photo credit of top image Hello’s: flixtranslations.com
A typical scene at my house as a kid in the 1970’s and 80’s: Dad picks up the guitar and he and Mom start crooning a Spanish love song, harmonizing and smiling into each other’s eyes. I sit cross-legged on the floor, enjoying the tune, the rhythm, the guitar strums. But one major element is lost on me: the lyrics.
“What do the words mean?” I asked.
The answer could take anywhere from one second to one week, depending on how accurate they wanted to be. Mom often gave a quick approximation. Then Dad would re-word every phrase. Then Mom tweaked shades of meaning. Then Dad would add nuance to that with whole new phrases. The translation for a single line in Spanish turned into a paragraph in English.
The good news: language is rich. The bad news: Straight definitions fall short.
Around each word poofs a cloud of connotations and cultural contexts. These extend the meaning of each word. Translators, then, have a tough job. How to transmit meaning in new words, and pull in as much of the connotation cloud as possible?
Let’s try it for ourselves. Here’s a short poem by Gustavo Adolfo Becquer:
¿Qué es poesía?, dices mientras clavas
en mi pupila tu pupila azul.
¿Qué es poesía? ¿Y tú me lo preguntas?
Poesía… eres tú.
A clunky, but useful starting translation into English might be:
What is poetry? you ask while you hammer
onto my pupil your blue pupil.
What is poetry? And you ask me?
Poetry . . . is you.
This “translation” stays close to the dictionary meanings of the words, but it doesn’t sing as poetry, and most crucially, is doesn’t sound romantic. And romance is the point of this poem! ♥
Poet Jane Hirshfield has translated for decades. She advises, “convey each poem’s particular strengths” in her book Nine Gates. To find out what this poem’s strengths really are, I went to Dad.
First, he said “poetry” is more than just a genre of writing when a Spanish speaker says it. Poesía can mean . . .
- the sublimity of life
- the music of existence
- the marriage of wisdom and beauty
And of course, poems. Secondly, he pointed out that our poet, Becquer had a thing for blue eyes. Most importantly, he emphasized that this poem is about the couple drowning in each other’s eyes. The word “hammer” is not going to work very well!
Giving ourselves permission to make a version of this poem that stays true to the heart, but not the letter, we could create a version like this:
What is the sublimity of poetry? you question
as you pour your blue ocean eyes into mine.
What is this poetry? Do you not know?
You, my love, are poetry.
Purists may balk at the liberties I took here. Others will say it’s not great writing. True! I can imagine ten different versions, none of which are “best.” Go ahead and try one yourself. Paste it into the comments!
So. Is translation possible? The short answer is no. But are we willing to deprive ourselves of all the literature and speech of the world outside of English? No way!
Foundational texts such as the Bible and Homer’s Iliad? Gotta have them. What about Jung and Kafka? Li Po and Shikibu? Gotta, gotta, gotta. Even if true translation is impossible, we must do it anyway. We can read multiple translations and learn a second language to broaden our sense of a text, but we’re going to be relying on translators a lot. Growing up with bi-lingual parents showed me the complexities translators face. Given the service they render, what can I say but THANK YOU, TRANSLATORS!