Wednesday, March 16, 2005

WORDS ON THE MOVE: Translation of Carole David's Bouche à Bouche

This year, for the second time, members of the public were invited by the Literary Translator's Association of Canada to translate poems by two of Quebec's best-known poets in an event called Words on the Move. The poets this year were Carole David (Bouche à Bouche) and Robyn Sarah (Once, Desire). Some twenty translators participated in rendering the David poem into English, including yours truly (two others translated it to Italiano). Other notables in the Montreal English literary scene who participated include Maxianne Berger, Elise Moser, and Hugh Hazelton.

The original poem can be seen here.

My translation can be seen here.

All the translations can be accessed here.

The call for translations took place back in January. A reading of the translations took place, appropriately enough, at the best-known hangout for Montreal francophone writers, the cafe-bistro Les Gâteries, on Feb. 9. I unfortunately couldn't be present because of teaching commitments. The translations just got posted on the web last week.

Obviously, it was an enjoyable experience for everyone involved. I look forward to the chance to do it again in coming years.

The David poem seemed pretty easy to intelligably render using obvious, viz. literal word choices . There were relatively few awkwardnesses. Hence what is most striking, perhaps, is the similarity between the translations.

I'm sure, however, that all the translators found they were in immediate contact with quite a different sensibility than one ordinarily finds in English, a sensibility that is all but impossible to satisfactorily render. French is an exceptionally subtle and gentle kind of whisper-language (yet forceful within its gentleness, an iron-fist-in-velvet-glove quality) that sustains passionate expressions of abstraction with far more authority than English. "Nous sommes depuis sortis de la réalité", for instance, has far more elegance -- and punch -- than "We have since left reality" or anything like that we can muster.

In my own translation, I departed from the literal in a number of places. I translated "prends moi sur la sol" -- literally "take me on the ground" -- to "take me on the trestle" -- I liked the rhythms and sound and in the train context it seemed to work better. Translating the final question -- "faut-il que je te le rappelle aujourd'hui" -- as a statement is perhaps a more questionable departure, and looking at it today, I still have reservations. Somehow, though, in French the word "rapeller" (with its internal "appelle", call, naming) has greater strength than "remind " or "tell you about", or even "recall"; as well, the multisyllabic way of phrasing the question -- which word-by-word comes out as "Must it be that I you it recall today" -- contains an echo-chamber of subtle relations that cannot be reproduced in English. In English the question "Must I tell you this today" (or whatever... see other translations for possible alternatives) seems at once bald and weak. So I opted to preserve paralellisms and a kind of breathless "I have to tell you this today." (If the narrator internally questions why she must tell him this today, she still has to tell him, right??? Well, yes...)

As Borges put it in an interview back in the early eighties (Twenty-Four Conversations with Borges: Interviews by Roberto Alifano 1981-83) "At present, literal translations are in vogue... from the very beginning we lose the rhythms -- which to me are more essential to the poetry than the abstract meaning of the words... I believe that literal translations only offer help in understanding a text, but nothing more. It is now common to publish bilingual editions, which lead the translator to a more literal version, perhaps too literal, since he knows that the reader compares the original with the translation. I disagree with this editorial format, which surely works against the translator."

Funny -- usually I prefer bilingual editions, because through them I get the chance to taste the original for myself, even if it's a language I don't know. But I have to agree with him on the limitations of literal translation they enforce.

Of course, I wasn't at the reading, but I imagine it may have gotten monotonous if they had read out more than four or five translations, since they were all so similar. Perhaps next time if the LTAC chose a more problematic poem, one that could be translated several strikingly different ways, it would reveal more about the dilemmas translators always face. (This, I recognize, is a tall order...)


Brian Campbell said...

Karin Montin, one of the translators, sent me an email to say,

Dear Brian,

Thanks for the link, and the publicity for the event. I agree with you that in some ways the poem was easy, but it was certainly not without its difficulties. I found "le fleuve va s'ouvrir" a particularly difficult line, for instance. The combination of train and water imagery throughout was interesting. And as you point out, the last two lines were hard.

The more I translate (literary and otherwise), the less I like the whole idea of "literal" translation. Sometimes the best translations happen to match the original quite closely. So much depends on the original text. Then again, much depends on the translator, too. A "literal" translation of a given line is neither inherently better or worse; it all depends on the two lines. An awkward translation can stick too close to the original without quite being a word-for-word or syllable-for-syllable rendering. A bad translation can have nothing of the literal about it; for example, a word can be completely misunderstood, or the translation un-English.

I think translating a poem with a formal structure or a rigid rhyme scheme would be a big challenge and I may suggest that to (LTAC Coordinator)Rachelle Renaud for next time.


Karin Montin

Brian Campbell said...

Maxianne Berger wrote me an email to say,

thanks for the kind mention, Brian ...
the reading itself of all the versions was, in fact, fascinating ..
yes, repetitive, but the variations showed me both better ways
than i'd found for conveying certain aspects of the david poem,
and also the lovely flexibilities of language ..
as to the yellow door, i'll be reading there again May 12th .. it
would be nice to get some new stuff written .. right now i've a
deadline for an occasional piece to mark my mother's 80th!
take care,