Sunday, 26 May 2019

Translation Issues- What Did You Mean, Lorca?? Shirley-Anne McMillan

Everyone in my house can either speak or at least understand Spanish, except for me. I can pick up what they're saying to one another but it's a limited lexicon- I can understand The Spanish of House McMillan, but put me in a pizza slice queue in Granada and I have no idea what anyone's saying. I admit this with some shame, and, these days, a mixture of irritation and joy too. I've recently been obsessing over the poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. I've been reading the excellent biography by Ian Gibson and reading and re-reading Lorca's poetry and plays. But all in translation.

I love reading work in translation. My favourite YA book is Nothing by Janne Teller (not for the faint-hearted!) There is something about reading a work through someone else's artistic filter which I really enjoy (if it has been done well. And don't ask me how I, as a monoglot, would know if it has been done well. But you can tell, to a degree, I think). I don't know anything about the art of translation but I like the way that a book-in-translation makes me think about language and authorship. I like how it forces me to consider that other languages aren't just translations of my own, but complete things within themselves, and really impossible to ever 'translate' in an exact way. I love it because language is so important to humans- it reminds me that none of us can ever really be 'translated' fully either- we are always being filtered though someone else's perception of us.

Poetry is another thing altogether though. Poems are so carefully constructed- each word is so important to everything within the poem. I have no idea what a poetry editor might do. Or a poetry translator. This is some kind of wizardry that's really beyond my comprehension. Here's an example. Lorca's poem La Luna Asoma:

La Luna Asoma

Cuando sale la luna
se pierden las campanas
y aparecen las sendas

This has been translated:

The Looming Moon

When the moon rises
Bells fade
And impenetrable paths

But also:

The Moon Appears

When the moon comes out
The bells get lost
And paths appear 

The first two lines of each translation are similar- maybe you could pick either one. But the last two lines mean something different in English. Do the impenetrable paths appear (as if they were hidden before the moon came out)? Or do the paths which were already there now seem to be impenetrable? It's hard to tell, even from the context of the poem as a whole.

'Which is it?' I asked my husband. 
'Both,' he said. 
'But it can't be both! They mean different things!' 
'In Spanish it means both things.'
'Oh. So like, it could be 50/50? Either meaning?'
'No. It's 100/100. It means both.'

It is hard, as a monoglot, to get my head around this. But I do understand it, if not how anyone chooses when it comes to actually writing the thing for English-speaking readers. But I love that. I love that it's an effort for me to get it, and I love that it's basically untranslatable, if perfection is what you're after. There will never be an end to trying to get words exactly right, and we will never achieve it. I am so glad to have Lorca to remind me that all we really have are translations of one another.

I would dearly love to have your thoughts on any of this. I recognise that I know very little about the whole thing. Educate me!

This is taken from a postcard I bought in Granada. It's my favourite picture of Lorca.


Ann Turnbull said...

Thank you for this interesting post, Shirley-Anne. I don't speak Spanish, but do find this kind of puzzle fascinating. I can see how the lines about the paths could have both meanings. The bells are mysterious too. Does 'fade' refer to their sound or their appearance? My first thought was 'sound', but again it could be both. (I like the first translation much better.)

Shirley-Anne McMillan said...

Yes, I don't know! What I do know is that Lorca had a complicated relationship with the moon, which often appears as a malevolent force in his work, so this might influence how we read this poem, and others. It is a great poem and worth looking up but I have been informed that the first one I linked to has a mistake in the final stanza. I'll ask my resident linguist about the bells! Lorca's poetry can be a bit 'impenetrable' itself, he was so often using his own code of images and symbols to express things which were highly personal to him. Maybe this is something which helps me remember the importance of highly skilled translation.

catdownunder said...

I struggle with this all the time - because of my work - but I came across Neruda's poetry as a teenager. I was given a bilingual version of some of his work and told, "Cat, it's poetry. You have to read the Spanish as well as the English." It took me a long time to understand what my friend was saying to me. It is so frustrating. I really admire people who try to translate poetry into a second language.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Interesting idea! I think the closest in English we'd get (literally) that sort of preserves the ambiguity is 'and appear the paths/ unpenetrable' (or and unpenetrable/ appear/ the paths) but it contorts grammar horribly in a Yoda movement no one would want. A great example of when a source language doesn't NEED to say something, but the target language does. A translation riddle... there's many far less obtrusive ones, e.g. in French the word for stepsister and half-sister is the same, so you have to make a decision in English if there's no other indication as to whether or not they share a parent. Funny things.

Paul May said...

I think the fact that 'impenetrables' is on a separate line is the key to this. Had Lorca written:

Y aparacen
Las sendas impenetrables

the ambiguity would be lessened. And so I think the second translation gets closer to Lorca. If you read the english translation aloud you kind of have to open for one sense or the other - a pause before impenetrable implying that the paths are impenetrable to the speaker rather than appearing so.

Shirley-Anne McMillan said...

My husband will be glad to hear this! But what is strange is that in every other translation I've found (including published ones) it's been 'Impenetrable paths appear.' I'd love to know the justification.

Thanks, everyone, for your very interesting comments!