Whenever I teach a work in translation (including Beowulf) I always feel vaguely guilty, as though I’m an amateur when the occasion calls for a professional. Therefore I am deeply grateful to my Ljubljana colleague Jason Blake for the following defense of translation. He puts his finger on my anxieties and assures me that reading and teaching translated works is just fine. Then he proves his point by sharing a magnificent poem that is inaccessible to everyone in the world except for the two million or so who can read Slovene.
By Jason Blake, English Dept., University of Ljubljana
“It’s better to read the original than the translation.” “Something is always lost in translation.” “There is no point reading X in translation.” And so on and so forth in the common room’s common wisdom.
As a reader, I find these pat phrases bothersome; as a translator, I intensely dislike them. How (or why) do I hate them? Let me count the ways:
1) They are of no practical value. If you want to read the latest Nobel Prize or Man Booker International winner, you need either a translation or a few decades to learn Swedish or Turkish or Albanian or Chinese or Hungarian. Before I have world enough and time to broaden my linguistic horizons thus, I’ll stick to the English text. So no Borges in Spanish and no classical guys in Greek and Latin. Call me a dull pragmatic.
2) I hear these slogans ringing in the background whenever a book reviewer who may or may not speak a foreign language slams a translation. (Two real and typical examples: “awkwardness of language, perhaps stemming from the original French, at times renders some of its thoughts difficult to follow”; “the translator, to his credit, has conspicuously preserved the quirks that give the writer its characteristic tone.” That perhaps is harsh and unfair if the original was also a stylistic dud. Is the quirk-totting critic in the second sentence a bluff? I can’t tell.).
3) Sometimes what the speaker really wants to say is, “Have I told you that I read Orhan Pamuk in the original, have I?” (Hint: just say, “I speak Turkish!” or – if Googletranslate is to be trusted – “ben Türkçe konuşan!” Your listener will be impressed.).
4) Surely some works are better in translation, no? Surely some translator, somewhere, has bested the original and turned a sloppily-written tale with a racing plot into a stylistic gem?
5) “better” and “something” and “no point” are vague terms. I read French basically the way I read menus or train timetables. Have I had a more rewarding, a better, literary experience just because I plowed through Candide, ou l’Optimisme in the original? I doubt it.
6) As a very occasional translator of literature, I fear that the third sentence might be true. More specifically, I fear the quip may be inspired by my work translating X.
I translate mostly from Slovenian, and because Slovenian is a relatively minor language (its 2 million speakers place it somewhere between Mandarin [c. 845 mil.] and, say, Luxembourgish [c. 400 000]) sometimes my translation is the only translation available. In other words, “There’s no point reading X in translation” means “There’s no point reading X in translation because Jason’s translation is the only one available and it sucks.”
So why do it? Why translate if it gives you headaches and fearful chills and prompts people to create clichés like “There’s no point reading X in the original”? First and easiest, not many native English speakers can translate from Slovenian, so I’m often called on for favors. How can you say no to the guy who drives you to hockey? To your wife’s best friend? But usually these are just quotidian texts like English-language abstracts of academic articles, websites for pitching Plexiglas, or, slightly more gloriously, mirthful doggerel for English guests at a Šmarje pri Jelšah wedding.
When it comes to literature by real writers, I have a sense of duty. Slovenian is a relatively small language and, like any smallish language, its literature deserves a broader audience. Though I am not Saint Jerome or Martin Luther bringing the logos or the Word to the masses – and though my Slovenian is not brilliant – I try to do my bit in making the literature of my daughter’s homeland known.
Sometimes the writer or publisher comes knocking, which is very good for the ego (“Jason, Nada and Uroš said they’re booked-up. Would you mind…?”).
A few months ago, I guest-edited Poetry-Quebec’s September spotlight on Slovenia. My task was fairly straightforward: collect a few dozens poems and get permission from the poets, the publishers, and the translators.
“No prob,” said the poets.
“Please add a link to our website,” said the publishers.
“Oh, geez, can I look at the translation again? Which poems? I dunno… Do I have time to revise them?” whined the earnest translators, my brethren.
I understood their wimpy translator afterthoughts.
What is a wimpy translator afterthought? That’s the feeling you (i.e. I) get when, walking down the street after having sent off the definitive, final, geez-the-deadline-is-already-here version of a text, you suddenly think “‘Morose schoolteacher’! Not ‘gloomy schoolteacher’!” or “half-breed! Not mutt!” In other words, being a translator is like always living in the ten minutes after a proper fight – realizing what you could have said, and regretting what you did say.
Tom Lozar is one of the leading translators from Slovenian and rarely at a loss for words. As he eloquently and retrospectively put it when I asked him to help me out with the Poetry-Quebec project: “Some of [my translation oeuvre] is good, some is flawed, some is crap, well-intentioned crap.” May I mention here that I’ve never met a good translator with a big head? Continually falling short of the literary mark is wonderful for one’s modesty.
As a sometime mediator of Slovenian, let me pass Tom Lozar’s translation of a Gregor Strniša (1930-1987) poem on to you. Charles Simic has called “There Was a Tiger Here” one of the poems of the 20th century.
There Was a Tiger Here
By Gregor Strniša
A bright spring rain fell the day through,
the branches drip, the sand in the lanes is damp yet,
the sky has cleared, slowly you go through the park
the sun of evening haunts it, apparition-like.
In the illumined peak of the dark tree,
a blackbird sings and sings. The evening’s very quiet,
the sunlight turns wine red,
and on the lawn shimmers a bronze monument.
Just then you find, in the wet ground before you,
the wide and clear and deep impressions.
The park is big, sun-striped, and full of shadows.
You start, go on, but know: a tiger came this way.
You still remember well the day
when first you saw the tiger’s trail.
You had just woken and there it was.
Morning was like evening, full of shadows.
That was oh so long ago.
The night of that morning you lay alert in the dark,
then fell into a mazy sleep, like gazing out a window
and beyond it softly snows and will not stop.
You live as if not much had changed, really.
Soon after that morning, autumn came,
then we had the long, damp winter,
and wet snow covered a dark city.
You sit, elbows on table, you look out the window.
It is late afternoon, soon to be dusk.
Not a sound will come into the room now.
You think how outside the winter day is fading.
You see just a piece of the sky and a roof. It is red.
Likely the snow slid from it in the noontime sun.
In the last of light, the chimney casts a feeble shadow.
Evening will be leadblue, you think, and a little foggy.
You go to the window. A woman in white walks in the street.
Across the way a child plays in the sand.
A summer day flickers in the darkling trees.
Like a great, shimmering cloud, fades the summer day.
Maybe not much has changed, at all.
Only in rooms where once you were already,
you fail to find a favorite picture on a wall,
now there’s only a pale rectangle there.
More and more often on your familiar routes,
tall, dusty horsemen cross your path.
Places you walked in day after day,
bronze, heavy monuments suddenly occupy.
And sometimes, entering a familiar house,
you find yourself in cellars stale and squat.
They were not there before, and huge snarling dogs
are tearing at their chains outside in the gardens.
So you live, you’re always off to distant places,
down foggy seas, up snowy mountain ranges,
you see so many new, so many foreign cities,
in whose small, quiet squares you love to sit.
There on the smooth pavement, from time to time,
Dark, broad stripes stand out in the slanting sun.
You find a stone, you weigh it in your palm,
you murmur absently, “There was a tiger here.”
But him himself you haven’t met yet.
Whomever the tiger looks at soon dies.
Always he pads before you through summer’s dark door,
Through foggy rooms under decembered skies.
(Translated from the Slovenian by Tom Lozar)