Irish poet and Polish poetry specialist Barry Keane explores the motions and emotions of the poetry translator.
Anyone who has been to conferences on the art of translation may recall the sea of linguistic terms used by academics to describe the process of transferring meaning from one language to another. Yet, while the theoreticians are often present in large numbers at these conferences, the actual hands on translators are generally diving for cover in the dark corner of some pub on the other side of the planet.
Over the years there has been no shortage of people asking me how I set about translating poetry, but I have never been able to offer a theoretical reason for my ability, good or otherwise. Basically, I treat translation as a poetic exercise and not a scientific one. If you love doing something then youll do it well, and Ive been a great admirer of Polish poetry for some time (though not all of it, mind you). I admit I am not a great fan of contemporary poetry and prefer to read the poets of bygone times, who offered advice and insight in rhyming couplets.
If a poem moves me sufficiently for me to want to translate it, I sense that the poet is extending a hand of friendship from beyond the grave. Unfortunately, many of the Polish poets that I enjoy reading have never been translated into English at least not to my knowledge so any translation I write may somehow affect the poets literary legacy. Thats some responsibility!
Very often I depend a great deal on my instincts to produce a faithful rendition of a poem. The art of translation should be first and foremost a spiritual experience or, more specifically, a meeting of minds. You must feel inspired by the benevolent presence of the poets spirit standing at your shoulder and urging you to serve him or her well. If you are a wordsmith, and content only with the placing of words upon a page, then you are outside of the visionary state that the writing of good poetry requires. In translating a poem you enter the poets very thought processes. In other words, you are responsible for the poems rebirth in a different language.
A poets life is often symbolised by a lone journey toward a poetic conquest. The translator also needs to go on a journey of sorts. I admit that the science of translation is not my strong point, but my demands on behalf of Art are high even if generally over-ambitious. However, I think I can express my ideas better in verse:
Recognise the hand of friendship
Extended in poetic fellowship.
Enjoy the laughter yet mourn each tear
Shed for life, love, the poets loss of cheer.
Cry too! Tearful eyes are good in this age.
I have never forgotten my debt to Jan Kochanowski (1530-1582). Because of the difficulty that Renaissance Polish poses, he is not as close to the heart of people in Poland as he perhaps should be. His Treny (Threnodies, or Laments) are, however, a towering achievement in world literature and are regarded as Kochanowskis greatest literary achievement. He wrote this collection of nineteen poems in response to the tragic death of his daughter, Orszula. Kochanowski sought desperately both to express the true depth of his feelings for Orszula and to come to terms with the revelation of his own human frailty.
In the following poem we see a contrast between the memory of the dead girl and the desolation of those left behind. The lonely father reflects upon the house in former days when Orszula was alive and well and laments its present desolate state. Kochanowski presents the memory of a sweet young girl whose pleasant voice used to echo throughout the house. Now the house is filled with silence, a silence made worse by the fathers feelings of irretrievable loss and anguish.
The beauty of translation is the poetic search for new horizons and at the same time a chance for poetry to challenge ones artistic abilities in a most fundamental way. The right choice of words is only one of the constituents needed to cross the threshold from the world of prose to the quintessential realm of strangeness the world of poetry. I hope, therefore, that my translations have never tried to simply replicate texts, but to capture the spirit in which they were written. I will end with an oft-quoted verse, written by an Irish Earl, no less, some three hundred years ago, which describes the special bond that comes into existence between translator and poet:
Then seek a poet as your ways do bend,
And seek a poet as you seek a friend.
United by this sympathetic bond
You grow familiar, intimate and fond.
Your thoughts, your words, your styles, your souls agree,
No longer his interpreter, but he.
by Barry Keane