Literary Translation: Interpretation and Permutation

Reviewed by Edward Lipsett

I don’t read French, and to be honest if I ever knew who Apollinaire was, I’ve forgotten. When I read a review of this book in the summer 2009 issue of the BCLT1 journal In Other Words though, it sounded like something that I would really enjoy reading, for the same reason that I read and thoroughly enjoyed Umberto Eco’s Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation. And that reason has somewhat to do with the point of my review, and the significance of this book.

The concept was to take an important French poem, written by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1912, and ask for modern translations. The crucial point here is that in addition to asking for textual translations, the editors also asked for visual translations. As they explain, “We devised a brief to follow for the translation whose only restriction was indeed not to have restrictions, in making visible the rewriters’ creativity and subjectivity. Our hope was that every translation we would receive would bear, in different forms and degrees, the visible marks of the translator’s memories of texts that s/he has read, written and translated before, personal interpolations, and would ultimately speak in his/her literary and cultural idiolect.”

That’s quite a mouthful, and there are a number of interesting ideas in there. First, they referred to the participants as “rewriters,” not translators. The obvious conclusion here is that they perceive translation to be something more than some sort of transposition from one language into another. The translator, they say here, must rewrite the original, and as we all know (and I have rediscovered in the course of writing this article), writing can be considerably tougher.

Second, they stressed “creativity and subjectivity” as the key factors. But I thought this was a translation! Well, it is, and the results are translations, but they are also creative, highly subjective interpretations of the original, translated not only into another language (English), but also into another form, in one way or another. Is the output still equivalent to the input? Good question, and I can only answer it “Yes and no.”

And third, they mentioned that the results would “speak in his/her literary and cultural idiolect.” This is where they really tie it all together, because by asking for a literary and cultural idiolect, they are accepting the fact the results will be removed from France and French, possibly quite far indeed. Not only does the language change, but the literary and cultural background changes with it, and when the entire environment is transformed to that extent, nothing can survive intact.

Roman Jakobson defines three types of translation:

  1. Intralingual translation, or rewording (within the same language)
  2. Interlingual translation, or translation proper (into a second language)
  3. Intersemiotic translation, or transmutation (into a nonverbal medium)

He goes on to say that because complete equivalence is impossible in all three, all poetic art is therefore untranslatable, stating that “only creative transposition is possible.”2

And so it is with the translations in this book. Admittedly, I cannot read French, and I’m not much of a poet in any case, but each of the dozen translations in this book is accompanied by an extensive discussion of just what the translator did, and why. A look at the translations themselves reveals diversity, not only in interpretation and vocabulary, but also in typographic presentation (mixing fonts, sizes, colors and layout), and even moving beyond words to strictly visual presentations. At the same time, though, there are also similarities, and it is clear that there is a fundamental core to the source poem that they have all captured. For me, this is the meat of the book. Each translator provides a unique perspective on the original, allowing us a glimpse into the mind of a master of the trade hard at work. There is no dictionary flipping here, but intelligent examinations of what the author meant, how (and if) to express it in English, and the peripheral meanings involved in both languages. This is heavy, mind-stretching reading, but worth the effort because after you’re done you have come to understand a new way of looking at source texts, a new way of evaluating possible translations, and, crucially, new ideas about how to approach translation itself.

One of the translators, George Szirtes, relocated from Hungary to England, and describes his work in translating poetry thus: “In translating poetry I was making persons. I was learning voices, taking them off Budapest streets and rooms and locating them in English streets and rooms.” He describes a poem as “voice and event,” then clarifies that “ . . . I do not mean . . . the voice of the person who happens be the poet. . . . The voice was something that was happening inside the language of the poem, but it was a distinctly human voice, more distinct in fact than the sounds made by persons in the flesh.”

In technical translation, which is what I and probably many of you earn your bread and butter by, it is crucial to express the source information as clearly as possible, making every effort to ensure it is understood completely and correctly by the reader. There is little room to insert yourself into your work, except as needed to clarify, for example, cultural differences that might present obstacles to clarity. In the translation of poetry, or perhaps it would be more apt to say in the interpretation and rewriting of poetry, it seems that very little of the heart of the matter is in the printed poem, and so much more is found in the environment in which it was born, and in the mind of its author. There is an all-important core that remains constant through every one of these incarnations, but the individual interpretations cover a diverse range indeed.

A better understanding of how translation can produce such widely variant output is, I think, essential to anyone working in the field. As the editors say, “In inviting and re-igniting our attention to form, translation . . . remind[s] us of how to listen to the voices opening out within our own.” I highly recommend this book to people interested in taking a step back from the keyboard to look at the process from a totally new viewpoint.

[1]: British Centre for Literary Translation:; see lead article in this issue regarding the Centre’s activities.

[2]: “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation,” by Roman Jakobson. In On Translation. Edited by R. A. Brower. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1959.

(Originally published in the SWET Newsletter, No. 126, November 2010)