Hugh Hazelton: The Transcendence of Translation: How the Translated Work Becomes Part of the Other Culture, Even in the Case of Experimental Poetry

Virtually all the foundational literature of our culture that comes to us from other languages, including all English literature written before the year 1400, consists of translation. However, most people are so familiar with famous works in translation that they cease to realize that when they read these works, they are, in fact, reading other versions of the original text that have passed through the filter of a translator’s mind. The Bible may or may not be the word of God, but it is that of a translator, who I suppose should be divinely inspired; but if there are dozens of different translations of scriptures, which one is sacred and infallible, especially when they are often translations of translations of other translations? When we cross the sea to Troy with Homer, which of the countless translations of the Illiad do we sail on? That book, like many classics, receives a new translation practically every generation, in a new poetic style, with the poetic conventions, fashions, and idiosyncracies of the age. Yet every major translation reaffirms the work such as the Iliad as being simultaneously of our own time and of another, as being of our own language as well as of that of its origin, which is both incomprehensibly remote and yet, due to the power and immediacy of the text, as contemporary as our own. As Walter Benjamin has noted in his essay “The Task of the Translator,” the translation enables the poem or other literary work to have a second life, to live beyond the original, and to keep being reborn through subsequent translations into a multitude of cultures across time.

In the nineteenth century, the rise of nationalism was accompanied by a desire to frame literatures within a single national or linguistic tradition. This impulse runs counter to the interpretation of literature as being the local or national embodiment of broader international esthetic movements such as the Baroque, Neo-Classicism, Romanticism, Naturalism, or Surrealism. The definition of literature in terms of national or linguistic traditions narrowed and limited its scope, isolating it into a unilingual or single national space with its own system of reference and supposedly independent esthetic, a framework that was not receptive to translation. If one is writing simply for an American, or British, or English-speaking audience, what is the sense in looking at other national and linguistic literary traditions? The idea of considering writing in a multicultural or translinguistic context, as Octavio Paz has observed in his essay “Translation: Literature and Letters,” is what stimulates translation and cross-fertilization, and locates literature in a synchronic context, grouping together John Donne and Quevedo, Poe and Baudelaire, even García Márquez and Salmon Rushdie. No literary tendency or style has ever been purely national, says Paz. If it weren’t for translation, we would be doomed to read works solely written in our own language during the last six hundred years or so, when it has existed in something resembling its present form! And what of bilingual, trilingual or multilingual countries? In Canada, for instance, it was only with the advent of government funding for literary translation between the two official languages in the 1960s that the two literary traditions of the nation began to take an interest in one another. Previously, each had been sealed off from the other by a lack of translation, to such an extent that the poetic traditions of English and French Canada are almost wholly different, the English-Canadian being essentially documentary, narrative, and horizontal, while that of Quebec is abstract, transcendent, vertical. Likewise, it is translation that knits together the triple literary worlds of the Philippines — Filipino, English, and Spanish — or the multiple linguistic spheres of Indian literature.

Through translation, authors far removed in time and space from our own culture assume a crucial, intimate place in our literary universe, often without our even noticing. Dostoevsky, Neruda, Mallarmé, and Kafka often have a more prominent place in our common heritage and personal constellation of authors than do similar writers of the time in our own language. Latin American poets speak of the influence of Whitman, Ginsberg, and Kerouac on their work; and Latin American writers whose work has been extensively translated into English, such as Neruda and Borges, have a vastly greater impact on North American authors than do less-translated voices who are equally respected in their country of origin, such as the avant-garde poets Oliverio Girondo of Argentina, Vicente Huidobro and Pablo de Rokha of Chile, and Haroldo and Augusto de Campos of Brazil. In Canada, which now has a wide variety of talented Latin American writers who have come to the country as exiles, refugees, or immigrants, translation has been the key to their access to English-Canadian and Quebec readerships. Without it, they would continue to write in complete isolation from their adopted country.

What of the translation, then, of experimental, avant-garde poetry, long considered one of the most difficult forms of literature to render into another language? Can a translator actually reproduce an original text that pushes the limits of meaning to the extreme, and at the same time naturally and spontaneously convince the reader that the work forms part of his or her particular personal or cultural sphere? Every work, as José Ortega y Gasset states in his essay “The Misery and Splendor of Translation,” is inherently untranslatable, since the translation can never fully correspond to the original, but only approach it— and yet every work also warrants the attempt at translation, which in itself is an existential, even quixotic quest. Even if the original poem is inherently incomprehensible in a Kantian, linear sense, and can only be absorbed or experienced through a kind of sensual osmosis, it is possible to attempt its translation and communicate it in another language. Success in this endeavour — which is always relative — depends on concentrating on the reproduction of the text itself, however difficult that may be. The translator of a challenging avant-garde poem cannot simply use the idiosyncratic complexity of the text as an excuse to create a parallel version or an adaptation, maintaining that “the author does whatever she or he wants, so I can do the same!” Freedom is intoxicating, but the text requires care and innovation, not simply impulsiveness. The translator needs to imagine and invent, though always in accord with the original text. When does the translator succeed, and when does he or she overstep the bounds and lose touch with the original text? Most readers of the poem will never know, since they cannot compare it with the original. However, since the translator is bringing the work into a foreign linguistic and literary sphere, where it may, in its subsequent incarnation, have a new resonance, the task, though daunting and exhilarating, also involves a deep responsibility.

As an example, here is a poem from previously En la másmedula (“In the Uttermost Marrow”), the last book of poetry by Oliverio Girondo, which has never been translated completely into English, along with my own English version:


Noctivomusgo insomne
del yo más yo refluido a la gris ya desierta tan médano evidencia
gorgogoteando noes que plellagan el pienso
contra las siempre contras de la posnáusea obesa
tan plurinterroído por noctívagos yoes en rompiente ante la afauce angustia
con su soñar rodado de hueco sino dado de dado ya tan dado
y su yo solo oscureo de pozo lodo adentro y microcosmos tinto por la total          gristenia


Nocturalvoicemoss insomniac
of the self plus myself flowing back to the grey now deserted so dune evidence
gurgledripping noes that overulcerate thought
against the forever againsts of obese postnausea
so plurintergnawed by nightwandering selves on the breakwater facing fangless
with its dreaming surrounded by hollowness fate given by dice already so given
and its self alone dark as a well mud within and microcosmos stained by the          total