Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Note on Translation

Alastair Reid [1926-] is a poet and essayist and translator, probably best known for his English language versions of Neruda, Borges etc. In his book Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner (North Point Press, 1987), he writes about his native Scotland, and his periods of living in Spain and Dominican Republic. In the course of which, he makes the following statement(s) regarding the learning of foreign tongues, and, because it's something I've thought and said myself in the past, I believe it worth quoting: 

"To come late to another language means that even after it is learned well some of its dimensions are lacking. One is that of its written past, its literature and mythology; and it takes a discouragingly slow trudge to catch up. But what remains always out of reach is the experience of having known a language as a child, when words were intuitively calculated rather than learned; that instinctive knowing is what underlies word-play, wit and word music, the sudden surprises that can happen in language, that extend language. A friend from Peru remarked on the same thing while he was learning English: 'I can read the nursery rhymes, discover what they mean, but I can never get to the state of feeling them before their meaning, when the words are acting like a spell. I can have no past in the English language.' Translating back and forth between the two languages [English and Spanish], I often find myself with a foot in each, conscious of how great the gap can sometimes be, how distinct the styles; but I accommodate them both, and am grateful for the Spanish extension." 

Which is to say, if I may paraphrase for my own purposes here, that it is impossible to duplicate the process which occurs in childhood, when one is first learning language, of adopting the sounds and rhythms and denotations thereof. One can never have the intuitive underlying layers of feeling and secret springs of emotion and knowledge that are formed from earliest consciousness in language. It is these qualities that are deepest and most profound, which inform the best writing, the most poetic, the most mysterious. 

Robert Frost said that poetry is that which is lost in translation; by which he meant that the crucial ingredient of poetry, its magic element or component, is the wellspring of intimate associations with the language, which reach far back into our earliest encounters with and experience of words. As one who studied Latin, French, Spanish and German in varying degrees of unsuccess as a child and young adult,  I was always struck by the strange rhythms and habits of phrase which exist in foreign languages. I think I knew then, as I am certain now, that I would never be able to fully grasp the native speaker's apprehension of what it felt like to speak those "foreign" languages as an original act. The more difficult any poem or piece of prose is to translate, the richer its degree of idiomatic content. We are closest to the springs of our language when it's at its most inscrutable, its most curious, its most enigmatic. 


Ed Baker said...

really appreciate this thought-line:via your Peruvian friend:
"...the state of feeling them before their meaning, when the words are acting like a spell. I can have no past in the ... " {newest poems or paintings/drawings doing,etc]" :

I understand it
can't explain it.

One of my 'treasures' (here) is Wai-lim Yips
translations of (and his introduction to):

and the Wordsworth quote:

" Wordsworth once argued: "Minds that have nothing to confer / Find little to perceive." "

Craig said...

The poems I translated tell the story of the last six months of my great great grandfather's life. I knew my grandfather was a minister, but until the internet came along I knew nothing about my great grandfather and my great great grandfather except that they were presumably farmers who spoke German. It's like the poems were written specifically to help me put together the pieces of the puzzle.