‘The Awful Daring’
On Literary Translation
by Maureen Holm
By the time the May issue appears, my German rendering of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land will be settled in, awaiting the knock on the door of the ‘translation police’ who responded to certain of Professor Fagles’s linguistic choices for Homer’s Odyssey (March). If a cynic is often a failed romantic, the niggler is too seldom a failed poet who was once made hopeful that art conquers technique. As such, he would not be deaf to Professor Fagles’s bolder, artistic choice to vary Homer’s metrics to sustain momentum.
‘Translation must be entrusted only to those who have creative experience of the art over which they are engaged.’
A good literary translator begins, as Fagles says, with a work that is compelling to his sensibilities and then gives those imaginative play––without compromising accuracy. But just what is accuracy?
In a 1952 essay, Rolfe Humphries, translator of Federico García Lorca’s ‘Poet in New York,’ describes a hypothetical translator of Goethe’s Faust, whose 20-year effort at accuracy puts the lie to the rumor that Goethe was a literary giant. Humphries contrasts his fictive drudge with Housman, who, in a dispute over a Juvenal text, claimed as authority for his emendations that, as a poet, he knew how the other’s mind worked. Later scholarship proved him right.
Humphries establishes as a cardinal principle for the 20th century that, ‘[t]ranslation must be entrusted only to those who have creative experience of the art over which they are engaged.’ He even urges us to compensate for the author’s lapses, to sense the passages where he has wearied and shore him up. Humphries defense sufficient for Professor Fagles to shift the burden back to the ‘translation police,’ while the rest of us benefit from his fresh retelling of a durable story.
The German for \"cruel\" is crueler than cruel.’
Pound tested a translation by the ‘feel’ of being in contact with the force of a great original. I have deferred reading Eliot in German until completely finished with what bgan very late one night as a reverse reflex dynamic. After line 12 (‘Bin gar keine Russin’), the page began to germanize, letters flipping over like the arrival posting board at Grand Central.
The German for ‘cruel’ is crueler than cruel; it thrummed in my consciousness, leading pitilessly to the fearsome handful of dust. The second-syllable stress on ‘brutal’ enhances the powerful 4-line opening of a great original (‘Brutalster Monat ist April’), combining voluptuous vowels (‘stumpfe Wurzeln mit Frühlingsregen rührt’) and cadence in stride with Eliot’s.
But the lines most compelling for me in both languages and which convinced me to undertake the piece as a whole rather than in academic snatches are the thunder’s, appearing ‘DA’ to ‘DA’, at 400-411.
Then spoke the thunder
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
‘Language is the sequence of telling, but consciousness the order of it.’
Homilies to Life are the pocket-change currency of nearly every perfect-bound journal in the country. Entrenched in an age of prudence and prose, we blithely refine our flat, feckless abominations of Williams into the new millennium, incognizant of de rigueur, fin-de-siècle fatigue. To paraphrase Professor Fagles: Language is debased by timid usage.
Language is the sequence of telling, but consciousness the order of it. While Eliot poured life-affirming cadence into the arid spacelessness of post-war despair, we are saturated in facile wonder over the innocuous and phenomenological, unguent in collective self-indulgence, marveling at our quotidian humanity. Gide said every good writer owes it to his country to translate at least one good foreign work. The converse should also hold true. How much of our work compels the effort, skill, and art of translation or of musical treatment as aria, Lied, epic ballad?
‘No amount of intuition can compensate for a tone-dead ear.’
Lyric Recovery originated first and foremost to reaffirm through demonstration the global commonality of musically-infused poetry, whatever the language in which it is conceived. Through multilingual events in New York, Paris, Prague and elsewhere, LyR reclaims the music indispensable to new poetry and proposes musical settings for the old (e.g. Yeats, Rilke, Valéry). We present, engender and reward work that offers reach, craft, content and musicality, and extend the lyric beyond its classic definition as an \"I\" reference, a single, monolingual speaker relating his experience of the world.
Humphries’s Housman anecdote illustrates that the best translator renders a poem from the inside out––the ultimate ‘close reading’ certainly, but a good deal more because, ‘No amount of intuition can compensate for a tonedead ear.’ If the translator possesses and applies these talents, must not the author as well? A lackluster poet by some accounts, Poe arguably achieved permanent stature in France on the merit of his translator, Baudelaire.
Humphries closes with a corollary principle: ‘You will not spoil a really good translator if you pay him handsomely. Whatever the wage, he performs a labor of love––as well as an act of praise.’
And maybe even of transsubstantiation.
New York, March, 1999
((c) 1999 p h i l o p h o n e m a. Reprinted with author permission from the April 1999 issue of The Poetry Calendar. and the 2000 Lyric Recovery Festival at Carnegie Hall program.)
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