Dark Translation: Tim Parks on Pesky Poet-Translators

Russell Scott Valentino

Tim Parks, one of TIR’s contributors to its Forum on Literature and Translation, just published this piece at the NYR Blog, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/nov/30/translating-dark/, which from the very start stacks the deck against poor poet-translators by suggesting that they rarely know their source material well enough to really free themselves from it. The point might seem paradoxical at first, and he appears to be aware of this, when he notes

…a paradox at the heart of translation: the text we take as inspiration is also the greatest obstacle to expression. Our own language prompts us in one direction, but the text we are trying to respect says something else, or says the same thing in a way that feels very different. We have come to what Paul Celan meant when, despairing of translating Baudelaire, he remarked that "poetry is the fatal uniqueness of language."

My favorite characterization of this difficulty was by Minna Proctor, Editor of The Literary Review, on a panel at the annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association (there is such an organization), where she named the source text a “bully”: it stands there in front of you, arms akimbo, not letting you pass, not letting you do what you want to do, and you don’t want to give in to him, but you also don’t want to antagonize him; you need to find some way of disarming him.

But Parks doesn’t seem to notice the paradox of turning more to the source than away from it in order to free oneself from it (isn’t this like letting the bully have his way?), and he transitions away very quickly. “All the same,” he notes—this is the extent of the transition—

what often frees the student to offer better translations is a deeper knowledge of the language he is working from: a better grasp of the original allows the translator to detach from formal structures and find a new expression for the tone he is learning to feel: in this case, however, every departure from strict transposition is inspired by an intimate and direct experience of the original.

What exactly this claim is based upon is not made clear in the piece. How exactly does this deeper knowledge of the source language enable the translator to “detach” from it? Might it not encourage even a deeper commitment to it? I am thinking of Nabokov’s thorough love for Pushkin’s Evgenii Onegin, which encouraged him to create an English poem with all the mellifluousness of a hunk of wood being kicked down an alley: I can’t help thinking he just loved his Pushkin too much. Such a bully that Pushkin. He also loved to throw rocks, I hear.

Parks appears to offer some support for his claim when he notes that he has taught translation for many years in Italy and that he has seen that his students are often able to write well in their native language but unable to create fluid translations. But I know people who have taught translation for many years in the U.S. who say exactly the opposite—knowledge of the source language is a technical detail, they say; what is really hard to acquire isn’t that, it’s the skills to make one’s translation “sing” in English. I don’t know who’s right here, but surely both a deep knowledge of the language and literature of the source culture, and a high degree of expressive skills in the receiving culture’s language and literature are necessary if one is to create translated works of high quality. This shouldn't be controversial.

What Parks seems to be most concerned about, I think (and perhaps annoyed by would be a better term), is the attitude of certain poet-translators who appear to want to claim that those who know the source language really well and who come to the poetry from that angle—often having been trained in language and literature departments rather than in creative writing programs (this is another problem and a cultural divide that deserves exploration)—cannot know the poetry as poetry, or, if they can know it as poetry, they can do so only in the source, not in the receiving culture. And that’s because they’re not poets, which for an earlier generation meant they had not been accepted into the ranks of poets on the basis of avocation, and perhaps class, and today means they don’t have an MFA in it.

This troublesome attitude he locates, probably correctly, in a collection called Dante’s Inferno, a 1994 volume edited by Daniel Halpern featuring translations of different cantos by twenty contemporary poets, from Jorie Graham to Robert Pinsky and Seamus Heaney. One of the poets featured is Ciaran Carson, whose translation of the whole Inferno was published by NYRB in 2002 (The Inferno of Dante Allighieri). On the first page of his work, he notes that when he began the project he was “almost completely unfamiliar with the Italian language, let alone Dante’s language.” What might appear initially as a rather odd way of claiming authority for the work at hand makes sense in light of the annoying poet-translator attitude Parks points to: this is going to be a good translation because the translator is a poet, not one of those language experts who get bogged down in the details. Plus Carson can relate it to life in Belfast—even better.

I’m not so annoyed by this stance. I see it as just another ethos argument on the part of the translator, a necessary component of any translation, especially so for retranslation, doubly especially so for a retranslation of The Inferno. But the attitude is only the surface of a much more serious problem that Parks (Tim, please do more with this in future pieces!) doesn’t quite spell out clearly enough but that lurks beneath the surface of this and several of the other things he’s been writing these days: a basic question about the potential harm to the diversity and multiplicity of cultures worldwide with the growth of English as a lingua franca, not just in business and technical fields, but in artistic expression; and an accompanying, equally pernicious, tendency on the part of "native" English speakers prepared to find always one more reason why they do not need to make any effort at all to step outside their own language complacency.