IMPOSSIBLE THINGS: POETRY IN TRANSLATION

A workshop directed by Karen Emmerich inspires translators to do what sometimes seems impossible: translate poetry. BY NORMA KAMINSKY AND OLIVIA SEARS

On the evening of Wednesday, May 13, several translators met at the Mechanics’ Institute to discuss an impossible thing: translating poetry. The Center for the Art of Translation (CAT) and the NCTA jointly hosted this workshop directed by Karen Emmerich, a translator of Greek poetry and prose. Karen got the discussion started by comparing six different translations of a poem by C. P. Cavafy. All English translations from the Greek agreed on one thing and little else: the title—”Walls.” This was a well-chosen example that illustrated how varied, difficult, and subjective poetry translation is.
Karen shared with us some things to think about when beginning a translation: potential problems, tools to be used, and approach to the poem and its translation. Other aspects of poetry to think about are the non-verbal information such as visual aspects like the spacing and the shape of the poem on the page, and the semantic versus the emotional senses of the poem. We also discussed the issue of retranslation; in the case of this Cavafy poem, there are 10 to 15 good English translations already available that communicate the sense of the poem fairly well, which allows a new translation to be more experimental or focus specifically on one aspect of the poem, such as the rhyme or the rhythm.
Collaborative work is in one sense the collaboration between the native speaker of the source language and the native speaker of the target language. Our workshop was a small demonstration of this, as a couple of attendees brought their English translations of poems, including work from German, French and Spanish. A lively discussion ensued, and many suggestions were offered regarding the rhythm, the flow and the “naturalness” of the English rendition.
We ended our discussion talking about the published format of poetry in translation: the translation can appear alone or alongside the original. In such a bilingual edition, there are several options, such as facing text or flip formats.
All in all, this workshop was another stimulating collaborative event, with a gentle sprinkle of wine, courtesy of CAT. NK/OS

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