English to English Translation

The notion that one might have occasion to translate even within a language is nothing new. Even Schleiermacher talked about this in his great 1815 essay “On the Different Methods of Translating,” averring that

not only do the dialects of the different clans that make up a people, and the different ways a language or dialect develops in different centuries, already constitute different languages in a stricter sense, between which it is often enough necessary to translate; even contemporaries who share a dialect but belong to different classes that rarely come together in social intercourse and diverge substantially in their education are commonly unable to communicate save through a similar mediation. Yea, are we not often compelled to translate for ourselves the utterances of another who, though our compeer, is of different opinions and sensibility? Compelled to translate, that is, wherever we feel that the same words upon our own lips would have a rather different import than upon his, or at least weigh here the more heavily, there the more lightly, and that, would we express just what he intended, we must needs employ quite different words and turns of phrase; and when we examine this feeling more closely so that it takes on the character of thought, it would appear that we are translating.

We’re all familiar with “modernized” (i.e. translated) versions of Shakespeare, Chaucer and the like. But most of the intralingual translation one sees nowadays is done for purposes of artistic experimentation and discovery. There’s a long history of manipulating preexisting texts to create literary works. The cut-up technique was used by the Dadaists in the 1920s and later championed by William S. Burroughs. The French surrealists invited writers to assemble poems by opening the dictionary at random and counting down six headwords to select the next word to be used in a text. Erasure poetry has the writer removing words from an older text so that the words remaining spell out something interesting and new. (One gorgeous recent erasure project is Matthea Harvey’s Of Lamb, produced in collaboration with visual artist Amy Jean Porter and featuring texts created by applying erasure techniques to a biography of Charles Lamb.) And intentionally wacky approaches to translation offer lots more different ways to produce literature. Fans of experimental translation have kept a close watch on the projects of Telephone Journal, whose first three issues each featured a small number of poems in multiple (often quite strange) translations. I’ve been a big Telephone fan right from the start. And now Telephone has announced that it will soon be printing its first book, a collection entitled Sonnets. Telephone’s editors, Sharmila Cohen and Paul Legualt, explain:

In this anthology… we have invited 154 poets to each translate one [Shakespeare] sonnet from English to English. Of course, we are aware of the many translations of Shakespeare’s works into modern English… We also want to offer a new and contemporary understanding of Shakespeare, but something beyond that of simply breaking through the boundaries of an ever-changing lexicon—our hope was that the contributors would approach the original texts from their multitude of vantage points, that they would board the ship, loot and pillage, break things down, and reconstruct it all in a fashion that would allow us to view multiple dimensions of the original work in a new light, as a new structure.

A teaser from the project has just been published online in Circumference: Poet Uljana Wolf‘s semi-randomized mashup of fourteen German translations of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 61, whose lines she then back-translated into English with photographic documentation of her process and a thoughtful introductory essay. Can’t wait for the book itself to come out. I’ll be putting in my pre-order as soon as the publication is officially announced.

Meanwhile, Telephone editor Paul Legault has just served up a book-length collection of his own English-to-English translations, The Emily Dickinson Reader: An English-to-English Translation of Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems. For each of Dickinson’s extant poems, Legault has written a little precis, like tweets from Amherst. In many cases, the link between the Dickinson poem and her Legaultian translation is instantly clear, as in the book’s opening when ED’s long Valentine week poem prominently featuring the lines “Oh the Earth was made for lovers”gives rise to Legault’s strangely depersonalized “Everything has to love something”: an ironic commentary on the repressed sexuality often bursting the bodice
of ED’s poems. There follow some 200 pages of odd and beautifully written aphorisms, some linked explicitly to their poems, others more diaphanous in their referentiality (“Zombies are similar to robots”; “Poets can make dead things smell really good”; “Dead people love Heaven because they don’t have a choice”). I’m still reading my way through these delightful little poemlets, which are clearly far more Legault than Dickinson but still reveal a careful study and understanding of, kinship with, and empathy for the Amherst belle. The physical book too is a lovely tribute with its solid paper, custom endpapers, gilt edges and bookmark ribbon. It’s a McSweeney’s book, and the production values are lavish (a circumstance oddly not reflected in the book’s quite reasonable price point).

For those interested in making closer acquaintance with Legault’s project, I heartily recommend the launch event for his book, which will be held tonight at powerHouse Arena at 37 Main Street in Dumbo (Brooklyn), 7:00 p.m. Legault will be joined by Lynne Tillman, Dorothea Lasky and Macgregor Card. Should be a splendid evening. See you there?

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