Gained in translation

Again, it has struck me that translation surfaces the issue of meaning in verse. When I was studying English literature, the assumption seemed to be that there was only one true reading of a literary work. Poems could, as it were, be unlocked by sufficient effort and intelligence. Our ideas of the reality of communication have changed: we think now of various ways any communication can be reacted to, and of how we create meaning when we read, or listen or view, rather than simply receiving transmitted meanings.

What occasions my thinking about translation are poems in the White Hail in the Orchard, a slim volume written by the late Patrick Cullinan and published in 1984.

A good part of this fine volume is taken up with translation of verse by the Italian poet Eugenio Montale – or rather to use Cullinan’s words, Versions:

The poems that follow are all based on original work by Eugenio Montale. Though not trying to alter meanings or force intentions, I have tried to make a poem in English, using Montale’s Italian as a model. I have therefore called these ‘versions’ rather than translations.

Would that translators in general were this honest. In this statement Cullinan is acutely aware of the transformation not to say mutation of intended meaning inherent in all translation. However careful our translation, can we be sure we have captured the poet’s preferred understanding of the poem? I don’t think so, but if we are completely cavalier in translation the result is a new poem, as I have pointed out. Yet clinging too closely to the words and rhythms of the original can have a clunky result.

Even the best-intentioned of translators can do mortal hurt to the literature they translate. Take the King James Version, beautiful work of poetry that it is. I don’t know what God meant, but sometimes I suspect he didn’t mean what the King James version sometimes puts in the mouths of the persona that people this Bible. For meaning I at times prefer more modern translations – or versions. But I return to the majestic, and sometimes crazy, phrasing of the King James Bible.

Are Cullinan’s versions more or less true to the original? Thanks to the Internet we can judge for ourselves. The New Criterion website has the original Italian and Jonathan Galassi’s translation https://www.newcriterion.com/issues/1984/6/per-album.

This is the original Italian version:

Per album
by Eugenio Montale

Assicurato
che il cuore non invecchia
il pentalaureato
si guarda nello specchio
con orrore.

Here is one of the short Montale versions in Cullinan’s book:

One for the Album
[Cullinan’s version

Assured that the heart
never grows old,
the graduate with five degrees
stares at himself in the mirror,
horrified.

This is the Galassi translation:

For an album
Assured
that the heart never ages
the man weighed down with honors
looks at himself in the mirror
with horror.

I prefer Cullinan’s version, which substitutes for the “man weighed down with honors” the more specific “the graduate with five degrees”. I can see how some might say Cullinan was taking liberties. Montale deliberately uses one word on the first line, “Assured”, to give it weight.

Anyway, while we blithely invent new poems from other’s work, let’s try to imagine what we would feel if it happened to us that some poet somewhere else took our fine verse and turned it into something strange – assuming we could understand the translator’s language.

I offer my own brief verse:

Mors ultima lingua
Death is the final audit, eh?
The poet finds to his consternation
When dawns that sad and final day,
It's not audit but translation.

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