Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Children of Men: Poems, Translations, and Robots

Peter Golub*


Photograph by timmygen is [the translator's] infidelity, his happy and creative infidelity, that must matter to us. −Jorge Luis Borges.(1)

Translations are quite literally children of men.(2) And this is both a very ordinary and a very intimate business, one which requires a great deal of love; yes, I've said it, translation is a labor of love. Clichés themselves are interesting puzzles for translation, and perhaps we'll get to some of these problems in due time, but for now love and children. As each person loves in their own body, place, and time, so does each person translate in their own way. And as all manuals on love are at best very amusing, so are programmatic approaches to translations. To        codify the proper way to translate would not only entail codifying the proper way to make art out of words, but the proper way to love. Each must follow their own intuition, without which the entire endeavor is nothing more than an exercise−the difference between a run on the treadmill and a hike through the woods.

A translation cannot be the original anymore than a human child is a clone of its parents. 
Because there are two parents, the child must necessarily be something new. The translator and author come together and make something new. Just as the same parents can come together and through their pro[creative] act make a great variety of children, so can the translator come together with the author, and through their mutual creative act make a great variety of texts. 

Even if the same translator translated the same text, she would inevitably come up with something different every time. And just as the tall offspring are better at basketball or the female offspring with 0.7 hip-waist ratio will be the more sexually appealing, each translation is suited for some things and unsuited for others. Each translation brings something new and different to the table, and this necessary difference is the new life of the text. The more translation, the more difference, the more alive the text is. As human beings live through their children, works of literature live through their translations.

This is why "fidelity" has never been a concern for me, because in the end it is always 
impossible. An obsession with fidelity at best yields slightly closer structural similarity between the two texts and at worst (and this is far more often the case) handicaps the text. These kind of translators, instead of encouraging play, send their kids off to summer school, fill their days with lessons, and examples of disciplinary excellence. These children may seem better for some extended period of time, but they are also the ones who are more likely to have a hard time adapting to changing environments, being flexible, and being imaginative (which of course is all the same thing).

As time passes, what lasts is what changes with and within its time−this goes for people and 
translations. As time passes, happiness is contingent on play and the imagination−this goes for people and translations. And of course, children are ultimately the product of two people, as the translation is the product of the translator and the text. Sometimes there are three people, in the case of a surrogate mother (which in translation is the equivalent of a podstrochnik). Or perhaps, as the case is for translations done by more than one translator, the text become rather translation is the result of some sort of polyandry, when it is hard to tell who the child belongs too. This was the case when I decided to invite a co-translator on my first book project. 

Things got pretty messy pretty fast, and eventually I simply gave up on the project. In this context, commentators, editors, etc. are more like doctor's and professionals who are there to give advice but ultimately have nothing to do with producing the actually sinews that make up the child or the words that make up the text. This is howI saw our workshop, and there were some really nice points made. Like when Piper pointed out the connection between "The Death of a Paratrooper" and the famous Randall Jarrell poem "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" I suddenly saw the Svarovsky in an new light, and was astonished I had missed the connections. This feeling of astonishment occurs often in translation. If you don't like feeling like a fool, then you probably shouldn't translate, unless, of course, you are a fool and a liar.

But translation comes with its rewards as well; even "bad" translations will be praised somewhere at sometime.

I got some fine feedback in the seminar; it is always a pleasure to not only have an educated 
readership, but to have them gather round the poems in one room and say what they think is best.

Many people suggested changes to this passage. I made some of these, but it also made me look closer at the passage, causing me to make a new translation. Here is one example:

You're alone in the house

And immediately jump from the window
Head first
Long bright-green plants sway in the current
You turn around and slowly drift
Down, your back on the sandy bottom
When father left me alone
I would dive from the window
And turn on my back so as to slowly drift
Down, bright-green plants swayed in the current
And with my eyes to the surface
I would sink until my back touched the sand

Two other examples of major revisions include the first stanza of part three in "Exiled Visitors," and the poem "Two Robots." In all these instances, people wanted more from the text. Some people were very specific rewriting lines as they saw fit, while others would simply write "something's missing here." All these comments brought me back to the poems with new insight; at times, as in the cases above, drastically reengineering the text. Whether I agreed with the suggestions or not, the feeling of community is just as important to a translator's work as the attentive editor or the sharp critic.

When you are in love, you should try, if possible, to understand what it is that produces this

feeling in you. This will help you not only be conscious of how you build an ideal around your
desires, but also, and perhaps more importantly, will allow you to see better how the real will
transgress the ideal you constructed. When you choose a poem, for instance, you should be aware of what elements in the poem drew you to it. These are the elements you should focus on, and when the poem does something else, or even contradicts your idea[l] of the poem, you as any lover will be faced with a choice to either try and change the beloved or change yourself (i.e. change your ideal).

Of course, the attentive eye of the honest lover will see the ideal in every aspect of their actions.

What strangers might see as a meretricious gesture, the lover will recognize as playful mimicry.

Whereas most responses to our actions are typical; if you yawn, they give you a pillow; if you laugh, they continue joking. But we are constantly misread, as texts are constantly misread, especially poems (those most ambiguous and capricious of texts). The poem is a child, but it is a lover as well, and both are incredibly fickle. The lover must know how to read their signs outside convention.

When most would respond to a yawn with a shoulder or pillow, the lover will lead the beloved in a mock tango to hum of the fluorescent tubes in the shabby traincar; when the beloved says they don't want to see the movie, what they're really saying is take me to the circus so that I can accost the elephant trainers with my PETA pamphlets. So too it is with poems, the translator must be ready to take an imaginative leap, leaps the text itself may have never foreseen, but which nonetheless are entirely natural and even more fun than the original.

There are several reasons why I like the poems of Fyodor Svarovsky; it would be silly to

declare your adoration for a person just because you like their legs or bank account or whatever. I like the poems because formally they are constructed according to the musical phrase, not the metronome, an edict of Pound's picked up the Olson in his "Projective Verse." In the essay, Olson introduces William's idea of “composition by field” and applies it to what he calls projective or open verse. Instead of predetermined conceptions about what the meter and rhyme of a poem should be, Olson’s projective verse focuses on the possibilities of the breath, of the breathing of the man who writes as well as of the man who listens. 

This is crucial. Not only does Olson quite literally couch form inside the actual, temporal form of the human author, he likewise couches it in the actual form of the human reader. Of ultimate concern here is the transference of poetic energy from source to poem to reader, and the way that energy shifts at each juncture, because the poet is no longer relying on a rigid contrived structure but on his own ever changing breathe and heart: "the HEAD, by way of the EAR, to the SYLLABLE / the HEART, by way of the BREATH, to the LINE."(3) A simplistic understanding of the above line would read this as a mandate for composing a line of verse, but one only need to remember that not all ears are the same (some poets are def) and not all hearts are the same (the continuous-flow artificial heart has no pulse). There is a vast landscape of possibilities.

In the Russian tradition, Mayakovsky makes a similar argument in his ars poetica "How to

Make Poems." Poets must oppose traditional methods of composition based on received forms.
Olson emphasizes physical temporal aspects of the poem but stressing the ear and the breath, and Mayakovsky likewise focuses on the sound of the poem. The cascading stepladder form used by Mayakovsky reflects his reading style, but it is also flexible i.e. it is able to change with time. He literally translates the form of his poems in relationship to the audience he is addressing. Therefore, the qualified reader is somewhat not bullied by the printed text, and can alter the poem according to the reading:

....careful planning notwithstanding even these intonations are not so strictly established. Indeed, I constantly vary my delivery when I read, depending on the makeup of the audience. Thus, for example, a printed text speaks somewhat differently, in that it assumes a qualified reader:

"One must tear the joy away from the future days."

Sometimes when reading on stage, I strengthen this line to a shout:
Tear joy away from future days!"(4)

I say all this because Svarovsky considers these poems to represent what he calls the new

epic, and epics are essentially long songs. They are performative and take their form from the natural breathe−one thing Dante and Mayakovsky have in common is that both chose the vernacular speech of their contemporaries as opposed to the traditional language of dead predecessors. So in my translations I do think of the contemporary, which in our time has been to a large extent occupied by the future, for if there is anything defining our age (in which the present seems to pass by at a superhuman pace) it is our ever growing obsession with the future. These futuristic epics or episodes from epics try to bridge that great divide between the past and future, creating a kind of new hybrid language that is both archaic and scientific.

This is another reason why I like these poems, and there are places where I have played with

the original in order to make my own hybrid in English. In the elegy that makes up Svarovsky's "The Funeral of Mekhos" there is a line in the original that reads: "в новом мире не будет зла / через восемь циклов отступит тьма." I have rendered this: "In the new world, there will be no evil / In the Eighth Epoch, the dark will recede." I have not kept the rhyme. I translated the word "цикл" which has a perfect English equivalent "cycle" as Epoch. I used capital letters where there were none in the original. At least three transgressions in a line poetry that has eight words. To my ear, the parallel construction of the two line brings in both epic and Biblical rhythms, and I felt no need to tawdry the couplet with an end rhyme. In English, the Psalms do not rhyme. In the language of contemporary cosmology the evolution of the universe is often divided into nine epochs, the last of which is called the Stellar Epoch (i.e. the epoch of the stars or light) and this is where we find ourselves today. And so I thought it best to connect the ancient yet futuristic ritual in the poem with our own contemporary language and place within the universe's evolution.

There are other places as well were I inserted more scientific language. In "Exile" I added

mathematical symbols and made reference to specific galaxies. Again, this was because I found the blend of scientific and mythic/epic language to hard to resist. I could have stayed inside the church of fidelity, but like a boy who sees fresh snow falling on the other side of the stained glass, I went outside and threw snowballs with other bad children. I have also translated "Гости" as "Exile."

Some translators might furrow their brow or squint their eyes at this indiscretion, but I love this

poem because it is about exile, and although for me the Russian the word "guest" has connotations of long travel and discomfort in English the word seemed too domestic and inviting for a poem about refugees. Now, one might object and say the poem is not about refugees at all, and I would simply respond that this is not what my poem is about. If someone has a another version let them toil with it as I have and have their own love affair.

And there are many more such derivations in these translations: I have changed tenses,

divided lines, inserted wives, and in a complete moment of recklessness not only rewrote a good deal of the dialogue in the poem titled "Two Robots" but inverted the names so that it is Petka grieving for Chapayev; thus, moving the poem closer to the Chapayev myth as opposed to the actual man. But I do not hide my biases, and will mention them in the introduction to the book; although, many I will not mention and more still I will be entirely unaware of, but this is the beauty of a translation that moves the SOURCE, by way of the IMAGINATION, to the NEW LANGUAGE / the NEW POEM, by way of PLAY, to the READER.(8) 



Prof. David Frick

Svarovsky Translation
May 05, 2012

(1) “The Translators of the One Thousand and One Nights.” Trans. Esther Allen. The Translation Studies Reader. Ed. Lawrence Venuti. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2004. 

(2) Though children of men are really children of women, in that the material comes from women and the factory itself is housed inside the woman. Robots too, at least Earth robots in the near future, will be children of men, though this time it will be easier to cut out the middle man, woman.

(3) Charles Olson. "Projective Verse." New York: Totem Press, 1962

(4) Vladimir Mayakovsky. "How Are Verses Made?"trans. George M. Hyde. London: J. Cape, 1970. p. 65

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