On days after nights I dream wildly, my imagination’s much more agile, limber. These are the best days for me to write, and I begin by recording the dream in my writing notebook. This transcription—or, rather, translation—of the dream returns me to a fertile space, where probabilities lack context and possibilities abound.
—Pierluigi Cappello, “Staying” (trans. Portnowitz) in new Poetry
Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Purpose: To consider how language is the raw material with which all writers work and to consider the unique challenges that poetry in translation offers
Readings: A packet of poetry in translation
A native speaker of a foreign language that you do not speak has given you a literal translation (that is, a word-for-word rendering) of a poem written by a poet who writes in her language. The native speaker has asked you to further translate the poem so that it makes sense and is a good poem.
The poem’s original language is from a unique language family and shares no roots with English. Because of this, there are some words that are almost untranslatable in English; the native speaker has done her best to provide you with some sense of those words, sometimes substituting phrases or even metaphors for individual objects. Additionally, because the grammar of the original language is so unique, the sentence structure often doesn’t work in English. Not only will you have to find translations for individual words, you’ll have to make sense of those words in foreign syntax.
You read the translation*…
Think Lagunitas business
Loss innovation. It seems that the old way of thinking. The idea, for example, eliminates the sense that the general idea of light. The resurrection of the dead birch, black, the face of the first month, or any other theory of the world tribal carved sad because the skills to deal with the clown Beck, anything associated with Blackberry Blackberry word complaint if it does in this world, it is. We talked last night, my friend, marina trouble hearing sound thin. After that, I knew it from the start, and judges, and chin, hair, and the woman, and you, and I am his wife, and I remember that I love you still, it was several times small shoulders in his hands, and was surprised to see the face of violence, such as the drought and salt and the river of my childhood and Willow Iceland, sad songs levels, such as mud fish, we have a little money should pumpkin orange. It is difficult to deal with. It is necessary if we want to get an external desire eternal. And did the same to him. Reminds me a lot, and his hands and the length of the bread and said that his father hated him because he was asleep. Time was the word supernatural, flesh and body. Love, lunch and dinner, and BlackBerry.
*In order to produce this text, I ran Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas” through several different languages (Maori, Chinese Traditional, German, French, Arabic, Finnish, Irish, and Icelandic) in Google Translate before translating it back into English.
The native speaker has also noted that the original poem was in one stanza and contained thirty-one lines. The literal translation, however, is in prose. She has converted the original poem into prose in order to preserve some semblance of the original syntax, and she hints that most of the lines contained between seven and ten words, except the last line, which only contained four.
You get to work and set about your translation systematically:
- You assess the overall tone of the poem, considering if it’s joyful, melancholic, bittersweet, or meditative.
- You then summarize the poem, identifying its:
- addressee (if there is one) and/or audience;
- primary themes;
- and motivations and/or stakes.
- You now notate those places in the poem in which there seems to be some kind of shift in setting, direction, and/or tone. (This could also include an associative leap between images or thoughts. If you notice one of these leaps, briefly summarize the connection.)
- You then start the hard work of translating the poem, sentence-by-sentence, for clarity. At this point, you might begin to take some liberties with the text. As you’re revising the sentence, decide if you want to:
- change any words or phrases so that the poem will seem more accessible to North American readers (i.e. an American might write “truck” when an English translator would write “lorry”)
- or change any language that doesn’t seem essential to the overall meaning of the poem but that might make the poem sound more musical.
- Now begin to format the poem for line length, breaks, and stanza structure. Decide whether or not you want to try to mimic the poem’s original format. (If not, make a case for it.)
- Share your translation.
After talking about Janet Burroway’s Image chapter in Imaginative Writing, my class took our discussion to the white board to consider problems with translating experience and ideas in language, the fundamentals of significant detail, and the precision of language.
I asked them to consider all of the possible meanings for each of these sentences:
“Joe had some water.”
—He drank some water; he has water to drink; he had water for watering his plants, etc.
“Joe had a glass of water.”
—He drank the glass of water; he had a glass of water to drink, etc.
“Joe had a glass of water on the table.”
—He had water to drink on the table and he hadn’t finished drinking it.
We explored the slippery nature of the word “had” in all of these cases, and then we thought about how context could change the sentences. We considered the difference between “a glass of water” versus a “water glass,” how the second doesn’t necessarily mean that the glass contains water, rather it could designated as a glass for water. Additionally, having the read come to “glass” before “water” would help form the image for the reader as it provides the container before what’s contained inside it.
To jumpstart my Writing Out of the Ordinary students thinking about the weird and wild, I created the following exercise for the first day of class.
1. The class breaks up into groups of at least five. Each group designates a leader and forms a line.
2. Each leader reads an entry in Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings for two minutes. (I used “The Bird That Makes the Rain,” “A Crossbreed by Kafka,” and the “Hare in the Moon” as they’re among the shortest entries in the book.)
3. The leader then returns to the group and whispers details about the creature to the next group member; each member then whispers it to the next until everyone has heard about the creature.
4. The last group member must write, from memory, a summary of the creature as it was last described.
5. Each group then hands the summary to the leader of an adjacent group.
6. The groups then brainstorm and write a narrative (daily routine, an encounter, origin story, etc.) for the new creature.
There’s several “translations” here that I asked my students to consider:
1. text to memory,
2. speech to hearing (multiplied by however many students are in a group),
3. intention of the writer (the last group member) to readers (the next group),
4. and information (transcription) to imagination (the narrative).
This exercise introduces students to a practice of imaginative thinking, asks them to consider readers’ relationship to text, locates significant and memorable details, and provides them with a chance to interact and thus establish a good rapport with one another—a boon to future workshops!