality at two removes. Unfortunately poets who ‘translate’ often have no knowledge of the source language. They will resort to amalgamating previous translations, or at best, will collaborate with a native speaker.

However inevitable it is that a translator must to some extent re-work a poem, we are better off reading a semi-literal (i.e. not clumsily over-literal) translation than not reading foreign poetry at all. Ted Hughes championed much of the poetry that emerged from Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the so-called ‘thaw’ instigated by Stalin’s death in 1953. With The Desert ofLove (1989), the selected poems of János Pilinszky, Hughes was lucky to have been able to work alongside the Hungarian János Csokits. In this way he was able to receive the ‘tone’ of the poems through Csokits’s literal drafts in English and subsequent explanations. Hughes describes tone as ‘that very intriguing quality which is the translator’s will-o’-the-wisp, the foreignness and strangeness’. Working alongside a native speaker (especially one who is him/herself a writer) is an effective method towards as thorough a translation as is ever possible. With the help of Csokits, Hughes asserts, ‘even a rough translation cannot completely blanket Pilinszky’s unique vision of final things’. Hughes believed in what he called a ‘picture language’ that was universal in that its ‘poetry’ would transcend language. This theory is reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s claim in his essay ‘The Task of the Translator’: ‘to some degree all great texts contain their potential translation between the lines’— implicit is a rebuttal of Frost’s statement about poetry being ‘lost in translation’. When talking of his translations of Yehuda Amichai, Hughes, however, does appear a little idealistic: ‘It is hard to imagine that many of Yehuda’s poems can be better in Hebrew than they are in English’.

This is a year of dearth for new poetry. The proliferation of translation is an interesting phenomenon, but is unlikely to be taking place at the expense of original work. With luck such a dearth is merely coincidence. We have seen the rejuvenating capacity that translating poetry can provide, and that it is a necessary and rewarding enterprise: the most important factor being that the end-product does not hatch as a ‘stuffed bird’.

Article paru dans Icarus (again, whoever feels injured by the shameless copy/paste above, please let me know), la revue littéraire de Trinity College (Dublin). 

L'occasion de rassembler quelques liens sur la traduction, en commençant par George Steiner, Après Babel ; une somme mais surtout un point de vue qui n'est pas forcément celui de tous les traducteurs, le point de vue d'un polyglotte revendiqué qui sait combien, pour celui qui passe quotidiennement et inconsciemment d'une langue à une autre, passer consciemment d'une langue dans une autre (traduire !) approfondit son usage des deux.
La tâche du traducteur de Walter Benjamin (Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers), bien sûr, et les quatre articles de Nouss (bis) et Lamy (bis) qui tournent autour (avec un joli petit paquet de jargon pour Lamy ... qui n'en a que plus de mérite à dégager nettement son propos !) : deux de ces articles font partie d'un numéro de TTR (Volume X, N°2) consacré à l'essai de Benjamin dont je n'ai pu trouver qu'une recension et qui contient une traduction de l'essai par Nouss et Lamy sous le titre L'abandon du traducteur (texte de présentation).

Sans penser ajouter rien à ce que tous ces savants ont pu écrire, je reste toujours surpris de la position inconfortable de la "traduction", suspendue entre deux pôles : au zénith, l'Oeuvre d'Art, au nadir, l'Ursprache. Position inconfortable car nos conceptions ne permettent plus de superposer ces deux points cardinaux mais au contraire les organisent comme un véritable champ de force.

Côté "Ursprache", l'affaire est entendue et le traducteur est l'honnête ingénieur qui rebrousse le chemin parcouru par la différenciation linguistique de la "langue source" pour redescendre ensuite le chemin vers la "langue cible"  en passant au col par le pivot de cette langue originelle dont les dictionnaires multilingues sont en quelque sorte les spectres. Que le pivot n'existe pas ne gêne pas vraiment la manœuvre, les spectres, eux, existent ! Cette conception "mécaniste" a ses fondements théoriques modernes du côté des grammaires génératives à la Chomsky, même si les critiques les ont sérieusement ébranlés. Pour être franc, que faisons-nous d'autre quand nous traduisons un mode d'emploi ? 

C'est donc quand on s'intéresse à autre chose qu'un mode d'emploi (ou à tout autre équivalent utilitaire) que la "traduction" se trouve véritablement prise dans le champ de force mais c'est au même titre que l'œuvre elle-même en ce que l'œuvre-là se trouve pouvoir être comprise comme une instanciation dans une langue donnée d'une Œuvre résidant dans un Ciel des Idées. Le rôle du traducteur est alors de s'élever vers l'Œuvre pour en ramener une œuvre-là dans une autre langue.

Le champ de force est un authentique cisaillement tant notre appréhension de la langue semble poser que l' Œuvre se fait en quelque sorte malgré la langue ou dans les interstices, les déscellements de celle-ci.

Le rapport à la langue est soupçonneux, conflictuel. Nous sommes "après Babel" et le Nom a éclaté en multiples noms (prononçables ou non, qu'importe !), tous fragmentaires et tous douteux : l'Age d'Or de l'unité de la Langue et de l'Œuvre est révolu.

Mais nous ne sommes plus qu'après Babel ; le Glorieux Ciel de Jena s'est effondré dès l'aube du XXème siècle et cet effondrement aura été le signe sous lequel tout ce siècle s'est inscrit. Si, après Babel, l'Œuvre interroge la Langue et ses insuffisances, après l'avènement de la mort de masse au cœur de l'Europe, la Langue interroge l'Œuvre et ses prétentions.

Walter Benjamin écrit à ce moment-charnière où le programme de Jena s'effondre.  Il est le témoin lucide de cet effondrement et de la révolution qui s'en suit : désormais, pour notre sensibilité, une oeuvre et sa langue se livrent en permanence un procès sans pitié. Au-delà de l'auteur, au-delà du traducteur. D'où l'importance du "littéralisme" dans l'essai de Benjamin mais, me semble-t-il, non pas pour faire émerger une quelconque Ursprache (Benjamin utilise "reine Sprache", la "langue pure", le "pur langage" ...)  mais, bien au contraire, pour laisser à la langue toutes ses chances d'ébranler l'œuvre, de lui faire ouvrir ses doubles-fonds que d'infimes étrangetés  laissent supposer.

Double-fond, clé secrète, clé qui change.

C'est un monde devenu dangereux, ensauvagé, qu'arpente le traducteur. Il s'agit d'exister au milieu de la bataille des Puissances. C'est pour cela que j'aime tant cet appel à l'image du Masque dans l'essai de Tennant, au-delà du sens que l'auteur lui donne !