Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Feats of Translation

Beth Bates, prose editor for Booth Journal, sent a tweet in my direction asking for a list of "impressive feats of translation." A feat, to me, means a messy sort of translation or version, a hybrid, a borrowing which creates a new work distinct for the original. Here the face of the original author blends with that of the translator. Beth's timing is fortuitous. As I kicked around ideas for my list, I found fodder for my upcoming talk at the University of Michigan. So, in no particular order, feats of which I am fond:

  • This essay on Taiwanese literature contains a translation of a character poem into English that is visionary in its Anglicization of the ideas contained in the three characters 兵, 乒, and 乓.
  • Geoffrey Brock's mashup of Rimbaud, Rilke, and Seferis ties together three poems from three languages by linking the common phrase change your life.
  • Though maligned by critics, such as E. Bruce Brookes in this snarky article on the University of Massachusetts, Seamus Heaney's version of Horace's Ode I, 34 is the best poetic response I've found for 9-11.
  • With the poem "When You Are Old," W. B. Yeats pulled off one of the greatest coups of English literature. He managed to pass off Ronsard's French sonnet off as his own. I'll give him that his ending is much better.
  • Of the three versions I've found of Housman's Latin ode to his friend and unrequited love, Moses Jackson, this one replicates is an a Housman's voice and phrasing to an amazing degree. 
  • Eliot's "The Wasteland" must be mentioned for its sheer pastiche and the notable use of the Greek Anthology, a rarely read text I cannot recommend enough.
  • I started translating after hearing Cass Dalglish talk about translating cuneiform tablets from the Akkadian. She told the story of how she lay awake in the darkness in Cuba and listened to distant Afro-jazz drumming and the project clicked - jazz translations riffing off the original language which is full of multiple interpretations and choices for each character. Here are two poems she read at that reading.
  • Marlowe's Ovid landed him in hot water with the censors - but when wasn't he in hot water? A vastly underrated poet who may have rivaled Shakespeare had he lived as long, I love his plays and this translation in particular. 
  • The homophone/half-translation of Catullus by Zukofsky. I can only find bits of the text online
  • On a recent trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts, I read the plaque for "The Diggers" by Van Gogh which explained that the painter viewed this work as a translation of this etching by Millet.

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