Friday, January 07, 2005

Warning: Academic hoo-hah herein.

Here is my contribution to OPB for today.

If you do not already read Dappled Things, you should.

I recently sent this comment to Don Jim, in response to his post Latin Is a Dangerous Thing, which draws on points made on Laudator Temporis Acti:
I want to disagree with the passages quoted in of your recent posts, “Latin is a dangerous thing.”

While the points in there about the inaccuracies of Pound’s translation of Propertius are on the money (the same can be said of his Chinese translations and his translations from Anglo-Saxon), I think they miss the point. Pound’s goal was not to prepare a literal translation, or a translation of the kind that might appear in, say, a facing-page English-Latin edition of Propertius. Instead, in making his new poem, he treated “translation” as something like the part in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when one of the characters, whose friend Bottom has had his head transformed into an ass’s head by fairies (yes, I know), “Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated!” In other words, transformed, changed, or literally, carried across from one thing to another. The same thing happens in many good, literary translations of poems: the translating author might change the poem in the act of translating. Indeed, how could one do otherwise? Since poetry is an art form made of language, the very act of translating destroys the original work, but if the translator is good, he or she might make another work that good.

Furthermore, Pound’s theories of poetry recognized several layers to a given work, and being Pound, he named these layers with Greek names. The first, melopoeia, refers to the way that “the words are charged, over and above their plain meaning, with some musical property, which directs the bearing or trend of that meaning.” I think this is what Mr. Hale is seeing at work: Pound sometimes chose a word that sounded like the Latin, not because he did not know that it was a stretched translation, but because it retained something of the music of the original. This happens a lot in the Anglo-Saxon translations, too. He wrote about melopoeia in the context of translation: “The melopoeia can be appreciated by a foreigner with a sensitive ear, even though he be ignorant of the language in which the poem is written. It is practically impossible to transfer or translate it from one language to another, save perhaps by divine accident, and for half a line at a time.” These passages I have quoted come from his essay “How to Read,” which is in his Literary Essays.

I think this might be what Michael Gilleland means by “not translating in the traditional sense.” Fair enough. But it is important to balance out the more pedantic responses like Mr. Hale’s with some sense of the poetry involved in the new, English work.

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