Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Pity the poor translator

A friend recently sent me this poem on the trials of the elderly gray translator. I'd not come across it before and can only say that it just reinforces my feeling that I should steer clear of ever trying to translate poetry. Mind you I wonder if being sent this was a gentle hint I should make an apointment to get my highlights re-done! Ah well, at least I haven't torn all of my hair out yet looking for the right word.

Pity the Elderly Gray Translator, by Vladimir Nabokov

Pity the elderly gray translator
Who lends to beauty his hollow voice
And - choosing sometimes a second-rater -
Mimes the song-fellow of this choice.
To sacred sense for the sake of meter
His is seldom traitor as traitors go,
But pity him when he quakes with Peter
And waits for the terza rima to crow.

It is not the head of the verse line that'll
Cause him trouble, nor is it the spine:
What he really minds is the cursed rattle
That must be found for the tail of the line.
Some words by nature are sort of singlish,
Others have harems of rimes. The word
"Elephant," for example, walks alone in English
But its Slavic equivalent goes about in a herd.
"Woman" is another famous poser
For none can seriously contemplate
An American president or a German composer
In a viable context with the word for mate.
Since rime is a national repercussion
(And a local holiday), how bizarre
That "skies-eyes" should twin in French and Russian:
"Cieux-yeux," "nebesa-glaza."

Such boons are irrelevant. Sooner or later
The gentle person, the mime sublime,
The incorruptible translator
Is betrayed by lady rime.
And the poem from the Persian
And the sonnet spun in Spain
Perish in the person's version
And the person dies insane.


J. K. Gayle said...

No, no. Please translate, and translate more poetry, Jane. (and you've inspired me to post again).

Jane said...

We'll see about the poetry. I've just come back from a late evening of speaking German for a Swiss television programme - hmmm - I don't really understand Suitzerdootsch so it was quite a challenge