Friday, March 11, 2011

Poem of the Day (and Poetry Site of the Month)

I recently stumbled upon a web site called Poems Found in Translation, run by a poet, linguist and polyglot* named A.Z. Foreman. It's a riveting site, not least because of the genuinely astonishing number of languages he's translated poems from -- nineteen (that's 19, one short of a score) at this count, including Arabic, Chinese, Esperanto, French, German, Hebrew and Russian. For those of us who struggle with any foreign tongues, it's rather breathtaking.

There are a lot of other nice features to the site too. He usually includes a recording of his own reading of the poem in the original -- with what sounds to an utterly ignorant and untrained ear (and at least in French & Chinese, the two I listened to) like a quite good accent. He has a small collection of book reviews of poetry translations, and a rather longer list of recommended books (mostly poetry in translation, but also some language learning materials). His translations also sometimes include helpful cultural hints that help you make sense of the poems. He always gives the original. And so forth.

In short: it's astonishing, and well worth checking out if your interests fall anywhere near that domain.

Blog of Poetry in Translation

And -- again, to the untrained, American monoglot -- his translations seem pretty good, too.

Now, like any translator, he has his own theory of translation, and what you think of it will have a huge impact on how you judge his translations. He writes that his translations "are meant to be enjoyed as poems, not scrutinized for lexical fidelity", and that "I have no interest in literal translation, and if my translation differs from the literal dictionary meaning of a word or phrase, I had a reason for it". And while he does occasionally also give a literal gloss, he more often doesn't.

Personally I'm a lot more interested in literal translation than he seems to be, although I agree that both sorts have their use; I think my ideal poetry translation reading set-up is to have two translations -- one quite literal, and one more flowing and focused on being a good English poem. Although I think that the very best translators manage (at least at times) to do both at once -- which is I suppose the ideal of my ideal.

But at any rate, Foreman's good, and worth checking out.

Here's a poem he's translated. It's by the Chinese poet Li Bai (李白), who lived 701 - 762 C.E. First, just for kicks & giggles, here's the original (which I can't read -- I'm just cutting & pasting here):


-- 李白
And here's the poem transliterated into modern pinyin (i.e. the official romanization system of the People's Republic of China). Note that although pinyin uses English-language letters, some of them are pronounced quite differently than in English (e.g. "x" is roughly what we would write as "sh"**); if you're interested, the basic rules are here. The poem:
Jìng yè sī 

Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng,  
Yí shì dì shàng shuāng.  
Jǔ tóu wàng shān yuè,  
Dī tóu sī gù xiāng.

-- Lǐ bái
And now, following my ideal above, I'll give first a literal translation, and then Foreman's freer translation. The literal translation:
Quiet Night Thoughts

The moonlight glistens in front of my bed.
I thought it was the frost on the ground.
I lift my gaze to view the shimmering moon,
Then lower my head, and miss my homeland.

-- Translated by Adele
And Foreman's literal one:
Thoughts on a Quiet Night

The moonlight is luminous at my bedside.
I look and mistake it for ground-fallen frost.
Head raised, I gaze toward the mountain moon.
Head lowered, I'm cold for home and lost.

-- translated by A.Z. Foreman
(Note: the link on Foreman's name is his requested citation, which just goes to his blog's main page; to get to his page on this particular poem, click on the title, or just click here.)

I can't speak to how faithful Foreman's poem is to the spirit of the Chinese; but I like it very much as a piece of English poetry -- which is, I think, his test. So it works for me.

Go ahead and check out Foreman's site. To get you started, another great poem also by Li Bai is his version of Li Bai's Seeing a Friend Off (pair it with the more literal translation is here). For a totally different poem, I liked Foreman's version of Baudelaire's L'Albatros too. (That's a poem with several different English versions I like; I may try to have a comparative post on the topic soon. Until then, go. Surf his site. Or just keep reading the posts further down this page. Or you could even stop procrastinating and get some work done. Up to you.)

* No, they're not the same. A linguist is someone who studies language; a polyglot is someone who knows lots of languages. A lot of polyglots aren't linguists, and you can do work in (at least some areas of) linguistics without knowing a lot of languages.

** At the same time, "sh" is also pronounced roughly as we would pronounce "sh"; yet "x" and "sh" are different phonemes, marking totally different words, so that you need to be able to hear (and say) the difference between, for instance, "xi" and "shi", even though they sound (to our ears) like "shi" and "shi". This is just one reason why Chinese is so damn hard.

1 comment:

A.Z. Foreman said...

I have over time come to be more willing to accept that what is called literal translation (when not presented as a literary product but a scholarly one) can be useful, and profitable, especially when one has as you put it "have two translations -- one quite literal, and one more flowing and focused on being a good English poem." Though your further statement that " I think that the very best translators manage (at least at times) to do both at once -- which is I suppose the ideal of my ideal" seems problematic to me. I don't think that one can fully do both ultimately. Poems like all communicative acts are phenomenological, depending upon a relationship between the message i.e. the text and the recipient i.e. whoever is reading. That's not to say that all ways of reading are equally valid or that one should not presume like Derrida that the author is irrelevant. But rather that one should avoid reifying the poem overmuch. Here's one post of mine (a poem by Du Fu) that attempts a literary translation to be read alongside a scholarly crib with notes:

and here's another literal+literary translation of mine from Russian:

Now, regarding the ostensible ease with which I learn languages, I feel that you assume as many do that I don't struggle. True, I find that the struggle is a more manageable one than many others seem to encounter, but it's by no means easy.

In studying Classical Chinese or Classical Arabic or Classical Persian or Old Norse or Middle Welsh, or reading collections of philological notes on a digitized ancient manuscript, as one gets older and the brain finds itself more and more inclined to become set in its neural ways, one learns what I must constantly relearn with difficulty: that one must not crave instantaneous satisfaction, that one must even summon forth the discipline to distrust any result arrived at too quickly. Mediocre students can often be more brilliant than good ones, and that may be enough when one is 18 or 21. But things like this eventually require more than brilliance for their mastery; more and more with the passing of years they also demand the investment of time in what may feel like drudgery.

The task, in short, comes to require a commitment to some partial vision of the future and a selfish yet selfless willingness to ignore the clock and the world.

Impatience is my chief obstacle, I try to develop techniques to increase my endurance and concentration, to recover more quickly from the regular waves of cognitive exhaustion. Most of all, I think, the study of languages with a view toward literary enjoyment has come to require of me, as I think of most, every effort to suppress the consummately arrogant expectation that one can find an easy way through, or cut through the difficulties quickly as if they were so many philological gordian knots.