Translation: A Few Cautions
by David Cope
for Carmen Bugan
1. Choose an author with whom you feel kinship—whose voice speaks directly thru you rather than to you. The poems you translate should speak directly to your own concerns.
2. Wise, also, to choose a poet and/or works that have either not been extensively translated, or, if the work has been translated, you are not satisfied with the translations you've seen.
3. Major problem in translation is attempting to locate relatively exact correspondences in the meanings of words. A word may have three meanings in one language and only one in the other; you will need to locate all puns, metaphors, similes and other such figures of speech in the original, and have them clearly marked out—this is where your problems will be the greatest.
4. Music of the lines: attempts to duplicate the musicality of the verse from another language are doomed, first because the vowels "slide" differently in different languages, and consonants may also sound differently—consider the rolling "r" or the occasionally muted "t" in Spanish. Also, one language may be readily adaptable to rime (e.g. any of the romance languages), while another may not be (e.g. English).
5. Pound and Fenellosa felt the image was what was most translatable; yet an image may have associations in one culture that it lacks in another, and one may develop a translation that is really a different poem as a result.
6. My own procedure: to attempt to grasp the heart of what a line says; to search for alternate synonyms or occasionally clusters of words that may touch the implications of the original more closely. Then try out the variant versions until I am satisfied that I've captured something as close as possible to the meanings of the original lines. Now go back and trim extra words, etc., out of the English so that it will sound smooth and elegant in English open verse. Occasionally rework a phrase to capture some musical effect without distorting the meanings I've arrived at. Finally, return to the original and re-read them side-by-side aloud, several times, with my translation, changing or marking anything that doesn't seem right.
7. Above all, trust your intuitions.
8. On the one hand, you are singing with another's voice; on the other, it is you who are singing—make your singing as elegant and perfect as you would with your own poems. Eric Greinke, Grand Rapids poet, once called translation "putting on the skin of a dead friend and singing thru his/her mouth"—gruesome metaphor, but to the point.
9. If other translations of the work exist, use them as references—each will have its own strengths and weaknesses, and could serve on occasion to give you a further frame of reference—what to be careful to do, what to be careful to avoid.
10. Best, if you have time, to put your work away for two weeks and return to it then—with perspective and away from the heat of labor, you may find other flaws that need to be addressed. This step should be repeated until you are comfortable that you have polished your translation to your satisfaction.
11. You may on occasion follow a poet's thought patterns but depart extensively from his or her exact words, usually because the original awakened some contemporary associations or images in the translator poet's mind; in "After Ronsard," for example, lines related to the 9/11 disaster appeared in the middle of the poem, and other parts of the original pattern were condensed or passed over. Though some would call this a "free translation," I believe such a rendering is more accurately described as an adaptation, much as screenwriters adapt the plays of Shakespeare.