by Manuela Perteghella
Literary translation is here understood to be a highly creative and artistic practice, through which texts are read and imagined, created and made. With the following notes, I want to zoom in on the process of translation as ‘text making’, exploring what it means to translate creatively, and ultimately offering new ways of understanding the unique, multivocal and privileged relationship between translating and translated writer, between the translator-writer-maker and the text.
Note number 1. Translation as a literary genre
Translation is a literary practice, which makes texts. And translators, in the words of writer Michèle Roberts, are ‘truly writers, truly makers’ (Roberts 2001, p. xv). The poet Pierre Joris also sees the act of translation as a literary writing act per se ‘Questioning the possibility of translation means to question the very possibility of literature, of writing, of language, which is always already a translation, i.e. is both an act of translation and the result of such act’ (Joris 1995, p. 34 quoted in Loffredo and Perteghella 2008, p. 67).
I want to argue further that literary translation is not literary just because it engages with and makes literary texts, but rather as translator and academic Clive Scott has clearly put it, ‘it encourages us to explore and initiate new forms, to create new spaces’ (2000, p. xi). Scott indeed presents a refreshing view, that of not limiting the idea of literariness only to the source and target texts – to translate a literary source text by making a literary target text – but to extend this literariness to the process of translation itself, calling translation ‘a literary language’ (Scott 2000, p. xi).
The act of translation therefore would necessarily develop new literary spaces, or ‘textual landscapes’, use available resources, but also experiment with new forms. Therefore the idea of translation itself as a ‘literary genre’ slowly emerges promoting the notion of translated literature as a new literary and artistic composition.
Note number 2. Translation is personal
The choice of what text to translate, even whether to accept a commission or not, is mostly, I would like to argue, a personal one, which supersedes even financial reasons. We may have an affinity at a certain point in our life with a particular writer. Some of you will be familiar with the Earl of Roscommon, who back in the seventeenth century, put it like this: ‘Seek a Poet who your way do’s bend, And chuse an Author as you chuse a Friend’ (The Earl of Roscommon 1685). There can be for example, a connection with the literary ecology that the foreign language writer has developed, which in turn may find echoes in the writer-translator’s own work, his or her own narratives and themes. Further, the translator, by translating certain texts, becomes intimate not only with that particular text but with the writer’s own poetics. Susan Bassnett even talks of ‘falling in love’ and ‘falling out of love’ with a specific writer and their work (Bassnett 2006, p. 177) at distinct times in a translator’s life. She gives the example of her translations of Pirandello when she was in her twenties, and whose intellectualising appealed to her at that stage of her life. Then she fell out of love with him. More recently, another bond developed, that with Argentinean poet Alejandra Pizarnik. ‘I discovered another writer, a very different writer, whose moods chimed with my own in some inexplicable way’ (Bassnett 2006, p. 178). As intimate readers of texts we interpret them and find affinities, reflected perhaps in our own life experiences. These particular texts generate certain emotions which spur us to translate them, but also to translate these in a particular way, to live intimately with them, to inhabit them for a while. It’s really a love affair.
Note number 3. Translation as dialogue
Translation is the visible engagement with the source text, its words, its stylistic devices, punctuation, in other word with its material language, but also the immaterial emotions, imagery, nuances, that the use of this materiality create. Scott observes that this engagement ‘offers the translator the opportunity to write his response to a text, to embody an experience of reading’ (Scott 2000, p. xi). I have discussed elsewhere (Perteghella 2013) how the ability to respond to a text, and to write this response, even from a different, alternative and experimental perspective, provides a further development in the relationship between translator and text, translator and creative writer, that of entering into a ‘dialogue’: this dialogue can be full of tension, the voice of the source text writer interacting with that of the target text writer (Loffredo and Perteghella 2008, p.14).
The translator, positioned in a dialogic context, becomes a participant, a speaker that speaks back to the source text poet. Translation as this resourceful intervention is therefore not seen as unethical appropriation of the source text, nor as a cannibalistic practice, nor as a gratuitous textual manipulation but rather a dialogic exploration of the text, which leads to its eventual transformation. It is the ability to respond, to enter into a dialogue in a more creative and critical way.
There is also another argument. The responsibility to a text, as both the ability to write a response to it and the answerability of the translator-writer-maker to the creation of the new text, also means, as Jean Boase-Beier clearly puts it ‘to understand how the poem works’ (Boase-Beier 1999, p. 82). Boase-Beier goes on to maintain: ‘without this, there can be no translation. Understanding how the poem works means understanding the nature of poetic language as language in which there is a special relationship between form and meaning’ (p.82.). It is with a process of understanding that translation is able to begin and later to develop into a dialogic model. This understanding starts the process of translation by unwrapping the textual meanings, identifying the stylistic devices used, although not necessarily reproduced at this stage. It is a stage of ‘opening up’, of reading aloud, of sketching what we think this word may mean, of retracing how the writer has developed his or her text. But also, of incorporating our response and initiating a conversation with the text/writer. We translate certain words with words that have been impressed in our psyche and tongue by our familiar usage, with words found often in our own idiolect, but also by the other texts that we read and have translated. The poet and classical translator Josephine Balmer notices how other texts we read at the time of writing become ‘subsumed into the poem as a more contemporary point of reference’ (Balmer 2006, p. 192).
In our first draft multiple choices for words are evaluated, and this dialogic first attempt can be made visible on the page, the draft behaving at times like a gloss, where foreign and familiar language are positioned side by side, or where multiple possibilities pop out on the page in text boxes, comments, parentheses, brackets, and so forth. The possible intertextual references in the source texts are also researched and made visible and commented upon. The text fragments, comments, questions, blank spaces, acts as what Ron Padgett calls ‘an interlinear commentary’ (Ron Padgett 2008, p. 106), that is reading or revision notes which externalise the dialogic aspect of translation itself, and that may be incorporated later on, in subsequent drafts. But why show these fragments in the first draft? Why externalise the internal, mental dialogue on the page? In his own experimental translations, Scott incorporates ‘manuscript marginalia’ because:
The marginal space is … the guarantor of the here and the now of enunciation, of spontaneous association, metadiscourse, unworked possibility, unpremeditated response … We begin to imagine a textualization of the pre-textual, the textual and the post-textual all in one (Scott, 2006b, p.108)
More to the point, the notes on this first draft act also as a dialogue with the reader, of what the translator has done to the text and why. These could be used as a sort of hypertext to the poem, so that the reader could choose whether to follow or explore these notes further or not. Below there’s an example of such first draft, the opening up of the textual, literary and cultural dialogue which I made of Traversando la Maremma toscana, (Crossing the Tuscan Maremma) by the Italian poet Giosuè Carducci. Carducci was brought up in the Maremma and wrote the sonnet many decades later, in 1887, after crossing this landscape on one of his train journeys from Livorno to Rome. The poet is moved to see again the places where he spent the happiest years of his life, his childhood and youth, when he had dreams that he thought would be fulfilled. And while the familiar aspect of this land, suddenly recognized through childhood memories, brings smile and perhaps a tear or two of joy, it also brings regret with it, as the comparison with his present life raises feelings of sadness and resignation. Indeed, only death is certain and possibly nearby. Yet, the beauty of the land, the fog wrapping the hills, the green of the plain, the smiling, benign nature, also brings an unexpected peace to the poet:
The presence of Italian language in my first draft is a visible link to the text of departure, and of course it also presents complex words and concepts which must be recreated in English. The possible intertextual reference to Dante is commented upon. There are also two textual fragments which I have translated from another of Carducci’s poems, ‘Davanti San Guido’, where again the poet is on a train on one of his journeys, and sees his childhood landscape, this time tall cypresses who invite him to stay with them, as only nature is able to soothe, albeit temporarily, his internal struggles. In this first draft therefore intertextual references to Carducci’s other texts (and my own reading/memory of Carducci’s work) are also activated. Most importantly, the process of translation itself, some of it perhaps traditionally happening only mentally, is instead made visible, embodied in the writing.
Note number 4. Translation as shapeshifter
Michèle Roberts sees translation as a form of magic capable of ‘metamorphosis’(Roberts, xvi), one text gets changed into another, where the subjectivity of the translator will be more or less visible, but never absent. As we have seen above, Scott believes that translation encourages us to explore new forms (Scott 2000). For example, the juxtaposition of verbal and non-verbal texts in experimental translations allows us to explore different channels in which to express or contextualise our response of the text, even opening up a dialogue between modes, such as verbal and pictorial composition.
Furthermore, the cultural context in which we translate is one influenced by a multimodal culture, in particular an increasingly visual culture. So, while the drafting period has mostly focused on the textual, paratextual, intertextual or even hypertextual levels, translators should be ready to explore and transform texts by using, mixing, and experimenting with different media to express these textual levels.In poetry, because of this genre’s inherent multimodality, besides the verbal channel, its oral, aural and in some cases visual channels can and should also be activated (Loffredo and Perteghella 2008, p.17). A translation of a poem could therefore be accompanied by moving images and texts, as used in the filmic poetry genre.
Note number 5. Translation as movement
Movement in translation is expressed through progression through time, through the drafting process, but also different translations of the poem. In the drafting process, the ensuing corrections, alterations or restructurings can be perceived as acts of self-writing, ‘whereby the ‘self’ writes and rewrites itself’ (Loffredo and Perteghella 2008, p.97); the linearity implied in the drafting process can instead give way to what Scott calls ‘a whole bundle of virtualities’ (Scott 2006c, p. 35) that is the virtual spaces of reading which enact (different) possibilities on the blank page. Indeed, rather than choosing one ‘final’ version, all the different readings, with their changes and restructurings, can be made visible at once, offering the reader a complete experience of the textual possibilities. Translation also embodies movement in the sense of the metaphorical and actual journey of the text border-crossing cultures, personalities, and, of course, languages.
Note number 6. Translation as creative practice
The literary translation envisaged here advocates translation not solely as a linguistic skill and/or a powerful cultural practice, but essentially as a creative writing practice, shapeshifting, moving around borders, working with materials and materiality, travelling through genres, zooming in at the process itself and at the translator’s subjectivity marked and visible within the ‘new’ text and in the different drafts this subjectivity produces (Loffredo and Perteghella 2006). Creativity explores new spaces, negotiates, invites the writer-translator to experiment with a variety of modes (the verbal, the visual, the oral, the aural). The shapeshifting, moving power of translation can be seen for example in Eugenia Loffredo’s visual and verbal translation of ‘How To Face Death’ by Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Our collaborative translation of the myth of Galatea ‘Written on her Ivory Skin‘ also opens up not only a textual dialogue with its previous verbal translations (Dryden’s and Hughes’) but also with a visual mode spawned by the textural descriptions of the source text.
Below follows my recent creative translation of another of Carducci’s poems ‘Ancient Lament’ (Pianto antico) composed in 1871 in memory of his three-year old son, who had died the year before. The Italian poem is structured in four quatrains, with rhyming scheme ABBC. Its rhythm recalls that of a lullaby, though its subject matter, the death of a child, creates a contrast with the soothing effect. Thus, the poem is sweet and harrowing, calming and desolate at the same time. The pomegranate tree the child used to play with, has become alive again in the heat of the summer (the poet uses nouns such as ‘light’, ‘green’, ‘warmth’), yet the garden has become silent, lonely, as the boy is now buried in the cold, black earth, where he can never feel the June sunshine again or be awaken by parental love. Death is for Carducci definitive and hopeless; there are no religious undertones. Having first read this poem as a child (and learnt it by heart too) I wanted to keep that lullaby rhythm, but also recreate the vivid imagery of the tree and its red pomegranate fruit in my mind as I first read it (and imagined it) many years ago. I also felt I needed to highlight the role of the garden as both playground and grave of the child, as this particular feature is what stayed with me for so long. The result is a mixed media text using the techniques of collage and watercolour on watercolour paper:
Naturally, ethical issues towards the reader, in particular the non-specialist reader, are raised in these creative, experimental translations often of non-experimental texts. Such translations, some have rightly argued, cannot be intelligible, or fully understandable ‘without reference to the original’ (Procter 1999, pp.12-13) and therefore ‘these texts, then, can only be appreciated by those who in actual fact have no need of them’ (Procter 1999, p. 13). Indeed, our ideal reader would be someone who first of all is aware of the translator’s inevitable subjectivity within the text, of the dialogic quality of language and creativity, and trained in reading experimental texts.
Of course, one way of including the non-specialist reader into understanding and enjoying creative translation is in fact to show its literary gestation, the drafting process, without being obsessed by the illusion of the ‘polished, finished’ product, and to encourage readers to read and view multiple versions of the same text. This clearly entails an understanding of how translation evolves and changes – shapeshifts – by literary publishers too. Further, the proliferation of e-books and digital reading devices could aid the publication of multimodal translations.
Then there’s the argument of fidelity towards the source text and its writer. To see translation as the personal ability to respond to a text is, perhaps, one of the ways forward. To redefine fidelity is another. But this means we must go back to the core issue of what translation is or should be. And definitions of translation, as well as of fidelity and faithfulness, are subject to change and differ widely from culture to culture, and from group to group.
By working within contemporary notions of translation as a creative enterprise, we can attempt a definition of our own idea of translation as a literary process of text-making whereby we are able to reimagine texts, transform them, even using different modes, if our response to them take us there.
I delivered an extended version of this paper at the conference ‘Reading the Target: Translation as Translation’, University of East Anglia, 23 March 2013.
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