It’s always easy to tear a translation apart, and the easiest kind of translation to tear apart is poetry. Vladimir Nabokov, who lived multilingually and thought a lot about translation, was one of the best, and funniest, critics of other people’s renditions of Russian classics into English—as can be seen now in his ”Art of Translation”, a article from 1941 available on The New Republic’s website.
But Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin, which he mentions working on in this piece, didn’t come off so well, because he got overly concerned about following rules he set for himself. Any translation of a poem has to give up on entire swathes of what makes the verse intriguing and worth reading in the original, but it can’t work on any level if it doesn’t stand as a poem on its own terms. But to do that, as Nabokov notes, the translator needs to see the world, as best he can, through the poet’s eyes.
A mistake of that sort came up in an evening on the classic Israeli poet Leah Goldberg that I attended last week. A lecturer read the first section of a poem called “About Myself,” which I offer in my own inadequate translation here:
My seasons are etched in my verse
As a tree’s are in its rings
As my years are in furrowed skin.
I have no hard words—
To hamper my visions.
Are as clear as a church’s window.
One can see
The changes in the light outside
How my loves
Like dead birds fall
From the sky.
The lecturer, Rachel Ofer, took the word “clear” literally; the poet stands inside a church and looks out through the window; she compares her poetry to a transparent window that allows the reader to read her metaphors unambiguously.
My guess is that Goldberg, who grew up in Lithuania, was thinking of stained-glass windows, or at least the heavy, thick kinds of windows one finds in old and venerable buildings. Such windows distort and color the light; you can’t, in fact, get a good idea of what’s going on outside if you look through them. Indeed, church architecture usually aims to focus your attention inside and not to allow outside distractions in.
If that’s correct, then Goldberg’s use of the word “clear” (shekufot in Hebrew, literally “transparent”) is ironic rather than declarative. The reader, then, stands within the church; Goldberg’s life is outside; the window is the poem, and through it the reader can get, despite the supposed clarity of the poet’s language, the reader can receive from the poem only the vaguest idea of the poet’s experience. It’s not even clear whether her lovers fall dead from the skies is the poet’s experience, or the reader’s distorted understanding of that experience. Even if the reader correctly sees the core of that experience, the horrible tragedy of the loss of all her loves gets translated by the window into the tranquility of the church interior. The reader only reads; he does not experience the true pain of loss.
The poem itself, then, is a failed translation. Even the clearest poem, Goldberg says, cannot truly convey meaning. Yet, ironically, Goldberg’s poem makes her point.
So perhaps there is hope for translation, and poetry, after all.