Hearing the Tone of the Self: Toward An Alternative Ethics of Translation
“No man is capable of Translating Poetry, who besides a Genius to that Art, is not a Master both of his Authours Language, and of his own: Nor must we understand the Language only of the Poet, but his particular turn of Thoughts, and of Expression, which are the Characters which distinguish, and as it were individuate him from all other writers. When we are come thus far, ’tis time to look into our selves…” —John Dryden1
In 1965, the American poet Ron Padgett went to Paris on a Fulbright fellowship. There he discovered Pierre Reverdy’s first book, Poèmes en prose. “I fell for [it] the first time I read it,” he writes. “I loved its austerity, its spookiness, and what I imagined to be its cubism.”2 Padgett decided to translate the book, making drafts while still in France, and then worked on them intermittently over the next twenty-five years. After a flurry of revisions in the early 90s and the publication of a few of the translations in magazines, he put the manuscript aside again, finally publishing it in 2007. In the forty-two years between the first ecstatic encounter with Reverdy and the publication of his final version of Prose Poems, Padgett became a celebrated poet in his own right, as well as a noted translator of vanguardist French poets, including Apollinaire and Cendrars. Whatever the reasons for the lengthy germination of his Reverdy project, Padgett’s final versions at least enjoy the benefit of sustained reflection, both on translation in general and Reverdy in particular. A specific example of the fruits of this reflection can be found in the postface to the 2007 book, where Padgett, in addition to recalling the history that I have sketched here, reveals that one of the final things he changed in his translations was the punctuation: “[It] was normal in French but quirky in English. Perhaps I had liked the way it gave a ‘modern’ effect in English. Reverdy was a modernist, but he was not one for giving effects.”3 To Padgett’s ear, this quirkiness comes off as a poor representation of Reverdy. So he changed the punctuation of the translations, appealing not only to his own judgment of what sounded quirky (or not) in English, but also, importantly, to an implicit claim about what Reverdy would have thought about such quirkiness in his own poems.
This story will help us flesh out some assumptions about translation and the choices involved in it, as well as some challenges to the ways those choices are made. To begin, it bears noting that changing the punctuation of sentences can change their meaning, thus changing our sense of the intentions of the speaker or the author of those sentences.4 Endorsing such changes would seem to conflict with the common sense expectation that the task of the translator is to convey the meaning of a text from one language to another. Yet Padgett’s renovation of Reverdy’s punctuation, inviting as it does the possibility of significant changes to the meaning of Reverdy’s poems, hardly strikes me as controversial. It seems just the opposite, a mere attestation to truths that differentiate translation from other sorts of writing. Translation is an art of divided loyalties; a translator is responsible at once to her source but also to her readership. Competing conventions of punctuation bring these divided loyalties to the fore, since they are one of the many ways in which a text in one language can differ from a text in another one (not to mention a way in which modern texts can differ from older texts in the same language, and in which prose and poetry in the same language can differ from each another.) Of course punctuation is hardly the most conspicuous difference between texts in different languages; the most conspicuous difference is that of the languages themselves!5 These differences produce obstacles to mutual understanding that a translator must try to overcome. Overcoming them is not easy. Eugene Nida explains that “[s]ince no two languages are identical … it stands to reason that there can be no absolute correspondence between languages. Hence there can be no fully exact translations.”6
Figuring out how to sufficiently satisfy demands for correspondence and exactitude when absolute correspondence and full exactitude are impossible is the task of most professional translators.7 In a purely or largely instrumental context, like the translation of an instruction manual or a restaurant menu, one satisfies the task by focusing on semantic content, on getting the message across. In contexts that depart from instrumentality, however, the problems are harder to negotiate, since the message of these texts is bound up with the language in which they are originally written in various and complicated ways. Literary and religious and even some philosophical contexts provide examples of this departure.8 Among these, poetry poses the most problems because of the degree to which poems depend on words and sounds and sometimes shapes that are language-specific. Even here, though, the difficulty is not wholly insurmountable. Roman Jakobson, who was a poet before he was a linguist, believed that “poetry by definition is untranslatable,” but that it could nevertheless be creatively transposed within languages, across languages, and across art forms.9 The limits to this transposition constitute the limits of acceptable translation. One traditional way of talking about these limits is the idea of “fidelity.” Translations are praised for being faithful, and more often are criticized for faithlessness. But, as I have already implied, fidelity in a literary translation is a complicated thing. This is so even if we affirm that the task of the translator is to be faithful to the author’s intention, both because there may be competing ways of rendering that intention in the target language, and because there may be more intentions in a literary text than the intention to mean.10 Do we allow ourselves semantic latitude, for instance, in order to produce a translation of a poem that preserves the rhyme scheme of its original? Such a translation can be dismissed on the grounds that it is inaccurate. Do we forget about rhyme and even lineation and just provide a literal prose trot or perhaps an interlinear gloss? Such a translation strays far from the effect of the original; the original intention to make a verse artifact has not survived.
Padgett’s story shows how a translator interested in fidelity to his source has to make a hard choice. (It also shows, incidentally, that the difficulties of translating poetry are not confined to translating verse, although they are generally not as extreme.) Friedrich Schleiermacher memorably described this choice as one in which the translator either moves the writer of the source text toward the readers of the translation, or moves the readers of the translation toward the writer of the source text.11 Inspired by Schleiermacher’s dichotomy, and by the work of Antoine Berman on translation theory in and around German Romanticism, Lawrence Ventui has called the competing approaches “domesticating” and “foreignizing” translation, respectively.12 A domesticating translation strives for fluency. It makes the source text read as if it were originally written in the target language. A foreignizing translation strives to preserve difference. It maintains the strangeness of the source text by disrupting the norms and codes of the target language. The categories are occasionally criticized as reductive, but they are useful, insofar as they preserve Schleiermacher’s (and before him, Herder’s) insight that the translator must confront “the irrationality of languages” — the fact that, though many languages share roots, not all languages are commensurate with one another. This is really what we are getting at when we say that a word or an expression is “untranslatable”: not that it can’t be translated via an extended periphrasis, but that there is no functionally equivalent word or expression in other languages.13
Padgett’s punctuation swap moves Reverdy toward his (Padgett’s) audience. In the parlance of contemporary translation theory, then, Padgett’s is a “domesticating” choice. And it is a common one, since most translations of poetry, despite or perhaps because of the difficulties involved in reproducing foreign sounds or shapes, are domesticating.14 Robert Pinsky’s version of Inferno, for example, begins, “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself / In dark woods, the right road lost.”15 Pinsky’s choice of “journey” for “cammin” might have been an attempt to take us back to the 19th century — it is the word Longfellow used in the opening of his famous translation — and then to take us back even further with a more austere, Anglo-Saxon clause (“the right road lost”). This imaginative transport does not succeed so completely now; the bathos of “journey” (try not to think of the rock band), not to mention the complement of Germanic word origins, conspire to prevent us from accepting either that these lines have come from the 13th century or that they have come there from Italy. So does the fact that an entire rhymed tercet in Italian is condensed to just one and a half-lines of unrhymed English. Nevertheless, that condensation, and the translation’s readability as English and specifically American poetry, testify to Pinsky’s skill as a domesticating translator. So do more specific and subtle word choices: witness, for example, his choice of “in dark woods” for “una selva oscura,” which, in addition to prioritizing the more idiomatic “woods” for “wood” (and thus perhaps diminishing the allegorical function of Dante’s choice) picks up some echoes from another, more recent poem about a journey: “These woods are lovely, dark, and deep.” Dante, by way of Frost. It is true that there are sonic echoes of the original: “right road lost” captures some of the alliteration and assonance of “la diritta via era smarrita.” And Pinsky does use a form of terza rima — albeit a much more flexible English version, which depends on terminal consonant sounds, like “tell” and “feel” and “sleep” and “up.” But his opening lines, and I think his translation as a whole, give readers a sense of fluency, which is pretty much what his translator’s note says he set out to do: “I have tried to make an Inferno in English that stays true to the nature of English.”16
A skeptic might reasonably reply: whose English, exactly? And one could go further than this. For Venuti, a translation practice like Pinsky’s or Padgett’s — indeed, the translation practice of most translators in most places at most times — is philosophically and morally compromised. It is philosophically compromised because it does not recognize (in Derridean fashion) that “meaning is an effect of relations and differences among signifiers along a potentially endless chain,” that it “is always differential and deferred, never present as an original unity,” and finally that “both foreign text and translation are derivative, [consisting] of diverse linguistic and cultural materials that neither the foreign writer nor the translator originates, and that destabilize the work of signification, inevitably exceeding and possibly conflicting with their intentions.”17 And it is morally compromised because any translation that purports to reproduce or transfer meaning across languages will have arbitrarily closed down other possibilities on no other grounds than a translator’s fiat. Such translations will fail to represent the fact that “the foreign text is the site of many different semantic possibilities that are fixed only provisionally in any one translation, on the basis of varying cultural assumptions and interpretive choices, in specific social situations, in different historical periods.”18 Indeed this illegitimate fixing of semantic possibilities has darker undertones. It underwrites what Venuti calls the “ethnocentric violence” of the translation process, one that has been particularly pronounced in Anglo-American intellectual culture since the early modern period.19 The conjunction of philosophical and moral critique supports a bleak description of translation, not as a species of interpretation but a species of forced substitution: “Translation is the forcible replacement of the linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text with a text that will be intelligible to the target language reader.”20 Against this oppression, Ventui urges the resistance of the foreign: “Foreignizing translation in English can be a form of resistance against ethnocentrism and racism, cultural narcissism and imperialism, in the interests of democratic geopolitical relations.”21
Even if one does not agree with the philosophy of language that undergirds Venuti’s critique (and I do not), there is ample historical evidence of the overt and covert ethnocentric violence of domesticating translation for his moral critique of it to stand. (I leave it to others to explain how a commitment to a Derridean conception of meaning as endlessly deferred should not also endlessly defer things like moral judgments against violence, and in favor of, say, “democratic geopolitical relations.”) The history of the translation of poetry is certainly guilty of the charges lodged against domesticating translation practices more generally. In fact, despite recent “poetry of witness,”22 there seems to be a strong historical connection between poetic vocation and the eradication of otherness. What Allen Grossman called the “eidetic violence” of representation manifests itself in translations that seek to be poems in their own right.23 So let us say we grant, then, that the history of translation has been driven by chauvinistic ideologies and by aesthetic, rather than ethical, crtieria. Is a foreignizing translation the only, or indeed the preferable, response? Might there be moral, and not just aesthetic, reasons to justify a “domesticating” translation (and thus moral, and not just aesthetic reasons, for resisting a foreignizing one)? Is fidelity worthless in the translation of poetry? Venuti’s definition of translation as “forcible replacement” delegitimizes translation under all auspices except those of power and resistance to power. Offering an alternative approach to the ethics of translation would allow us to revalue (or merely value) translations and translation practices that could otherwise look suspect in the current intellectual landscape. More ambitiously: it might give us a way to translate poets, or poetic projects, that do not seem well served by existing translations, whether foreignizing or domesticating.
First, though, the bad news: the long history of poetry provides much evidence to corroborate Venuti’s charges. Dryden famously remarked, in the preface to his translation of the Aeneid, that “I have endeavor’d to make Virgil speak such English, as he wou’d himself have spoken, if he had been born in England, and in this present Age.”24 Even if this is not ethnocentric violence it is at least ethnocentric ventriloquism. Dryden does not aspire to present Virgil as a stranger, someone who was not a contemporary or a compatriot. It would not have been beyond him to do this: archaism was available as a poetic strategy that would have indicated a divergence from contemporary norms. Of course, this strategy was not always praised, even before Dryden’s own neoclassical moment: witness Ben Jonson’s complaint about Spenser: “Spen[s]er, in affecting the Ancients writ no language.”25 Archaism of this sort could have been ruled out as incompatible with Virgil’s style, so that, in opting for the continuity sponsored by the community of spoken English, even in an age when Latin was still a functioning literary language, Dryden may have been responding to and reflecting something he had recognized in Virgil as a poet.26 Absent this justification, however, the claim to have represented him as English appears potentially distorting.
There are of course more aggressive attitudes with respect to cultural and linguistic difference than Dryden’s, ones much closer to those held by Virgil and his contemporaries (a fact to which the second quotation from Jonson alludes.) Nietzsche reminds us of those attitudes with characteristic bluntness in The Gay Science:
One can gauge the degree of the historical sense an age possesses by the manner in which it translates texts and by the manner in which it seeks to incorporate past epochs and books into its own being. Corneille’s Frenchmen — and even those of the Revolution — took hold of Roman antiquity in a manner that we — thanks to our more refined sense of history — would no longer have the courage to employ. And then Roman antiquity itself: how violently, and at the same time how naively, it pressed its hand upon everything good and sublime in the older periods of ancient Greece! Consider how the Romans translated this material to suit their own age … Horace, off and on, translated Alcaeus or Archilochus; Propertius translated Callimachus and Philetas …. How little concern these translators had for this or that experience by the actual creator who had imbued his poems with symbols of such experiences! As poets, they were averse to the antiquarian inquisitive spirit that precedes the historical sense. As poets they did not recognize the existence of the purely personal images and names of anything that served as the national costume or mask of a city … and therefore immediately replaced all this by present realities and by things Roman. … These poet translators did not know the pleasure of the historical sense; anything past and alien was an irritant to them, and as Romans they considered it to be nothing but a stimulus for yet another Roman conquest. In those days, indeed, to translate meant to conquer….”27
Earlier epochs were more sanguine about the possibility of translation, even the translation of poetry, than we are now. This is not surprising, given the relatively recent emergence of what Nietzsche calls “the historical sense” and that we might call cultural (or textual) autonomy. But it is not only the spirit of the age, whether Classical or Neoclassical, that accounts for the strikingly acquisitive stance Nietzsche describes. “As poets, they were averse to the antiquarian inquisitive spirit that precedes the historical sense. As poets they did not recognize the existence of purely personal images and names of anything that served as the national costume or mask of a city…” (my emphasis). Poetic vocation and imperial conquest go hand in hand. The translation of poetry into poetry demanded indifference to the particularity of source texts. It facilitated the vampiric incorporation of past epochs and books into the being of the present.
However problematic such a possessive stance toward cultural or historical difference might be for us, however — and Robert Lowell, who attempted to use Dryden’s precedent to justify his own book of translations, recognized it was problematic enough to merit the title Imitations — some of us might affirm, enthusiastically or grudgingly, that what contemporary translation theory considers domesticating, ethnocentrically violent translation practices have produced great poems (including Dryden’s Aeneid and Pope’s Iliad, but also even a few of Lowell’s imitations, at least of Villon and Baudelaire). Ezra Pound, for example, remarked that “English literature lives on translation; it is fed by translation; every new exuberance, every new heave, is stimulated by translation; every allegedly great age is an age of translation.”28 The survival and the greatness of national literatures derive from other languages. Cosmopolitan though this picture might appear, it is not an encounter between equals, but more like that between predator and prey, or (brief) stimulus and (sustained) response: the source text is to be digested or transformed into something else. We may agree with Pound’s judgment about literary history, but then it appears we are complicit with, if not tacitly endorsing, acts of ethnocentric violence. The greatness of these ages was not due to their preservation of the radical otherness of source texts. This was still true in Pound’s own time: it enabled, for example, the simple beauties of Cathay.
Does the translation of poetry into poetry require an ethics of empire, an irresistible colonizing urge? Foreignizing translation appears to offer an alternative to the assimilation of cultural difference by offering us a way to merge aesthetic and ethical criteria. And there are some truly remarkable translations by poets that frustrate the domesticating expectations of fluency, including Pound’s own translation of “The Seafarer,” which exploits alliteration, archaism, and estranged syntax to remind its readers that it has come from another place and time:
May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,
Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care’s hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed.
More foreignizing than Pound’s artful homage are Hölderlin’s versions of Sophocles and Pindar, for example, which preserve the syntax of the original Greek, even to the point of breaking German words into pieces. But while this and other foreignizing translation projects are sometimes remarkable as aesthetic objects, they all inevitably obscure the meaning of the source text in their attempts to radicalize the reproduction of its syntax or its sound. (Recall the way that Pound just lops the Christianity off the end of “The Seafarer.”) Or they require us to revise our conception of meaning, as Louis and Celia Zukofsky did with their “homphonic” version of Catullus, which attempted to follow the sound of the Latin text in rendering the English sense.29 As Venuti himself remarks, “in its effort to do right abroad, [foreignizing translation] must do wrong at home, deviating enough from native norms to stage an alien reading experience.”30 And just as domesticating translations fail the ethical test because of excessive fluency, foreignizing translations can fail the aesthetic test because of excessive estrangement. This aesthetic failure risks ethical failure, too, since it has already risked abjuring the basic task of transferring recognizably equivalent meanings from one language to the other. Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin, in the judgment of Edmund Wilson, went so far in its refusal of idiomatic English that it was no longer a translation at all.31 Thus a foreignizing translation is not any more faithful than the domesticating translation; it is just faithful to something different about (or in or around) the text in question: not its meaning, say, but its words, or the shape or sound of those words, those aspects of the text that are pre-or-non-linguistic. There may be circumstances in which this choice is strategically merited. Perhaps a foreignizing translation can show us something about the original text that has been occluded. Perhaps the foreignizing translation is sponsored by a sacralized view of the source text or source language, and we happen to have sympathy with that view. But, putting special theories of poetic language to the side for the moment, if the ethical desideratum of poetry translation is something like fidelity to the author’s intentions — and fidelity to all of those intentions, not just some of them — it seems we are condemned to be unfaithful whichever way we go: traduttore, traditore.
Might it be better to just give up on the idea that there is something like an ethics of poetry translation? It is tempting to agree with Borges and suggest that translations of literary works should be judged only on aesthetic grounds, that they “can only be conceived of in the wake of a literature.”32 And yet most of us who translate do have a sense that there are differences between good translations and bad translations, and these differences are not just aesthetic choices but have something to do with a moral sense of fidelity to the source text. Saddled as we are with what Nietzsche called “the historical sense,” we do not dare to improve the original (as Borges occasionally did). Nor are we just going on our nerve, making it up as we go along. Dante Gabriel Rossetti furnishes a good example of the survival of ethical criteria amidst an otherwise aesthetically justified translation practice. In the preface to his Early Italian Poets he famously remarked that “The only true motive for putting poetry into a fresh language must be to endow a fresh nation, as far as possible, with one more possession of beauty.”33 To hell with ethical considerations — bring on the spoils of empire! But, having written this, and cognizant of the way in which his lovely rhymed translations frequently depart from would have been recognized as the literal meaning of his source texts, Rossetti emphasized the distinction between literality (which he lacked) and fidelity (which he supposedly possessed). He did not want to abandon his claim to the latter. Was he — are we — simply deceiving ourselves? Isn’t fidelity in translation so elastic as to be meaningless?
Consider, for example, the genre of the pseudo-translation, the text that pretends to be a translation but is actually not. Such texts put defenders of criteria of fidelity in an awkward spot, since the pseudo-translation is “faithful” to a text that does not exist. Emily Apter has gone so far as to suggest that pseudo-translations reveal “the fundamental unreliability of translation’s claim to approximate the original in another tongue,” and that they “expose the ways in which all translators are to some extent counterfeit artists, experts at forgeries of voice and style.”34 I find her claims here are much too severe, as her eventual hedge (“to some extent”) reveals. After all, who or what is the judge of the “fundamental unreliability” of translation, as opposed, say, to its partial unreliability? And wouldn’t something that is partially unreliable also be partially reliable? And what is wrong with this exactly? No translation will be perfect, but the alternative to perfection is imperfection, not necessarily counterfeit or forgery. The use of the latter two categories would only be warranted if the translation were somehow supposed to take the place of the original text. But even a radically domesticating translation doesn’t necessarily do this; it just produces a version of a text for another audience. Pseudo-translation does not show us that fidelity is impossible. It just pretends to possess something that it does not have. You can pretend to have something, but this doesn’t mean that everyone who has it is pretending.
Let me make two proposals for revitalizing, or at least burnishing, the concept of fidelity in translation. The first is that the two choices of domestication and foreignization might not be as mutually exclusive as Schleiermacher himself thought they were (he believed that a mix of the strategies in the same text would be infelicitous and result in obscurity). If a translation combined domesticating moves that prioritized paraphrasable meaning and fluency, with foreignizing moves that prioritized reproducing specific formal aspects of the poem’s source, then there might be a way to maximize fidelity that would be lost in an either/or scenario. The success of some translations in fact may stem from such a combination: though Pope’s Iliad is often characterized as the apogee of a domesticating translation, H.A. Mason argued that it succeeds more than any other in sending us back to the original, and Gary Wills suggested that Pope’s assonance is an effective sonic echo of the Greek.35
This technical proposal leads into another idea, more ambitious in its sweep if not in its recommendations. It stems from the conviction that contemporary translation theorists like Venuti and Apter, in mapping an acknowledgment of cultural difference onto a philosophy of différance, have missed something important about Schleiermacher’s observation, which is the way it emphasizes the understanding of persons in addition to the understanding of texts.36 Of the translator, he writes: “Should he try to bring two people together who are so totally separated from each other — as his fellow man, who is completely ignorant of the author’s language, and the author himself are — into such an immediate relationship as that of author and reader?”37And later, the famous passage:
…now the true translator, who really wants to bring together these two entirely separate persons, his author and his reader, and to assist the latter in obtaining the most correct and complete understanding and enjoyment possible of the former without, however, forcing him out of the sphere of his mother tongue, what paths are open to the translator for that purpose? In my opinion there are only two. Either the translator keeps the writer alone as much as possible and moves the reader toward the writer, or he leaves the reader alone as much as possible and moves the writer toward the reader.38
I began this essay with a story about a translator justifying his decision to facilitate the sort of relationship Schleiermacher describes. Such a process is not only a matter of transferring meaning but of doing so in a way that brings together two separate persons via a third. Ethical requirements of translation would be satisfied or shirked in fulfilling the task of facilitating this relationship; fidelity would be an index, not of the literal meaning of the text or its word order or rhyme scheme or some such reduction or reproduction, but of the thoroughness with which understanding and enjoyment of the original had been fostered. Without the idea of a person who has created the text with a certain goal (or with certain goals) in mind, the idea of a faithful translation, and with it the idea of an ethical translation, loses the constraint that would differentiate it from an unethical one.39 Such ethics can be abused: a translator can shirk his responsibility to provide understanding while indulging his responsibility to provide enjoyment, for example. Historically, many poets have done this. One can do the reverse, and commit the sin of scholarship by letting understanding destroy enjoyment. Such abuses or failures would ultimately need to be weighed along with the translation’s successes. But if you believe that anything like “the most correct and complete understanding and enjoyment of a poem” is possible — and my sense is that most translators do believe this — then this is the only ethics of translation worth having.
All well and good. But how do we get to “the most correct and complete understanding and enjoyment possible”? We read and reread. And, if that text is a poem, we take care to read with an eye to the way the text departs from instrumental forms of language use — for some aspect of these, too, should be part of our translation. One way to describe this caretaking in relation to poems was offered by the British poet and translator David Gascoyne.40 In an unpublished lecture in the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University, “The Poet Translator and His Problems”41 — the title is a nod to Eliot’s essay about Hamlet, in which Eliot offered his (in)famous theory of the “objective correlative” — Gascoyne lays out an approach to translation and to evaluating translations that, building on some remarks of George Steiner, resonates with Schleiermacher’s notion of what a “true translator” has to do in order to complete his task.
The handwritten notes for Gascoyne’s talk begin with several quotations from Steiner’s After Babel:
GS writes: “Translation is inward directed discourse, a descent, at least partial, down Montaigne’s ‘spiral staircase of the self,'” and goes on to ask: “What light does this process throw on the vital issue of the primal direction or target of human speech? Are the mechanics of self-address, of interior monologue between syntax and identity, different in a polyglot and in a single language speaker?”
“In what language am I, suis-Je, bin Ich, when I am inmost? What is the tone of self?”
Steiner’s first remark is counter-intuitive. One would think that translation is not directed inward but outward.42 But the choices that the translator herself makes in order to bridge the gap between languages require reflection on the resource of one’s own language, of what sounds right. And reflection on both the resources of one’s own language and one’s judgment about them leads to the ground of that reflection and that judgment. Gascoyne uses Steiner’s meditations on polyglot subjectivity to launch his own discussion of the relation between a poet’s translating practice and his subjectivity “‘What is the tone of self?’ This seems to me a very relevant question for the translator to ask himself.” He continues, invoking use of a familiar idea from Keats in a less familiar way:
If the translator of poetry is himself a poet, then he is possibly more likely to possess what Keats considered to be the poet’s principal requisite, that is, what he called “negative capability” (verify) by which he meant, as I understand it, not that a poet should have no distinct self to call his own, or even simply the capacity for voluntary self-effacement which enables him to be at the disposition of what was once known as the Muse, and nowadays, if thought to exist at all, is generally thought to be the well-spring of the Unconscious … not as temporary absence or suppression of self, then, so much as the special kind of empathy which enables one to identify oneself in a special way with one’s subject, be it a person as in all love-poetry, or a place or landscape, a flower, rocks, trees, or even kitchen chairs or sinks.
Gascoyne’s account of poetic vocation as poetic identification is sharply different from Nietzsche’s conception of the same vocation as imperial conquest. It is also an unorthodox appeal to “negative capability,” as his own parenthetical remark to “verify” potentially acknowledges, since by that phrase Keats meant the capacity to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”43 Gascoyne may have confused this remark on negative capability with another famous remark from Keats’s letters about the identity of the poet —”A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body – The Sun, The Moon, The Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet has none; no identity”44 — but the confusion is generative, since Gascoyne wants to identify the capacity which would enable the poet to be the sort of thing he is, and thus the capacity that a poet would bring to the act of translation. That capacity is a “special kind of empathy” which enables multiple identifications, even with human and non-human objects. Training for translation (and for poetry writing more broadly) would thus involve the cultivation of an emotional responsiveness whose purchase was much wider than both. It would culminate, actually, in a functional impersonality, allowing the poet to dissolve the boundary between things — like flowers, rocks, trees and the kitchen sink — and the mind that experienced them.
Gascoyne continues to the question “of what constitutes a good translation,” suggesting that it is directly related to the quotation from Steiner, i.e. “What is the tone of self.” He writes:
To put it as simply as possible. Translation is a matter of attunement in view of a fair or just transaction. The more delicate, imaginatively close the attunement, the juster or more satisfactory the transaction. The perfectly accurate translation is unusually rare, even when the text to be transferred from one language to another is a purely technical prose article…
What I personally regard as a “good” translation is one resulting from the translator’s ability to discern, or if you prefer “hear,” the tone of the self of the poet he has chosen to translate.
Attunement and transaction — rather than forcible replacement— are the preferred metaphors here for describing a good translation. And neither “attunement” nor “transaction” invokes a scenario in which something is being forcibly or forever transformed or deformed into something else. Both involve reciprocity: if I am attuned to something, I stand in a relation to it. My attunement depends on my judgment of it being a certain way, and of it continuing to be a certain way. Meanwhile, if I conduct a transaction with you, I give up something to get something else. I make an exchange. The justice of the exchange depends on how sensitively I am attuned to the goods that are exchanged. Normally, we would expect the goods exchanged in a translation transaction to be words and their meanings; Gascoyne is somewhat ambiguous here as to what these goods are. I take him to be implying that, if what’s being translated is a poem, then the poem includes, along with its words, the tone of the self of the poet who wrote it, and a good translation (as opposed to a bad or merely adequate one) would capture that tone in pursuit of rendering the meaning of the poem. Gascoyne had evidently thought to describe the transaction as potentially fair or just in advance but struck these out; he settled on making the justness or the satisfaction of the transaction a result of the attunement, rather than something that would have shaped and potentially warped the attunement in the first place. A wise revision.
And just what is this “tone of the self?” Steiner had originally asked “In what language am I … when I am inmost? What is the tone of the self?” Gascoyne undoes the elision between language and tone (for spoken language can have many tones). And he stresses that the tone expresses something that is more basic than the personality or the sensibility of the poet:
…one may assume that whatever the degree of temporary abdication of conscious or everyday self achieved by the poet before writing his poem, or in order to write it, the work resulting from his holding in abeyance his ratiocinative functions, which are responsible for much of what is generally thought to contribute to a person’s “normal” self, will bear the poet’s unmistakable hall-mark, it will provide an instance of his own special tone. “Je est un autre” declared Rimbaud. “No I, not I, but that the wind that blows through me!” cries D.H. Lawrence at the opening of one of the most unusual of his earlier poems. So it would seem that the self at the bottom of the spiral staircase is the tone, the true, the deep-buried self, that which psychoanalysis when successful enables us to recognize and accept as our own; and it is the tone of the voice with which that self speaks that is recognizable as the poet’s own, most valuable one, and that which the translator if he is fortunate or fortunately endowed is able somehow to evoke in his own language.
Neither the ego nor even a point of view — hence the quotations from Rimbaud and D.H. Lawrence signaling an estrangement or a distance from the first person — the tone of the self can be heard in activities in which we are maximally free from the work of repression that produces the “conscious,” “everyday,” “normal” self. Gascoyne remained faithful to the aspect of Surrealist practice that sought to assimilate the traditional account of inspiration to an encounter with the Unconscious and cites Breton’s remarks on automatic writing elsewhere in the lecture. Poetry is a place where the tone of the self, usually masked, rings true. This choice of the word “tone” is important. It does not suggest that poetry is a transparent window into anything like the self or even the unconscious. That would be too facile. Nor does it seem to be a situation of separating a manifest self from a latent one, as in Freud’s approach to dream interpretation, which also invokes translation as a model. The tone of the self is not the same thing as what the self says, and it is also not the same thing as what the self is actually saying when it says something else. Nor is it the same thing as what the self is. It is an attribute of the self, a means through which the content of one’s experiences or one’s consciousness might be made manifest. Through attending to this attribute or this means, we can hear — and if we are translators, we should aspire to hear — an expression of the valuable or primal self of the poet, something that would prefigure any persona or mask. And because, so the argument might go, the psyche is universal in a way that languages are not, what we hear can help us in our practical decision of how to render the work of a poet across languages. Capturing the “tone of the self” is a way of increasing the quality of a translation by making it seem as if the subjectivity of the original poet — some aspect of her personhood, and not merely the meaning of her words — had found its way into a new language.
To close this essay, I want to return to Padgett’s Reverdy translations. The notebook mentioned in the 2007 postface, festooned with a cartoon characters and a tongue-in-cheek dedication to Ted Berrigan, resides in the Danowski collection. It allows us to see how Padgett’s more thorough attunement with the sensibility responsible for the source text produced a good translation, one whose “domesticating” procedures are justified on the grounds of providing a more complete comprehension of the source.
Here is a poem titled “Des Êtres vagues,” first in Reverdy’s French, then Padgett’s first rough version:
Des Êtres VaguesUne honte trop grande a relevé mon front. Je me suis débarrassé de ces encombrantes guenilles et j’attends.Vous attendez aussi mais je ne sais plus quoi. Pourvu que quelque chose arrive. Tous les yeux s’allument aux fenêtres, toute la jalousie de nos rivaux recule au seuil des portes. Pourtant s’il n’allait rien venir.À présent je passe entre les deux trottoirs; je suis seul, avec le vent qui m’accompagne en se moquant de moi. Comment fuir ailleurs que dans la nuit.Mais la table et la lampe sont là qui m’attendent et tout le reste est mort de rage sous la porte.45
Too great a shame called attention to my face. I got rid of those cumbersome rags and I wait.You wait too but I no longer know what for. Provided that something happens. All the eyes go out of the windows, all the jealousy of our rivals has moved back to the edge of the doors. Nevertheless if nothing was going to come.Right now I am passing between the 2 sidewalks: I am alone, w/ the wind that comes along with me and mocks me. How to run away somewhere else except in [into?] the night. (at night.But the table and the lamp await me and the rest is dead of rage under the door.46
Padgett’s underlining seems to indicate places where he was not sure how to proceed — not knowing, for example, whether “I got rid of” was an adequate translation for “je me suis débarrassé” (he decided it was). Here is the final version he published, where he corrects a few small mistakes of vocabulary and grammar and makes a few small interpretive changes, one of which includes the aforementioned change of some punctuation:
Too great a shame called attention to my face. I got rid of those cumbersome rags and I wait.You wait too, but I no longer know what for. Provided that something happens. All the eyes light up at the windows, all the jealousy of our rivals has moved back to the thresholds of the doors. Nevertheless if nothing was going to happen.Right now I am moving between the two sidewalks, I am alone with the wind that accompanies me and mocks me. How to run away somewhere else except at night.But the table and the lamp are there waiting for me and the rest is dead of rage under the door.47
The changes are not radical, by any means: “edge of the doors” becomes “thresholds of the doors”; “passing” becomes “moving”: “comes along with me” becomes “accompanies.” These changes stay close to what competent readers of the French would recognize as literal meaning while increasing the fluency of the English. The shift, after “les deux trottoirs” (“the two sidewalks”), from semicolon (in the French original) to colon (in Padgett’s first translation) and finally to comma (in Padgett’s final version) reveals the degree to which this fluency differs from grammaticality. The final version produces a comma splice, but this mistake has the effect of bringing a reader of the English closer to speech, and potentially also to spontaneity, since a person who writes “Right now I am moving between the two sidewalks” might not manage to anticipate where his or her sentence will be going next in order to punctuate it correctly.
To what degree does the final version capture the “tone of the self” in Reverdy’s poem — a poem that, though it refers to more than one person (a beloved?), concentrates on what might be called a flanêur of the mind? It is hard to answer this question in a truly satisfactory way without performing something like a lay analysis on the whole body of Reverdy’s work — or at least spending as much time with it as Padgett did. For now, I think the best way to approach this question would be by comparison. Here is Mark Polizzotti’s translation of the same poem:
Vague CreaturesToo great a shame holds my head high. I’ve rid myself of those cumbersome rags and I’m waiting.You’re waiting too but I don’t know for what. As long as something happens. In the windows all eyes are shining; all the jealousy of our rivals recoils at the entrance. But what if nothing were coming…For now I pass between two sidewalks. I’m alone, with a wind that mocks me as it blows alongside. Where else to flee but into the night.
There are some striking differences between the two translations: Padgett renders “a relevé mon front” as “called attention to my face” while Polizzotti gives it as “holds my head high.” Polizzotti is probably closer to the literal sense of relever here, used as a transitive verb meaning to “lift” or “raise up” — it can also mean “note” or “notice,” which is probably what Padgett had in mind when he chose “called attention to,” even though his version makes a transitive verb into an intransitive one. But Polizzotti has the tense wrong. Keeping the whole line in the present, as he does, results in a more exciting English sentence. But it blurs an implication of discrete cause and effect that is there in the French. And, in serving idiomatic English expression, he makes the opening more grandiose than it needs to be, since the adjective “high” is not there in the original. It might have been if Reverdy had written relevé la tête. But he used front, “forehead,” which both translators quietly treat as a metonymy. (It surprises me that, given Reverdy’s association with Cubism, and the particular kind of representations of the human body Cubist art produced, neither of these translators decided to reject the metonymy and exploit the distorting effects available by the literal translation for “front,” i.e. “forehead.”) Padgett makes front into the face. The shame leads there; perhaps it is visible there. The shame is important because of the way it is perceived by others. In Polizzotti’s version, the shame is already psychologized. It offers a motive for the compensatory raising of the head.
In addition to striking a bolder tone than Padgett’s translation, Polizzotti gives himself more semantic latitude. (Perhaps surprisingly, the poet’s translation ends up being the more conservative of the two.) This can work: “But what if nothing were coming…” is probably a more effective translation of “Pourtant s’il n’ allait rien venir” than “Nevertheless if nothing was going to happen.” Here Polizzotti’s fluency is a helpful antidote to the imposing thicket of the hypothetical French negation. Yet those ellipses are too dramatic. And the flip side of the drama is superficiality. “Comment fuir ailleurs que dans la nuit,” writes Reverdy. The line echoes with sadness but, more importantly, resignation and exhaustion. The emphasis is on the ailleurs, that venerable theme of the Symbolist elsewhere, the place that Baudelaire and Mallarmé were always trying (unsuccessfully) to go. How can we revive this dream except under the cover of darkness? And how cliché to want to do so! Padgett’s conservative translation, “How to run away somewhere else except at night” preserves some of this in its deadpan. Polizzotti’s translation, meanwhile, drifts away from this quiet disenchantment towards greater pathos: “Where else to flee but into the night.” The exaggeration of “dans la nuit” and the emphasis on the grand literary echoes of fuir produce a line that could have been written by Edna St. Vincent Millay — which is not to say that it is bad line per se, only that it is not a good translation of Reverdy. The grandness of this tone, and the chattiness of Polizzotti’s contractions makes Reverdy’s poem less strange in English, just as his choice of translating “Êtres” as “Creatures” makes it more familiar even as it tries for a certain creepiness. But strange is not creepy, and Padgett, though he could be accused of taking very few risks, manages also to preserve more of the “tone of the self” I hear in Reverdy’s original.
I do not mean to imply that fidelity, or translating for the “tone of the self,” are just apologies for literalism or conservatism in translation. In theory, one could hear the tone of the self in a translation that was quite semantically free. More work could be done to see whether such translations can be described convincingly as being faithful in Gascoyne’s sense. In the meantime: there are plenty of reservations to be lodged against Gascoyne’s theory, both from the perspectives of philosophy and psychoanalysis and also from the perspective of literary theory. Most obviously: the self might not exist. Less obviously: if the self does exist, there might be no one final deep-buried self beneath more superficial selves. And if that deep-buried self does exist, we might not ever be able to hear it speak in its own language. There may be no end to repression; no final moment in which we can recognize and accept our deep-buried self as our own. (There is a quaint, pre-Lacanian optimism to Gascoyne’s account of the potential success of psychoanalysis, although I am not sure whether this quaintness is a function of his naivéte or our cynicism.) And not every poet will write work that is as obviously conducive a conduit to any sort of deep-buried self as Rimbaud’s or D.H. Lawrence’s was; the work might be antagonistic to expression, or invested in the proliferation of personae to such a degree that no single self could be heard. Writing might be the destruction of every voice, as Barthes said it was, and thus obviate the discerning of any tone except its own neutralizing one. (But perhaps this description only applies to writing of a particular sort, one Barthes mistook for writing in general…)
Despite these potential reservations, which I offer as legitimate debates and not as settled issues, Gascoyne’s reflections are useful if we recall their focus on the practical matters of how we translate and how we judge translations of poems. Approaching translation as a hearing of the “tone of the self,” and as a recreation of that tone in an attuned transaction, reminds us that in order to produce a faithful translation of a poet’s work, we should have the most complete understanding and appreciation of what is happening in the work as we can have. This is not a simple return to considering the spirit rather than letter of a given utterance in a text, but rather a communing with the spirit that presides over an entire text, and letting that be the standard against which a “good” translation is judged. If something like this were possible, then an ethical translation of poetry would not necessarily be caught on the dilemma of whether to foreignize or domesticate; both fluency and estrangement would be subordinate to sustaining the meaning of the text, including the tone of the self that was crucial to expressing that meaning. At the same time, the corresponding difficulty of an ethical translation would be more radical and demanding: it would require not only the hermeneutic and verbal skills we associate with translation in its traditional form, but the capacity to identify with someone else’s work in such a way as to hear what made it different from that of everyone else.