Translations are peculiar creatures. Especially when it comes to poetry. Think about it — much of the work poetry does relies on associations, some more loosely connected to a word than others, and on the type of melody and pattern we have learned to expect from our own language. Words can seem so inconspicuous, but they do a lot. They are like pack mules, with a mountain of ideas and associations tied to their backs. Some have rat tails. Others stick to you like a balloon to a well-sunned cat. (If you’re no fan of linguistic games, skip the next 2 paragraphs.)
Whole mentalities are transported in simple, single words. Take, for example, the adjective “self-conscious.” In English, it means to be somewhat uncertain, not very confident, because of an acute consciousness of one’s own self. In German, literally translated, it’s “selbstbewusst” — which means the exact opposite, namely to be confident (supposedly because of that self-same consciousness). So does being acutely aware of ourselves make us less confident? More confident?
My Chinese roommate talked about crocodile pears the other day, and the name makes sense when you look at the thing (an avocado): it’s both pear-shaped and has a skin like a crocodile. Another word I like, to show the difference in ideas, is “Hubschrauber” — German for helicopter. Literally it means “lift-screw-item.” Clearly, the circular upward motion is central to the mental image connected with this word. Compare, then, “chopper” — same object, but the focus is on the sound as well as the blade-like appearance and motion of the rotor. Clearly, the associations are quite different, even when we use words quite literally, simply to describe objects around us. And poetry, — well, poetry does not necessarily use words literally.
There is no such thing as a 1-to-1 translation. To translate a poem is to make many, many decisions: How literal should the translation be? How close do I want to stay to the imagery / wordplay / assonance / rhyme / rhythm / melody? How fluent am I in either of the languages — that of the original and that I want to translate to — and how aware am I of nuances in meaning? How much research should I do? In a way, it is like rewriting the poem in different words, hoping to recreate the same effect in other readers. I have great respect for those who attempt to translate poetry, and even more for those who succeed.
Bishop’s translations happened, in some cases, in collaboration with the original poet, which would be a marvelous resource to any translator. Her translations of Octavio Paz’s poems were such collaborations, and while it might just be me, I did feel like the voice of these poems is somehow different from that in Bishop’s original poetry. Not just because there are no flocks of adjectives — those are not in all her poems, by far. The language feels more pared down, somehow, — it’s hard to put my finger on what it is that makes me feel that way. In any case, there are some lovely lines here, too, which are, I guess, in part his and in part hers. Take this, for example:
The day had invented you / but you hadn’t yet accepted / being invented by the day. (“January First”)
What an intriguing description of that brief period of time when there is some light out there, the day has begun, but you are not yet awake.
One of my favorite translations must be “Sonnet of Intimacy” (originally by Vinicius de Moraes). It’s just enough childhood nostalgia to make me smile, and not enough to make me squirm. There’s a fine line. When I was a child, I spent a fair amount of time sitting in trees, playing in the woods (which was safe back then, except for the rabbit snares), and generally enjoying the world around me. I think the speaker in this poem has a similar past, remembering days when “there’s much too much blue air” and “The smell of cow manure is delicious.” He even shares my love of berries: “And if I spot in the brush a glow of red, / A raspberry, [I] spit its blood at the corral.” The poem ends with the boy and the cattle “[partaking] together of a pleasant piss.” Yes. That’s what it says. And I like it. 🙂
Since I do not read Portuguese, I have no way to compare the original to Bishop’s translation, but I am told that she stayed close to the text, and, as I mentioned, some of the translations were collaborations with the originators of the respective poems, so that I’m confident she did them justice.
“Family Portrait” is another intriguing translation (originally by Carlos Drummond de Andrade). “Yes, this family portrait / is a little dusty,” begins the poem, then informs us of all that has changed, including that “The grandmother’s smoothed and yellowed; / she’s forgotten the monarchy. / […] / And John’s no longer a liar.” The speaker wonders if these people are indeed family, “Family features remain / lost in the play of bodies.”
The people in the portrait are both familiar and strangers at the same time. Theirs is a curious state: “The frame of this family portrait / holds its personages in vain. / They’re there voluntarily, / they’d know how — if need be — to fly.” They are living and dead, they are versions of people now living and breathing, but not really them. I like the idea that they could “live inside the furniture / or the pockets of old waistcoats.” The next stanza is a ominous: “The house has many drawers, / papers, long staircases. / When matter becomes annoyed, / who knows the malice of things?”