k a m a t e k a o r aa new zealand journal of poetry and poetics
|issue 11, march 2012|
Jacob Edmond and Cilla McQueen
JE: “When the translation seems finished, it means one thing: translate again and again.” So wrote the Russian poet Arkadii Dragomoshchenko in a letter to US poet Lyn Hejinian (21 March 1985, private collection). Elsewhere, I have taken this statement to encapsulate Dragomoshchenko’s view of poetry as a continuous process of rewriting (Common Strangeness p.48). In turning to the topic of translation, I find that his view is one I share.
In writing about translations from Chinese into Western languages and cultural contexts, Haun Saussy redefines the task of comparative literature as “the exploration of interactions––a project . . . far more interesting than the evaluation of similarities and differences” (p. 75). What Saussy says of comparative literature is true also of translation and of writing about translation. It is more interesting and fruitful to track the interactions between languages than to judge their accuracy from what is falsely imagined as an omniscient and neutral position.
In 2006, I was invited to contribute to a special Russian issue of Landfall (Edmond et al.). As someone who reads and writes about Russian poetry, I was asked to collaborate with several New Zealand writers to translate a selection of works by contemporary Russian poets. I also worked alongside and in collaboration with Evgeny Palvov, who is a native Russian speaker, a scholar of Russian literature at the University of Canterbury, and an expert translator. The task was an act of reciprocation for a much larger anthology of New Zealand poetry that had recently been published in Moscow in translations by Russian poets (Pavlov and Williams).
But the lines of exchange were not just between Russia and New Zealand. When I was asked to assist Cilla McQueen in translating two poems by Dmitry Golynko (who also goes by the name of Golynko-Vol'fson and who is one of a group of Petersburg poets for whom Dragomoshchenko’s work provided an important example), I became not just the conduit for an exchange between the two poets but also an active participant in a reciprocal relationship with both writers. To return to these translations is to recall and to re-enter that dialogue.
Cilla’s initial response was wary: “Dear Jacob, How does one translate Russian poetry without knowing what it sounds like or being able to read it? I am pretty doubtful of making any useful contribution, really––love from Cilla” (email, 29 Nov. 2006). Yet against her better judgement, I managed to persuade her to give it a go.
CM: When he sent me the English literals, Jacob being a poet himself had already done much of the work. As we continued fining them down, the lines assumed shape. Their rhythms and idiosyncratic character became evident.
JE: The first poem we worked on was entitled “Napriazhenie povyshaetsia,” or “Tension Rises.” Its regular form is immediately apparent. It is divided into eight units of eight lines. Those eight-line units each divide into two four-line stanzas. Each eight-line unit begins with some variation on the refrain “tension rises.” This incessant rhythmic pulse is described in the poem itself:
We went through various versions of this finger tapping, drumming sound before settling on “rhythm tapped out.” But what is this “particular / rhythm”? Golynko’s poem questions its own apparently square, regular rhythm by taking the reader repeatedly off guard through mangled or retooled idioms and direction-switching enjambments.
CM: I am respectful of the intuitive qualities of poetry.
JE: A translation is a mapping of possible readings marked as much by absence as by presence.
CM: The meaning absorbed, now express its equivalent in correct and nuanced English, to deliver about the same quantum of language as concisely as possible.
JE: But of course it’s never quite the same quantum. At a reading I attended in St. Petersburg in 2000, Golynko performed with his head down. Stooped over a table (he is quite tall), he presented an antithetical image to the poet standing and declaiming his or her work in the incantatory Russian style, as practiced, for example, by Elena Shvarts, whom I also heard read on the same visit. In English, we lack a comparably strong modernist and contemporary tradition of rhymed and recited poetry to react against. Though contemporary English-language poetry has no shortage of aesthetic and ideological differences reflected in various performance styles, the lines of those differences are drawn and expressed differently. To achieve a perfectly correct translation of Golynko’s poetry––to make the poems signify in just the same way––we would have to recreate the entire sociocultural world of contemporary Russian poetry––and Russia itself––in all its details. Once one accepts that such perfection is pure fantasy, the task of translation begins.
CM: Because I’m a poet I’m listening to the sound of the translation as I would when I write my own work. Jacob is careful to retain as much of the arrangement of the Russian lines as possible, which is why the translation sounds somewhat foreign to the English ear. He’s paying attention to matching sentence construction and syntax where possible, to retain the voice in it which carries the natural rhythms of the poet’s speech, the intonation, music and patterns of the language.
JE: But Russian, being an inflected language, has much more syntactic flexibility than our analytic language, allowing syntactic inversions where they are impossible––or impossibly awkward––in English. The opening words of each stanza of the poem “Predvoskhodnoe kachestvo” (“Excellent Quality”) are predvoskhodnogo kachestva (“of excellent quality”). This visually and aurally arresting echo of the title is inevitably disrupted by the presence of the word “of” in the English translation of the Russian genitive. We did not maintain these words’ position at the opening of each stanza. We felt that the syntactic inversion required to do so would undermine the idiomatic feel of Golynko’s poem. We therefore reversed the order, ending up with “a drink of excellent quality,” “a sheath of excellent quality,” and so on.
CM: In the first stanza of “Excellent Quality,” we had a large amount of information to distil into a small number of words. A “gleaming / burning ticket” meaning “last-minute holiday deal” or “hot deal with a massive discount” i.e. “the package is about to burn up, or expire” promised a “spend-up-large holiday” i.e. a desirable-sounding holiday deal which becomes the type of holiday on which you spend much more than you planned. “Bodes” was a useful word. “Hot” indicated desirability and rapid uptake. This ended up, concisely, as “a hot cheap standby / bodes an over-extravagant holiday.” The rhythm of the Russian comes through as well as the core information.
JE: The word progrannyi, which we translated as “over-extravagant,” literally means “burnt up,” allowing for wordplay in the Russian, where the hot deal burns itself out. But here, as Golynko later pointed out, we misinterpreted the Russian idiom: progrannyi would be better translated as “worthless,” a correction we’ve taken the opportunity to make here. That is, the burnout wasn’t so much in funds as a marker of worthlessness, as in a burnt-out car. As we might say in English, the purchaser of this hot ticket got burnt––and so did the translators in this case. Still, the example illustrates that Cilla grasped the rapid-fire colloquial feel of Golynko’s work, which is full of language from the street, the Internet, and the media. She understood that to retain this almost Ginsberg-like style we had to be as concise and colloquial as possible without veering too far from the original.
CM: I was interested in the skewing of attention that a familiar Russian idiom might bring to the English. “An obscene expression understandable to a hedgehog” had to turn out as “an obscenity universally understood” because in English the novel thought of the hedgehog suddenly coming in takes on more weight than the common expression requires in the Russian.
JE: Thus to translate is to recognize that nothing is “universally understood,” at least not in the same way. The hedgehog might signal an altogether different context for an English reader, bringing to mind perhaps Isaiah Berlin and the hedgehog who knows one big thing. But Golynko’s poetry works against just such universal statements whether in Russian or English, idiom or fable.
CM: Care must be taken lest the translation spark off resonances that were not in the original. Metaphor is capable of transferring ideas greater than the meanings of the words that contain it.
JE: One metaphor to which a translator might turn is the translated poem as an unfilled container into which meaning must be poured. But this imagined container––which Walter Benjamin imagined as a whole “vessel” and Dragomoshchenko writes of as a chashka, or “cup”––is forever leaking (Benjamin, Illuminations p. 79; Edmond, Common Strangeness pp. 46–48). There are always holes through which new meanings seep.
CM: Our combined notes on the imagery of the first few lines of the third stanza of “Tensions Rises” make puzzling reading:
JE: With such lines, I quickly reached the limits of my rather innocent Russian. Evgeny Pavlov came to the rescue but even he commented at one point “To tell you the truth, I never heard ‘pisat' kipyatkom’ [“to piss boiling water”] in the sense of ‘zavidovat'’ [“to envy”].’ In my book, it means ‘being excited.’ Maybe it’s a Petersburg thing.” And again, in translating this phrase from “Tension Rises,” just picking an English idiom has its dangers. “Green with envy” is not exactly obscure regional slang, and it loses “pissing,” which continues the bodily ingestion/ejaculation theme of the poem. We would also have lost the connection to the last line where the “slops”––but also implicitly the piss––“stream together.” “Pissing envious” was a compromise. Perhaps we should have gone with “pissed with envy” to catch the similar association of “pissed” with anger in English (where we also have the regional confusion of “pissed” as angry and “pissed” as drunk). In translating the Russian expression for envy or excitement into English, we lost in any case that sense of hot water boiling over so essential to the increase in tension. Maybe “pissed and boiling over with tension.” But then we would have lost the rhythmic concision we were seeking. Instead we took the last line to heart: “level what is unnecessary.”
CM: In the sixth stanza of “Excellent Quality,” we enjoyed “an inhalation on an empty stomach / is breathed out with a vile squeak.”
JE: Because the translation is never just a translation but always a rewriting, such inhalations and exhalations, digestions and ejaculations start to inhabit the translator’s self-perception as much as the poem: does our inhalation of the Russian poem come out as a vile English squeak?
CM: The sound of the English translation is important for fluency and euphony; the substitution of “corn-cob” for “ear of corn” restored rhythm to the line “A corn-cob of excellent quality” and the alliteration goes with that in the next line, “spoiled slightly by salt.”
JE: While “Excellent Quality” has no regular rhyme scheme or settled rhythm, its strict division into eight fourteen-line stanzas and its frequent half rhymes (for example, rolik, a “clip” downloaded from the internet, rhymes with sovetchik, an advisor or “guide”) gave us license to seek similar wordplay. This combined with the enjambment, lack of punctuation, and continuous stream of interlinked, hypotactic phrases encouraged Cilla and me to find similar ways to keep the flow.
CM: In the 5th stanza of “Tension Rises,” the final version “the beam of the searchlight goes blind over their faces” had to keep the odd image it conveys, because I learned that the sense of the Russian idiom describing faces (mugs, dials) being blinded by the light literally gives the searchlight itself going blind. Their faces dazzle the searchlight, in a freer translation.
JE: The image of the searchlight captures the translator in her or his multiple positions. Is she or he searching the darkness of the mind’s language for an equivalent, or desperately on the run only to be caught (after a wrong turn, or a mistranslation) in the prison guard/critic’s blinding beam? In this case we tripped in the dark of the translation on an unseen comma. What should have been two phrases––“the searchlight goes blind” and “over their faces / the punch spreads”––became one. While at Golynko’s suggestion we have restored the missing comma here, I continue to enjoy the double reading suggested by the enjambment. The searchlight goes out but also passes over the comma to blind the faces of the translators who then walk straight into the body blow of a mistranslation.
CM: In stanza 7 of “Tension Rises,” “ground bones / went down the wrong way,” we noted that this was a confusion/conflation of two idioms––a bone in the throat means an obstacle and “down the wrong throat” means that “things didn’t turn out as you wanted.” We stepped out more boldly than usual in this case and offered a similarly customised phrase: “pulverised spanners in the wrong works.”
JE: Some metaphors stick in a language, on the tongue, or in the throat. A bone and a spanner fire off different networks of connotations even if they plug into similar idioms. And those connotations vary from place to place even within the same language: a spanner may cause confusion for speakers of US English, who generally expect a wrench in their idiom.
CM: The translator as conduit throws a rope, a line, across from one language to another, finds a point of contact, makes a correspondence, retaining the character of each side as well as the integrity of the interface.
JE: The line is a metaphor and literalizing of connection. We can imagine a line thrown across a gap or down a hole, a tightrope or a rescue line. These are lines that you don’t want to snap. But one of the first problems in translating these poems was the line break. The poems depend on strict line arrangements and set stanzas and they rely heavily on a dramatic unwinding (or tension-raising coiling) of lines one on another. Time and again we had to trade off between convoluted syntax and losing this dramatic unwinding of language.
CM: The words in this case are each a conduit, making contact, arranging themselves in written or spoken form so as to facilitate exchange of ideas through language.
JE: Like a benzene molecule, the translation is a site of multiple exchanges. I find myself here entering or extending another exchange with my collaborator about translation, poetry, and language. Where I stress the breaks, the noncorrespondences, Cilla sees connections. Both are part of the translation process.
CM: Translation requires participation in the text at its raw level.
JE: The ink has long since dried on the translation that went to print. But is the translation fixed? What if the poem’s concluding effort “to smooth out the place of removal” only exacerbated this continuous unsettlement? In lopping off a “good chunk” of the poem and hurling it into another language, that “space of removal” might be smoothed out in the same way that the poem’s colourful language is flattened into abstraction at its end.
CM: The received language, i.e. the raw literals, is rather like the dream––inchoate, inviting definition. The translator’s job is to find links, resonances, correspondences, not merely contiguity but congruence of meanings at a deep level.
JE: What happens then when the poem itself eschews depth and favours the superficial character of a light opera or “pantomime”? I don’t want to diminish Cilla’s achievement in giving incredible energy to the English version of the poem, her genius in finding quick colloquial renderings in place of their Russian counterparts. But I wonder whether the “deep image” description of translation might usefully be supplemented by the gaudy and caricatured play of pantomime theatrics. In the poem, “the joker / started his own bullshit.” Maybe as translators we do the same.
CM: When I’m writing my own poetry I listen to the language of thought and attempt to find words for it, to couch it succinctly, leaving its possible meanings and extensions of meaning open, inviting another intelligence to be participant as well as observer and engage with the language.
JE: I listen too to Cilla’s language. Like the translation game of poetic “Chinese Whispers” that I once participated in, each interpretation, each translation or mistranslation enlarges the text with new meanings (Yang, Edmond, and Mok).
CM: You don’t have to spell it out; one word can do the resonant job of many. Effective poetry sets up a resonant field, in a register characteristic of the writer and the poem. The translator sets up an equivalent field, hoping to achieve a transparency between them through which meaning can pass. The task is to put the literal text into language which conveys the subtlety and resonance, both linguistic and cultural, of the poet’s voice.
JE: Take Cilla’s rendering “get the hots for,” which conveys Golynko’s idiom-rich colloquial language and adds the idea of heat that is not there in the Russian but was lost from our rendition of the Russian idiom “pissing boiling water” in the lines that follow. This new resonant field contributes to the rise in heat, pressure, and tension that reverberates through “Tension Rises.”
CM: Rhythms under the English equivalent of Golynko’s lines create a certain pace, and drive the poem as I imagine the Russian line driven, by something deeper than sound. I discern a voice and thought-rhythms underneath.
JE: “Excellent Quality” is also replete with cultural resonances that signify quite differently, if they signify at all, in translation. When “tamara / sucks the demon off” the Russian reader not only thinks immediately of Lermontov’s poem, but also of a whole Russian orientalist tradition of writing about the Caucuses of which that poem is a part. But Golynko’s poem is also written in the context of Russia’s contemporary war in Chechnya and its on-going exploitative and aggressive entanglements with the Caucuses region. These appear in the poem’s dodgy deals, politically motivated violence, pornography, prostitution, and negative references to Asia and to southerners. Both “Excellent Quality” and “Tension Rises”––with their punching, pissing, and masturbation––also parody and play with the sometimes hyper-masculine gendering of Russian literature.
CM: Figure the text in four dimensions,
JE: At one point in “Excellent Quality,” Golynko imagines such a “non-Euclidian / space” but this phrase is sandwiched between “you lick your fingers” and “shall I feel someone up.” The poem refuses to allow the reader or translator to remain in even non-Euclidian abstraction; it won’t let you keep your hands clean.
CM: The idea is to facilitate the interchange of meaning through the surface of language, using the permeable properties of a meniscus.
JE: Or maybe a membrane. As Lisa Samuels suggests, our contact with the world is always wet. Instead of imagining a dry process of linguistic exchange, Samuels’s membrane––like Cilla’s meniscus and benzene molecule––stresses the permeability and the materiality of our contact with the world. In Golynko’s poem, this wet contact extends to the downright mucky. Even when we read a poem on a computer we can’t always avoid getting our hands dirty.
CM: This meniscus might be the poetic line, which comes between the original and the translation. A poem of mine from “Soundings” called “Via Media” is about this sort of thing:
It’s a poem about a translation process, in this case the communication channels between the two sides of the brain when I’m writing. You could say that the translator/poet is the corpus callosum, facilitating the exchange of meaning.
JE: What “flows through her fingers” might be just as interesting as what is grasped and communicated. We can sometimes hear those resonant gaps in the static noise that is produced. If Golynko’s poems enact jarring, tension-raising encounters in language, we might not get the promised “qualitative improvement / in sensation” but certainly “we have / solicitations aplenty.”
JE: Though I certainly believe in diligent responsibility to the original, I’m not so confident of finding the “right words.” A Molotov cocktail has a different ring and set of connotations in English. For the English reader, the exotica of central Asian grime, dodgy dealings, and war appear through another layer of Russian exotica.
CM: The poem is more than a collection of words. It is an entity with its own microclimate. The translator sits at the interface which is a circle, or a circuit, rather than a wall.
CM: The word is a unit of energy rather than a checkpoint.
JE: And the translation becomes a field of criss-crossed lines. I’m interested in correspondence as “co-response,” an idea I’ve explored in writing about Dragomoshchenko. Co-response doesn’t mean we get to the right words but envisages translation as a site for communication as dialogue, as “co-making” through continuous response.
CM: The unfamiliar language in its raw literals is rather like the language of dream. Its tone, its plays on words and its root words in common with other languages link me and the unfamiliar poet via a linguistic and poetic manifold. To quote Golynko, “in order that the broken impersonality of language led to some kind of perfection.”
JE: But lest we leave the brokenness too quickly for the perfection, Hejinian reminds us that although “the very writing down of a dream seems to constitute the act of discovering it . . . it is also and problematically an act of interpreting it” (139). So too with translation: when we think we have found the perfect translation, we have actually only created another interpretation. This turns out to be not a loss, but a gain––an invitation to begin the task of translation––and so of dialogue and reciprocation––again and again. “The imaginable,” as the poem concludes, “drives on.”