Thursday, June 01, 2006

On poetry and translation. (a continuation).

I found the fleeting reference to how poetry is "chiefly the 'magic of sound'" for the Russians, in Milosz's ABC's, by Czeslaw Milosz*, which I had been reading earlier this week. The magic of sound. How perfectly that fits my thoughts on Russian poetry. It is not the only thing about Russian poetry, of course, but for me (as I have been reiterating ad nauseum for days now, perhaps weeks; I promise that I will stop now) the magic of sound, of language, is a major part of what I love about poetry, and Russian poetry in particular. (If only because I have read more Russian poetry than I have, say, French or Italian).

I come back to Milosz because in his essays he brings up another issue, how to translate American poetry (or poetry written in other languages) into another language, mainly Polish, in his case. How do you do it? How do you take the words, their rythm, the undercurrents of meaning, and translate them into another language, with a completely different rythm and sound and meter, not to mention completely different grammatical structure? You can't. It's impossible. It is like trying to caress the face of someone you love while wearing gardening gloves. When I read poetry that has been translated into English I feel like I am gazing at a landscape shrouded in fog. Beautiful, perhaps, but all I can make out is vague shapes of things.

Many weeks ago, as I first began working on this blog, I found myself reading The Poem That Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later, a compilation of essays concerning Ginsberg's "Howl." One of the essays is by Andrei Codrescu, who writes about the impact "Howl" had on him in the 1960's, of the culture and the change of that time, in his country and amongst his peers, and within himself. (It is with a shock that I read his words: "'Howl' broke us both into pieces, and when we put ourselves back together, we were no longer the same."** I had thought the same thing when I reread "Howl" recently, and it went through me like a phsyical jolt to understand that I am not alone in this, that across time and continents it has had this power over us). It is a testament to Ginsberg's writing that even clumsily translated into Romanian it had this effect on those who read it. Can you imagine? How does "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,/starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn/looking for an angry fix..." work in any language besides English, and not just English, but American English, in the new language that gave birth to the poetry of that generation (or rather, the poetry of that generation which gave birth to a new language, a new English)?

*Milosz, Czeslaw. Milosz's ABC's. Farrar, Strous, and Giroux, 2001. pp 28-29.

**Shinder, Jason, ed.
The Poem That Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later. Farrar, Strous, and Giroux, 2006. p 53.

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