I know that my creative writing has been greatly influenced by being bilingual (English and Italian) and I regularly encourage writers to learn a second language. Angie Vorhies notes in today's guest post for National Poetry Month, that translations happen regularly, with or without language. I encourage you to follow the links to the resources she recommends and take her suggestions to explore the world through poetry, even from your laptop in a coffee shop.
Angie Vorhies is a poet, translator, photographer, and founding member of San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project.
Found in Translation
“We sleep in language if language does not come to wake us with its strangeness.”
As human beings, even if we live in a place where we never encounter a foreign language, we are translating every day of our lives. When your partner asks what you did at work today, you translate your experience into words. Screenwriters translate works of fiction into film. When a teacher says “draw a house,” the kindergartener translates language into image.
The dictionary defines “translate” as:
1. to bear, carry, transport from one place to another;
2. to repeat or forward a message;
3. to transform, enrapture, entrance.
It is this last definition that particularly interests me. While I believe that the meaning of a text is important, when I read what I really want is to be entranced. I want literature to enrapture and transform me. And the best literature does that.
Nowhere does it say that one has to be perfectly fluent in a language to translate. Yet, somehow, over the years, I just assumed that was a requirement. Years of studying foreign languages in school had made me a competent speaker and reader of German and Italian. But a poor memory and aversion to the cod-liver oil list of verb tenses kept me from pursuing further language study. When I left school, I stopped reading literature in other languages.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I suddenly got interested in translation again. I had been writing poetry and had always enjoyed Poetry Magazine’s annual translation issue, especially each poet/translator’s description of how they approached the work and what issues arose during the translation process. That was a revelation for me, a peek under the hood of poetry and language.
Then I discovered the Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, edited by poet Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris of Words Without Borders (Ecco, 2010). I can’t even begin to describe the incredible beauty and heartbreak this book offers, a hundred years of the world’s best poetry. Paul Celan’s “Deathfugue,” translated by John Felstiner forever changed the way I look at translation. By including German words in the English text, Felstiner creates a powerful effect on the reader, giving them the experience of being alienated from language.
Reading Anna Akhmatova, César Vallejo, Marmoud Darwish, Yehuda Amichai, Bei Dao, and Valzhyna Mort, to name just a few, helped me to see the rich variety and endless possibilities of language. It changed the way I wrote in English. (Re-)discovering translation was like being reborn in language.
Here’s what I found in translation:
1. An appreciation for all the translators who have come before and shaped our literature. The Bible. Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Shakespeare was influenced by Petrarch. Neruda and Borges by Walt Whitman.
2. An understanding of other cultures and an appreciation for how they have transformed (and continue to transform) English language and literature.
Forest Gander writes, “I may hope that my own translations are less colonial raids into other languages than subversions of English, injections of new poetic forms, ideas, images and rhythms into the muscular arm of the language of power.”
Paul Celan called translation “encounters.” Like the tradition of midrash, where the holy book is revised again and again, new translations bring richness and variety to literature.
3. An injection of new life into my own work.
So I invite you to begin translating today. Here are some ways to get started:
Find a favorite poet writing in another language. Rilke, for example. Go to the bookstore and pull volumes from different translators (Edward Snow, Stephen Mitchell, Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy). Compare the same poem in different translations. Why did the translator choose the words s/he did? How does that change and broaden your understanding of the original poem?
Travel around the world through poetry. Go to Poetry International Web. Look at the list of countries in the right-hand column, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Click on individual poets and read the poems in their original language (some even have audio recordings). If you know another language, try doing your own version before the reading the English translation given.
If you don’t, try doing a homophonic translation, where you take the sound of the poem and translate it into English. Or copy and paste the original text into Google Translate and see what comes up. It won’t be a “faithful” translation, but I can guarantee you it will change the way you look at language.
Read poetry in translation. Submit your own. Support the many literary journals that are publishing translations. One of the best is Poetry International from San Diego State University. Last year’s issue (#17) had over 600 pages of poetry. At $15, it’s a bargain and the best place to discover new poetry from around the world.
Finally, reach out and connect with other writers. Join the CAB Project where you can meet a writer from another country and collaborate on a new work together.
“the more you were lost in unknown areas of distant cities, the more you understood the other cities that you had passed through in order to arrive there....Arriving in each new city, the traveler rediscovers a past that you didn’t know you still had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in strange, unpossessed places.”
--Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities