Friday, March 16, 2012
Translation, Interpretation, Distortion
I see in this week’s Times Sunday Book Review that Robin Robertson’s idea of translation is not only to simplify the original, but to insert details of his own creation (see David Orr, “Versions,” March 11, 2012). For example, in his translation of Tomas Transtromer’s poem “Calling Home,” he adds a knife-fight that isn’t in the original. I think this takes translation too far. While I realize there’s no such thing as a definitive translation, I think a translator has to be true to the original. Richard Pevear, translator (in partnership with his wife Larissa Volokhonsky) of The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina, among other classics, compares translation to music interpretation: “It’s like a musical composition and a musician, an interpretation. If your fingers are too heavy or too light, the piece can be distorted” (quoted in David Remnick’s “The Translation Wars,” The New Yorker, November 7, 2005). Orr, in his piece, makes a similar analogy. He says:
But translating a poem is like covering a song. We can savor the liberties someone is taking with, say, “Gin and Juice” in a way we couldn’t understand similar variations on songs written by Martians. And Transtromer, however popular he is among poets, remains largely unknown to readers eager to see work from the new Nobel laureate. In this instance, even a sincere imitation probably isn’t the most helpful form of flattery.
I agree, except I’d put it more strongly. It appears that Robertson’s interpretation of Transtromer constitutes distortion.
Credit: The above photograph of Tomas Transtromer is by Ulla Montan; it appears in The New York Times Sunday Book Review as an illustration for David Orr’s “Versions.”