Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Reflections on Translating Quasimodo - Part 1

Translation is a hard art. Before I began translating poems, I thought that was simply a case of finding words closest to the original words and then stringing them together. But it’s not so simple.

In my translation of Quasimodo’s Snow, I had many decisions to make, even though Snow is a short poem. In L3, the poor ones are chiusa within the soldiers coats. My “trapped” may be a bit strong. Is that what Quasimodo means? Or is it just that they are wrapped in them, dwarfed in coats to big for them? Or in some way the coats act as a metaphor for people closed off from each other, or from the world? I made the decision for “trapped.”

Then in L7-8, I had a real problem and I may not have translated it correctly. I went for “Strike/ at my forehead, strike towards my heart.” The Italian is “Battete/ sulla fronte, battete fino al cuore”, literally “Hit/ on the forehead, hit until the heart.” But whose forehead(s) and heart(s)? Is he exhorting the “dead” to beat on their own foreheads and hearts? “Fronte” and “cuore” are both singular but can refer to a generic plurality of foreheads and hearts. Or is he referring to the foreheads and hearts of the poem’s “we” – Quasimodo and whoever he is with at this moment, or perhaps humanity in general? Or is he thinking of his own forehead and heart - he, the narrator, the poet?

I went for that last option.

Oh, you dead. Strike
at my forehead, strike towards my heart.

However, I noted later that Jack Bevan, who translated Quasimodo’s poems for Penguin (remember the days when Penguin published stuff like this?) for the Selected Poems in 1965, went for the dead - a very different meaning, and I always suspect other translators know something that I don't know (especially those published by Penguin). My Italian can be really dodgy at times. Bevan writes:

…Ah, these dead ones! Beat
your foreheads, beat right down to the heart.

And finally, we have the final two lines, and the tricky image of the closure. Quasimodo writes:

Che urli almeno qualcuno nel silenzio
in questa cerchio bianco di sepolti.

Literally, “That someone at least may howl in the silence/ in this white circle of those having been buried.” Does Quasimodo really mean that there are graves arranged in a circle? Or is “cerchio” being used to connote completeness, like a circle, and by extension, a metaphor for the earth? And it was problematic to find a translation for “sepolti”, a participle being used as a noun, “the having been buried.” That image of burial was important, connecting the snow and the dead. I went for:

Someone should at least cry in the silence,
in this white sphere of the buried

Jack Bevan leans more to the literal:

Let someone, at least, howl in the silence,
In this white circle of buried ones.

There are no final answers. Each translation must stand as a poem. The translator can only hope against hope that he has communicated something of what was in the original writer’s mind.


Cailleach said...

That's an interesting insight into the making of a new poem from a translation. Seeing that there are no easy answers, makes me appreciate that it's much harder work than that involved in creating one's own poems. At least in that respect, you do know what you are trying to say.

I enjoyed your commentary and your honesty too.

Andrew Philip said...

A very interesting post, Rob. I've not blogged about my own translation efforts, but I made a few comments about translation on this post: http://tonguefire.blogspot.com/2006/11/temples-in-our-hearing.html
There's an interesting link in the comments.

Rob said...

Cheers, folks. And part 2 will arrive soon. Thanks for the link, Andy. I'll study that Sappho poem over the next while. Very interesting, as you say.

Andrew Philip said...

This has set me to musing about translation myself over at Tonguefire. Comments more than welcome.

Rob said...

Good musing, Andy. I might comment on your blog once I've sorted a few thoughts out.