Lost (and found) in Translation

Isn’t it impossible to translate poetry without losing something essential of the original poem? This question – likely the question I hear most frequently when talking to people about literary translation – is problematic. Problematic because it assumes that, when we read a poem in our native language, nothing gets lost, that we comprehend every connotation and nuanced meaning, that we identify and fully appreciate every cadence and rhythmic phrasing, every rhyme and near rhyme, each synecdoche, archaism, neologism, etc. – and that we do so by dint of speaking that and only that language – a language that as children we accidentally learned.

Translation is a way of writing and reading; a way to read by writing and vice versa. This is often and conveniently ignored by those who wish to enjoy or critique translated works without involving themselves in any discourse on translation itself. As a way of writing-and-reading, the translator enters the depths of a text, far-reaching regions where a native speaker would unlikely think to venture, and in this way, explores more of the language than does a reader who reads only to read and does not read to write.

The following visual poem, Questa tela é un frammento d’universo (1988). which I imagine would please the translation pessimist, comes from Peruvian poet Jorge Eduardo Eielson. It provides, in my judgment, a good case for what is found in translation.

Though I am not a translation pessimist, this work pleases me a great deal, not only because it shows so well and with such eloquence how language can create a space for poetic discourse on the metaphysical while at once becoming the obstacle that disallows our direct contact with the metaphysical, but also and more importantly here because  translating this visual poem requires that, aside from the lexical material, the visual language would need to be recreated. An accurate translation would have to be a painting.

The phrase that repeats across the canvass is in Italian and reads “Questa tela é un frammento d’universo e allo stesso tempo l’intero universo” (This canvas is a fragment of the universe and at the same time the entire universe). With regards to the lexical aspects of the translation, one could debate whether “tela” be translated as “canvas” or “cloth”, whether “allo stesso tempo” be translated as “at once” or “at the same time”, and so on and so forth.

But, beyond the lexical matter, there are other languages in play that contribute in meaningful ways to the poetics of the work, and we must take great care to make sure that these are adequately addressed. For example, when I look at this piece through my translator’s eyes (again, reading with the intention of writing), I notice  that each color on its own constitutes its own particular language within the whole. The longer I concentrate, more clearly can I identify chromatic languages that carry out different functions, creating depth of field, relief, space, movement, etc. In order to focus my attention on these chromatic languages, I have separated them each on its own (orange in the upper left, yellow in the upper right, black in the lower left and white in the lower right):

If we only think about the lexical aspect of this visual poem – translating the text “This canvass is a fragment of the universe and at the same time the entire universe” –  then we do so as the expense of the vital and essential chromatic aspect that the figure above demonstrates, thereby reducing the poetic elements to mere mechanical function.

The Italian text has 62 letters, while the English translation, 68. Moreover, the letter “O” – so bold in the original version that it is more a filled in circle than a letter  – only appears once in the English translation. In the Italian it appears 7 times. How can this be reconciled!? Translating this visual poem would require more than just linguistic translation in the sense of finding an English version of the Italian text; it would mean working out a lexico-graphical system constituted by the chromatic languages I’ve mentioned (and many other aspects that I’ve not even touched on here) that creates tensions akin to those that we see in Eielson’s canvass.

I am not so bold as to attempt that at this place in time, but I think what we’ve seen by dismantling the source text can help us avoid the problematic question posed at the beginning of this post. When a reader says that something is lost in translation, this is because (s)he is reading the translation as if it were not a translation, and this is a mistake.

A translation can never replace its source text, even though there are those rare cases in which the quality of a translation rivals or surmounts that of its source. A translation, at once, is always an original. What is not included in a translation is not lost, but is the byproduct of a plethora of decisions riddled with just as many contingencies that can only be grasped by looking critically at the translator’s method.

I am reminded of Blaise Pascal who said something to the effect “you wouldn’t look for me had you not already found me” (i.e. if you didn’t already have some preconceived notion of who I am and that I am missing). To say that something is ‘lost in translation’ implies that this something has already been noticed, that it has been intuited, sensed, felt – even if this missing element has not yet been articulated.

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