Andromeda: Found in translation — another way into poetry

I tend to emerge from sleep after a series of fretful, boring, or forgettable dreams, mentally muttering a list of the day’s anxieties or errands.

This morning, I woke thinking these words: “We fell out of love/as if from an airplane crash.” Then: “We departed from love.” No: “We exited/emerged from love.” Then: “No, even though it’s salimos, in English, we say ‘fell.’ We fell out of love. Or we fall out of love. It could be present tense, even if the poem clearly changes to past tense by line three. But not from a crash – maybe from a disaster? A ‘mid-air catastrophe?’ The plane hasn’t crashed yet. Worse: it’s still in mid-air.”

This soliloquy kept me going through making orange juice and getting coffee.

Not only am I not a poet, I don’t write poems, period – though I wish I did. (More for that to-do list that usually accompanies my angst-filled waking.) My appreciation for recent posts by John Morgan and Ken Waldman stems from the fact that I know we all benefit from reading and writing poetry. A class would help, but it doesn’t fit my life at this moment, and my often-addled hummingbird brain just won’t settle down long enough to try solo. I am, however, taking a translating class, required for the low-residency MFA at Antioch University. It has opened up a new world for me: one that forces me to read and write more slowly, and thanks to firm deadlines, to get to know one poem a week –slowly and thoughtfully — even if I’m resolutely not a poet myself.

Last night, my homework was translating a fairly straightforward poem in Spanish, “La Pasion,” by the Uruguayan poet Cristina Peri Rossi. Last week, it was a short but more difficult and haunting poem in German by Romanian/French Holocaust survivor Paul Celan. We’ve also translated French and Chinese. We share first drafts in an online discussion format, then comment on each other’s translations, puzzle together over meanings, and explain our word, syntax, rhythm, rhyme, punctuation and even capitalization choices, for example.

Before you think that my fellow online students and I are naturally multi-lingual, let me reassure you. We start with a poem and a glossary, which provides multiple options for each foreign word, and in the case of verbs, a hint about person and tense. It doesn’t take long to choose a range of possible literal interpretations, an initial scaffolding.

What is so interesting is how much there is left to do, and how many different translations emerge after the very first draft. Often, after the first few days of work and online discussion, we’re still not sure what the poem is trying to say. Some of us will reach out for more context: biographical material, essays about the poet’s style. We need to try new synonyms; we need to look more carefully at the original words, sounds, even layout on the page. Students aren’t competing and there is no need to be wildly original; we borrow words from each other. Still, by the second, final draft, many different translations have emerged. Some people stick with the most literal possible translation while others, after the first draft, head toward looser interpretations or even free-spirited adaptations.

At the end of the Celan poem last week, I felt certain that the last, single-syllable of the poem – in German, “Ruhe,” — should be “Rest.” (One syllable. Less Latinate and frilly; more Germanic. A neutral tone, stripped of decoration, open to many interpretations, from peaceful and accepting to grieving and somber. Translating the poem, I couldn’t stop thinking about Celan’s suicide, drowning in the Seine, forty years ago this April. I’d never even heard of Celan before last week, but now I intend to read more of him.) Other students had their own reasons for insisting on “Stillness,” “Tranquillity,” or “Quiet.” There is no right or best answer, which is the single most important thing I’ve learned in this class. Equally important: we’ve all slowed down, focusing on one word, giving that word its due. Excellent training for a writer in any genre.

Just as I’m not a poet, I’m not a dancer. Stepping out on a nightclub dance-floor without knowing any of the moves is a whole lot of pressure I’d rather avoid. But I’ve enjoyed taking salsa classes where I can stand behind the instructor, watching her body from multiple angles, trying to line up that body with my own in the mirror, learning from a combination of somatic, visual, and even auditory cues. I never look very graceful, but there are brief moments when I feel something click – just for a second, the foot and shoulder and hip all where they should be, and in that moment, simple, unselfconscious pleasure. “We fell out of love.” Yes, that’s good enough for now. I might change my mind tomorrow, especially after I see what choices other student-translators have made.

The first six lines, with apologies for missing accent marks: La Pasion
Salimos del amor
como de una catastrophe aerea
Habiamos perdido la ropa
Los papeles
A mi me faltaba un diente
y a ti la nocion del tempo …
(to read the poem in English from Rossi’s own website, click here).

3 thoughts on “Andromeda: Found in translation — another way into poetry”

  1. I'm envious of that course: it sounds like a wonderful route to discovery, especially the collaborative, intersubjective part.

    I agree that translating is a wonderful spur to thinking about language in non-linear and creative ways: I find that even when I'm translating documents or dictionary lemmas, it sparks many ideas that repay revisiting.

  2. A beautiful evocation of what sounds like a fabulous course. You've stirred up my student-nostalgia, the desire I think all professors have to be a student again.

  3. That sounds like a wonderful class. I never imagined attempting translation without knowledge of the language, although I realize now that I do that when exploring foreign language texts that I stumble across in my research. It reminds me of linguistics classes, where we had to analyse samples of languages like Twi, and discover how the language works.

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