Saturday, 18 April 2009

Translating and poetry

A former colleague had on her door the phrase "Übersetzen ist wie dichten aber schwerer" - Translating is like writing poetry but harder.
I've been reading a review of new translations of the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy's Collected Poems and The Unfinished Poems.
The review is written by James Longenbach - himself also a poet. He ends by saying "Mendelsohn’s Cavafy is itself a work of art". This reminded me of the wonderful chapter on reading in translation in Alberto Manguel's glorious book A History of Reading. In it Manguel shows (in English) how a translation of a French poem by Rilke is in many ways greater poetry than the original.
Longenbach does not make quite the same claim for Daniel Mendelsohn's translation of Cavafy, though the review is certianly very positive. I was particulary intertested in the extract below, where Longenbach reflects on the influence of English on Cavafy's Greek poetry as well as the different registers between Latinate and Germanic language

Mendelsohn makes me wonder if it wasn’t the deliciously mongrel nature of English, which Cavafy spoke and wrote perfectly, that first provoked him to forge his own hybridized idiom. The fact that the few poems Cavafy wrote in English contain phrases like “penetrating eye” and “transcendent star” (the Latinate word wedged against the Germanic) suggests that the poet’s ear for English was at least as acute as his translator’s.

In recent years as I have begun to preach more in English again I've noticed how much French thought patterns influence the way I write and think in English. Losing one's mother tongue is a constant problem for translators. However there is little chance that I will ever be translating poetry, not something I reckon to be up to. My second cousin Renate Orth-Gutmann, who translates David Lodge, Roddy Doyle and Barbara Vine often works on translating the poems with her husband. Fortunately the academic texts I mainly work on usually rather require I send my husband off to hunt down a foot note!