Thursday, September 22, 2011

On Translation, Part 2

When "A Ghost Abandons the Haunted" was featured in Ted Kooser's American Life in Poetry project, I had no idea how far-reaching its distribution would be, or how many people would read it. When I googled the poem, I was pleasantly surprised at how many small newspapers include Kooser's article, and that bloggers were getting in on the action as well.

When I saw the poem up at Larabee and Liza, though, I was beyond excited. Here was another way in which the poem was being translated, this time visually. The painting, with its expanse of white space, captures that feeling of disbursement or of non-being I was trying to evoke in the poem. But it also picks up on the poem's sense of the absurd. After all, being haunted by a ghost is not exactly a "normal" experience, but it becomes truly odd when you pretend like it is. There's something about the way the ghost (or is that the person being haunted?) is waving cheerily at someone or something just beyond the edge of canvas, that feels similarly absurd to me.

In fact, Laura, the genius behind the brush, has done quite a few "translations" of other poets, and her newer work takes the idea of translation in a whole new direction, as she paints and draws directly on old book pages, turning them into new pieces of art. Check out this wonderful transformational work on her blog and her shop.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

On Translation

I haven't been here in a while, I know. But when I signed in today, I had a lovely comment from a Spanish poet waiting for me. Jesus Jimenez Dominguez has translated my poem "A Ghost Abandons the Haunted" into Spanish. Beautiful, no?

I was reminded of a class I took on translation the final year in my MFA program. Throughout, we discussed the balance between literal translation and the transference of those less actual elements of poetry: sound, connotation, meter. What we didn't discuss, because we were all native English speakers translating into English, was what translation from English into other languages can do to a work.

In the original English, the poem attempts to transform the strange and frightening (the haunting) into the mundane...I sort of strained the ghost through a list of everyday things: old sponges, celery, a ring in the tub, etc. But in Spanish, the sound keeps that element of strange and scary throughout. Now, the ghost is not reduced by the common things. It infuses them, possesses them, haunts them.

I wonder what would happen if I now re-translated the poem back into English. Would it retain some of this residual strangeness? Would the ghost be stronger or more omnipresent? Would my word choice change to hold on to some of these elements that I love in the Spanish translation? And now, whose poem is it? Maybe the secret truth is that the poem, like the ghost it describes, is permeable. It will continue to change with each reading, each version, each new eye.