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Polish Poetry: Should one only translate into one's own native tongue?


boletus 30 | 1,366
14 Apr 2011  #1
Marit MacArthur in her essay [1] recalls an obvious and accepted truth among most translators that one should only translate into one's native tongue. She concludes with the suggestion that the ideal solution in navigation of the poetry translation traps is collaboration between:

two poets or literary scholars representing each language and poetic tradition, such as Miłosz (whose last name, incidentally, means "love"), and Robert Hass, or Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott, or Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire, who have, in my view, produced remarkable translations of Szymborska. There are also some examples of effective collaborative translation in Sommer's Continued, mentioned above. John and Bogdana Carpenter, translators of Zbigniew Herbert also come to mind, though they also present another problem.

I know many of you are multilingual and some of you write or translate poetry. What do you think? I am really curious. Are Polish translators incapable of delivering Anglo-Saxon poetry by overusing Latinate vocabulary and struggling with male rhymes and monosyllabic rhythms in English? Are English speaking natives capable of restraining themselves from converting Polish poetry into something that sounds uniformly international English and is generally lost in translation?

I know, this sounds like overgeneralization, and there are probably many good examples of Polish natives doing good job translating classical poets, such as Galczyński, Tetmayer, Tuwim. There are plenty of blogs around that produce translations from Polish to English that sound good to me. But I am not a native English speaker, and that's a point - I cannot really judge the products.

I have seen several good translation from Polish to English, remarkably well done by an American, Walter Whipple[2]. His rendition of Tuwim's "Lokomotywa" is excellent, in my opinion, and I do not care that all the rhymes are male and rhythms are monosyllabic. I can still sense the great onomatopoeic effects, sounding almost as good as in original Polish. Well, but this little poem is special, almost designed to be easily translated to English. But Walter Whipple handles other Polish classical poets remarkably well: Słowacki, Norwid, Tetmayer, Szymborska...

[1] "Some Problems with Modern Polish Poetry in Translation"[1] , posted on 23 December 2010 in Contemporary Poetry Review,
cprw.com/some-problems-with-modern-polish-poetry-in-translation

[2] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Whipple
alexw68
14 Apr 2011  #2
I'd go further. The only person who should translate poetry into their native tongue is a poet.

Polish poetry has been for too long ignored because most of the translations have been done by academics.
Des Essientes 7 | 1,291
14 Apr 2011  #3
Miłosz

Czesław Miłosz said that he had intended to translate his uncle Oscar's poems into Polish but he abandoned the project because a good translation could not be made owing to too many abstract French terms in the verses. So there is a case of even the translator's native tongue being deemed inadequate.
Lyzko
14 Apr 2011  #4
In my professional opinion, a person has only ONE (1) mother tongue: the language solely in which they were educated, i.e. received their earliest schooling, not necessarily the language they heard growing up. I, for instance, grew up hearing German before I heard English as my nanny was a German-native speaker whose English was poor, and who therefore preferred to speak, sing to me in her mother tongue. Having said all that, ENGLISH, not German is my "mother tongue", as, not only are both my parents essentially monolingual Anglophones, but my sole and solitary language of instruction was English, until at least age sixteen.

As regards the poster's question, a translator of poetry in a language ought ideally be both a poet themselves as well as a native speaker of the source language, for instance, Poles translate INTO Polish from whichever language, not into English, German, Slovene etc... no matter how good they may think they are!! My experience has proven, both on the hiring/firing as well as the employee end of the business, that translating into a language of which one is not a native results all too often in numerous, sometimes fatal, errors. I speak Polish, German, Dutch and half a dozen other languages, but would never claim to the native fluency of English. The latter, I feel, is arrogant, not to mention, unprofessional.
OP boletus 30 | 1,366
14 Apr 2011  #5
I'd go further. The only person who should translate poetry into their native tongue is a poet.

Polish poetry has been for too long ignored because most of the translations have been done by academics.

Yes, that's what she (Marit MacArthur) said as well.
Lyzko
14 Apr 2011  #6
I'd concur with that too. I'm a bonafide 'non-poet' through and through. I therefore stick to prose, pure and simple. Plus, there's more money in it anyhow-:) There's an old saying: "Shoemaker, stick to your last!" = Translator, translate that which you know best!
Leopejo 4 | 120
14 Apr 2011  #7
In my professional opinion, a person has only ONE (1) mother tongue: the language solely in which they were educated, i.e. received their earliest schooling, not necessarily the language they heard growing up.

Generally speaking maybe, but there are many cases in which the above doesn't apply.
OP boletus 30 | 1,366
14 Apr 2011  #8
good translation could not be made owing to too many abstract French terms in the verses

But this seems to be something else. He apparently was capable of doing the translation, but he did not want to do it. Maybe his uncle's messianic philosophy did not fit his view of the world? Just guessing.
Magdalena 3 | 1,837
15 Apr 2011  #9
the language solely in which they were educated, i.e. received their earliest schooling, not necessarily the language they heard growing up

Well, my earliest schooling was in English (6-10 years of age). Does it make me an English native speaker? Is English my mother tongue? No, Czech is my mother tongue and this is the language I would probably use to cry for help if in mortal danger - because my mother spoke Czech to me. I have never spent a single day in a Czech school, though.

Nevertheless, I feel very comfortable translating into English, and if faced with a choice I would much rather go Czech to English than English to Czech. Go figure.

Anyway, it's definitely not as black and white as you would have it be.
mafketis 20 | 7,171
15 Apr 2011  #10
There are plenty of blogs around that produce translations from Polish to English that sound good to me. But I am not a native English speaker, and that's a point - I cannot really judge the products.

Generally _all_ written translation should be done into the translator's native language. You can be extraordinarily fluent and still not grasp certain fleeting bits of style and rhythm and secondary and tertiary connotations. This has nothing to do with fluency per se, there are lots of Polish speakers who are extraordinarily fluent in English, but they don't feel certain things the way native speakers do. It also goes the other way, I know I'll never have near the understanding of certain aspects of Polish as a native speaker does.

As for translating poetry, that's mostly a sucker's game. The highest possible reward is pretty low and the effort required is stupendous.

Are English speaking natives capable of restraining themselves from converting Polish poetry into something that sounds uniformly international English and is generally lost in translation?

Well I don't understand why English rhythms should be carried over into Polish translations or vice versa.....

But then I'm not a poetry person. I like some stuff here and there but can mostly leave it alone.
Magdalena 3 | 1,837
15 Apr 2011  #11
You can be extraordinarily fluent and still not grasp certain fleeting bits of style and rhythm and secondary and tertiary connotations.

But if I'm Polish and translating a Polish poem into English, then I should be mainly concerned with the Polish side of things - let's say I use an unusual style or rhythm, break with the English poetic tradition if need be, and maybe introduce a little "Polish soul" into the finished English text. Is that wrong? (This is a general question, I don't translate poetry for a living).

On the other hand, if an English poet translates a Polish work into English, they might not fully grasp the "secondary and tertiary connotations" of the original, and so produce a flawed translation. Is that not a major concern as well?

This is probably a dilemma that cannot be truly resolved unless two or more translators work together.
mafketis 20 | 7,171
15 Apr 2011  #12
let's say I use an unusual style or rhythm, break with the English poetic tradition if need be, and maybe introduce a little "Polish soul" into the finished English text. Is that wrong? (This is a general question, I don't translate poetry for a living).

As a person who's motto is 'good fences make good neighbors' I'd say 'yes'.

On the other hand, if an English poet translates a Polish work into English, they might not fully grasp the "secondary and tertiary connotations" of the original, and so produce a flawed translation. Is that not a major concern as well?

It is a major concern for all translators all the time.

I have some doubts bout teams of translators (too many cooks) but I like the idea of more than one translation that together can help the reader get an idea of the original - one only concerned with surface meaning, another trying to conserve some poetic style etc.
Magdalena 3 | 1,837
15 Apr 2011  #13
I'd say 'yes'.

Why exactly? Assuming the translation may seem "unusual" if judged by English standards, but contains no actual stylistic, lexical or other errors? To me, literary translation should convey the spirit of the original, not try to mould the original according to the expectations of the target readers' tradition.

I have some doubts bout teams of translators

Co dwie głowy, to nie jedna ;-)
mafketis 20 | 7,171
15 Apr 2011  #14
To me, literary translation should convey the spirit of the original, not try to mould the original according to the expectations of the target readers' tradition.

I like Polish to be like Polish and English (actually American in my case) to be like American (I'm all in favor of keeping US and British usage very separate too. I'm not much into the whole exporting styles trip. That's just my personal preference. I understand that mine is the minority position but there's no arguing with taste.

And "maintaining the spirit of the original" has long been an excuse used by Polish translators producing rubbish that doesn't make sense in Polish....
Magdalena 3 | 1,837
15 Apr 2011  #15
benjamins.com/cgi-bin/t_bookview.cgi?bookid=BTL%2062

Have a look at the book preview thingy. Seems like a really interesting read.
OP boletus 30 | 1,366
15 Apr 2011  #16
I understand that mine is the minority position but there's no arguing with taste.

Well, I am just a poor peasant, but I am fascinated by work of masters.

But I can easily guess that there is a fluid border between the original source and the translation output. How far you, as a translator, are allowed to interfere with the original structure of a poem? Is a form as important as a content? And what do we call the content? Surely it's not just a story! There is something over and above over there.

I can imagine that in some cases the outcome is so different from the source that the two might be completely unrecognizable as "a couple". So in effect the translator has transformed the original text into something else - becoming in a way a co-author of the poem. Is it fair? Some say yes, some say no.

Some literary products are strictly about the form, like - for example - creation of many volumes of text, subjected to some formal rules. Volume 1, all vowels are just "a", volume 2 - we are using only e's, etc. Is this literature? Sure it is. We may not like it, but we do not have the power to categorize it is "non-literature".

Let me describe one little item. There is a book:
Le Ton beau de Marot, In Praise of the Music of Language, by Douglas R, Hofstadter.

It has more than 600 pages of incessant talking on hundreds of subjects. but it circles around one major topic: translation of one very short poem by an obscure 16-th century French poet "Clément Marot".

Here it goes

A une Damoyselle malade

Ma mignonne,
Je vous donne
Le bon jour;
Le séjour
C'est prison.
Guérison
Recouvrez,
Puis ouvrez
Votre porte
Et qu'on sorte
Vitement,
Car Clément
Le vous mande.
Va, friande
De ta bouche,
Qui se couche
En danger
Pour manger
Confitures;
Si tu dures
Trop malade,
Couler fade
Tu prendras,
Et perdras
L'embonpoint.
Dieu te doint
Santé bonne,
Ma mignonne.

This poem has the following properties:
1. The poem is 28 lines long
2. Each line consists of three syllables
3. Each line main stress falls on final syllable
4. The poem is a string of rhythmic couples: AA BB CC ...
5. Midway, the tone changes from formal "vous" to informal "tu"
6. The poems opening line is echoed precisely at the very bottom.
7. The poet puts his own name directly into his poem.

TRANSLATE.
This was the challenge issued by Hofstadter to many people around the world. And guess what? All had major problems. English-specific, Polish-specific, Italian-specific...
strzyga 2 | 993
15 Apr 2011  #17
Is that wrong?

You risk getting haphazard results - the reception of your experiments in native ears (eyes) may be very far from the intended one.
I don't translate poetry either, at least not for a living, just prose, but I think the necessary skills are similar in both cases, it's just that the problems one encounters in translating poetry are more diluted with prose (read: working with prose is more time-effective ;). Even if my English were much better than it is I would never attempt to translate into it anything more than a letter or an academic paper. You can very well work both ways with legal, business or other highly repetitive texts; you can't do it with texts where the language itself is the substance unless you have a native feeling of the language - meaning, you are a native speaker. And "feeling" is the operative word here. Otherwise, you just won't get it right. It's like trying to copy a picture when you're partially colour-blind and don't notice half of the shades you obtain when mixing the paints.

Is that not a major concern as well?

It is and getting back to the painting metaphor, here we have a painter who, while not discerning all the shades of the original, is, however, able to see all the nuances of his own work. He may still produce a masterpiece, even if it differs from the original. All in all, it seems a better alternative. Translations are never completely faithful anyway... Traduttore, traditore. Just think of Kubuś Puchatek and Winnie the Pooh :)

More often than not is the art of cheating ;)

This is probably a dilemma that cannot be truly resolved unless two or more translators work together.

Maybe. Some translators work in pairs. Some don't. At least, there's no risk of a personality clash ;)
Lyzko
15 Apr 2011  #18
Indeed, nothing, least of all the art of translation, surely, is black or white! I'm merely suggesting that many persons who claim to be "fluent bi -trilinguals" in several languages, even to the extent of claiming several mother languages, are in fact very good in those other languages, yet fall short of the complete naturalness of idiomatic expression in any tongue other than their mother tongue.

Very often too, I notice obvious errors in the texts of supposed 'bilingual native speakers' on PF, simultaneously swearing up and down that these are not errors, but rather varieties of usage or typos. Well, once a typo begins to set a pattern, i.e. overstays its unwelcome by becoming a habit, it ceases to be a typo and graduates into a full-blown boo-boo.No euphemism in the world can save you then-:))LOL
strzyga 2 | 993
15 Apr 2011  #19
Le Ton beau de Marot, In Praise of the Music of Language, by Douglas R, Hofstadter.

oh, this guy. I loved his "Goedel, Escher, Bach". Mind-boggling stuff :)
Lyzko
15 Apr 2011  #20
Max Knight's translations of the German poet Christian Morgenstern's verse into idiomatic English are a double masterpiece! One, because the English verse just plains flows with hypnotic perfection, and two because Knight himself (despite his nom de plume!) was a bloody Viennese Jew, who, like the bilingual Pole Joseph Conrad, learned English as SECOND LANGUAGE WHILE IN COLLEGE!!

There's always going to be the stray genius out there who throws all our wonderful theories out of kilter-:)
Magdalena 3 | 1,837
15 Apr 2011  #21
throws all our wonderful theories out of kilter

Exactly. That's why I try not to have too many wonderful theories about translation, language, or literature. ;-)

throws all our wonderful theories out of kilter

Exactly. That's why I try not to have too many wonderful theories about translation, language, or literature. ;-)

in any tongue other than their mother tongue.

Yeah, but which IS their mother tongue and why should we assume that mother tongue = absolute fluency? As I said above, what I perceive as my mother tongue (Czech) is the "weakest" of my three languages, because though I have full passive command of it, I might struggle to produce certain types of utterances myself. I have received no formal schooling in Czech and have never lived in CR for longer than several months at a time. I have, on the other hand, received several years of English-language education, studied English at university, worked with English all my professional life, and have been now living in the UK for over 5 years nonstop. Frankly, there are moments when I feel much more fluent in English than in Czech!
OP boletus 30 | 1,366
15 Apr 2011  #22
I loved his "Goedel, Escher, Bach". Mind-boggling stuff :)

Intriguing, you actually loved it? Nice! I did not read it but I know more or less what it is all about. Bach and Escher taken for granted, but Gödel is not on everybody's top ten list.
Lyzko
15 Apr 2011  #23
An excellent point, Madźiu!

Regrettably though, since I can't judge either your spoken English or your Czech, I'll have to take your word for it, (this being a written forum), as you'll have to take mine with regard to my complete fleuncy in both German and English-:)
Magdalena 3 | 1,837
15 Apr 2011  #24
I'll have to take your word for it

You don't even have to take my word for it, as I do not need to prove anything to anyone ;-)
I just used myself as an example of someone who has more languages than one and their division into "native / target / source / fluent / whatever" is just not obvious enough to start building clearly defined theories around. It's easy if you start with one language and then study another at school, it's entirely different if you are exposed to two or more languages pretty much at the same time in your early childhood. E.g. I learnt to read in English, Czech, and Polish at practically the same age.
Lyzko
15 Apr 2011  #25
German was the "first" language I heard growing up, from the cradle practically-:) English was the sole language of communication between myself and my parents, excluding with my German-born nanny, until roughly six. Thereafter, English until college! After college, Dutch, Swedish and Danish (all Germanic, so NO PROB!). Polish finally, at the ripe old age of thirtyLOL
OP boletus 30 | 1,366
15 Apr 2011  #26
You don't even have to take my word for it, as I do not need to prove anything to anyone ;-)

I hope you are not irked by anything I wrote. At the risk of repeating myself: I really appreciate good work translators generally do, especially in literature, and particularly in poetry. I am just asking questions, as is clearly shown in the title of the thread. It fascinates me to see what kind of obstacles a translator must face and what methods are used to overcome them.

The little poem I quoted was just one example, where the formal structure does not fit well into some languages. Imagine translating it to Italian: one must forget about the original three syllable rhythm - four syllables are more likely.

Japanese haiku, with its 5-7-5 syllable structure, does not map well into the "stress-timed" English. Here is a quote from "Haiku, An Anthology of Japanese Poems" by Stephen Addiss, Fumiko Yamamoto and Akira Yamamoto:

Take for example, the most famous of all haiku, a verse by Basho (1644-94):

Furu ike ya
kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

Furu means "old", ike means "pond or ponds", and ya is an exclamatory particle, something like "ah". Kawazu is a "frog or frogs'; tobikomu "jump in"; mizu, 'water; no, the genetive "of"; and oto, "sound or sounds (Japanese does not usually distinguish singular from plural). If using the singular, a literal translation would be:

Old pond--
a frog jumps in
the sound of water

Only the third of these lines matches the 5-7-5 formula, and the other lines would require "padding" to fit the usual definition:

[There is an] old pond--
[suddenly] a frog jumps in
the sound of water


That does not mean that one cannot write good haiku verses in English or in other languages. The only thing is - they will not be strictly the Japanese-like haiku.
Leopejo 4 | 120
15 Apr 2011  #27
It's easy if you start with one language and then study another at school, it's entirely different if you are exposed to two or more languages pretty much at the same time in your early childhood.

Amen to this.
Magdalena 3 | 1,837
15 Apr 2011  #28
I hope you are not irked by anything I wrote.

God forbid, no! Why would I? I just wanted to point out that there are a lot of cases in which the "translation into native language only" theory remains just that - theory. Unless we can clearly define what it means to be a native speaker, what a mother tongue is, and what is that elusive "feeling for language" that is required of a good translator - we remain unable to set down such strict rules for what is a very intuitive, largely subconscious, and often misunderstood process: the translation of poetry. It is obvious that every translation is both a sacrifice and an invention of sorts. Whether the end product is "good" IMHO depends much more on the talent and sensitivity of the translator(s) than on their translating into or out of what is called their mother tongue(s).
Lyzko
15 Apr 2011  #29
Italian says it best: 'Traduttore, traditore.' = Translator, traitor

And indeed, one is a sort of betrayer of one's own language when reinventing it to fit the culture of another, foreign no matter how close-:)
Leopejo 4 | 120
15 Apr 2011  #30
And indeed, one is a sort of betrayer of one's own language when reinventing it to fit the culture of another, foreign no matter how close-

"one's own", "another, foreign no matter how close" are not so easily defined and distinguished.

Regarding Italians, Umberto Eco wrote a couple of books on translation - which is funny, as the translation of most of his books into another language (which I won't mention) was done by someone, whose Italian is very bad. Instead, a blog post by renowned translator William Weaver on translating Eco's The Island of the Day Before is quite enlightening and an interesting read. Pity that I can't find the link.


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