Embracing and Encouraging the Act
of Translation as One of Creation





Misunderstandings or Mischaracterizations?

__ My human rights attorney wife has a heart of gold and a penchant for Jane Austen, so when her mother requested that she write a Christmas letter of love and appreciation to her recently-bereaved grandmother, she responded with a poem (her undergrad degree is, after all, in English literature – with honors). The poem was beautiful and quite moving, I wish I’d written it myself, and yes, her grandmother cried when it was read to her over Skype on Christmas morning. But it did spawn an unexpected question among more of her family members than I can count: “Why doesn’t it rhyme?”

__ My wife’s family is comprised of reasonably intelligent folk, they’re just not readers, especially of poetry, so this grand misunderstanding wasn’t that surprising. But it did get me thinking, in how many other literary misunderstandings is the human race engaged? Translation has got to be at the top of that list.

Version v. Translation

__ My favorite debate within the general practice of literary translation is the very specific argument of version v. translation. The question was drawn into prominence (scandalously, I might add) when two of Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer’s translators, Robin Fulton and Robert Robinson, engaged in a public fight. Fulton longs for a stricter fidelity to the original than Robinson provides, while the latter is more given to creative versions, à la Robert Lowell. The truth, though, is that both translators are correct. Every version – whether leaning toward the literal or inclined to free re-envisioning – can serve as a mechanism geared toward better understanding and appreciating the original. Or, the translation (or version) can itself be an original. Intent, or, the translator’s purpose, once again, becomes the central question.

TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: "Las nubes" by José Juan Tablada

_____ ............| de los Andes van veloces,
_____Las nubes | de montaña en montaña,
_____ ............| en alas de los cóndores.

_____ ........| roll across the Andes,
_____Clouds | from summit to summit,
_____ ........| beneath the condor’s wings.


__José Juan Tablada is known for having produced some highly experimental visual poetry; this does not include his haiku (the fact that these poems are haiku is, in itself, the grand experiment). However, one of Tablada’s haiku stands out as visually unique. Las nubes poses a challenge in that you really do have to get in the original author’s head in order to determine his intent.

__I studied the little poem for a month, mostly trying to figure out how it was supposed to be read (Tablada’s inclusion of vertical bars wasn’t helpful at first). Eventually I decided to translate Las nubes as two poems, or, specifically, as one poem that can be read in two different directions—literally. The reader can begin with the headword, ‘clouds,’ and then read the lines to the right of the vertical bars like a regular haiku (in other words, ‘clouds’ is the first word of the entire poem). And in the other reading, the word ‘clouds’ can be read as the first word in each of the three lines (repeated at the start of each).

TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: From "Otoño" by Vicente Huidobro

_____Por los caminos
_____Viene el otoño
_____Arrancando todas las hojas.

_____Autumn has made its way
_____Down the road
_____Picking all the leaves.


__I want arrancando to be a cognate of ‘arranging;’ renderable, then, as ‘rustling’ (in the sense of hurried and indiscriminate re-arranging). The reality, though, is entirely different—arrancar ‘to pick,’ ‘to strip’—and thus, too significant a deviation from the source image.

__Given this, my choice for the image is ‘plucking,’ but this feels too close to the poultry processing industry, so I’ll abandon it in favor of either ‘stripping’ or ‘picking.’ The urgency of ‘stripping’ is nice, and in keeping with the original author’s intentions; however, the word just doesn’t seem to work correctly on its own (‘stripping the leaves’), and would require a rather bulky appendage to sound right, resulting in the unwieldy ‘stripping the leaves from the trees.’

__I’ll pick ‘picking,’ which doesn’t feel as fast as stripping, but nonetheless contains the notion of force in order to remove an object from the tree.