1/5/07

Poetry in Two Voices

Responding to Samuel Vriezen’s appeal for a list of unusual anthologies, both Murat Nemet-Nejat and I mentioned Jerome Rothenberg’s amazingly rich “Technicians of the Sacred.” It’s the mother of all mother lodes, all right, of poetic conventions and devices from around the globe, an endless source of possible and impossible methods, of permissions. Encountering it as a very young man, this book challenged me to reexamine what constituted a poem, to finger the poetry, tease it out, from various word constructions. One trick I had already known, however, was writing a poem in two voices. It’s too simple, really, even a mud-splattered illiterate could wing it. The Vietnamese folk tradition, ca dao, features many specimens like this:

Man: A river so vast, a fish will disappear.
If we are meant to be together,
I can wait a thousand years.

Woman: Repair the dyke if it's your paddy.
If it's meant to be, we'll be together.
Don't bother waiting.

Always with a male and a female voice, many of these are flirting poems. This one features two members of the cloth:

Stooping on a cane, a monk asked,
"Which way to Mound Temple, Nun?"
"Go pass Bellybutton Inn," whispered nun,
"You'll enter Mound Temple."

I know that much advertised, generic landmark, been there many times, though not recently. Mon pubis, mon amour? Cheap thrill over, there are also countless examples of post-flirtation poetry:

Woman: Never marry a scholar,
A waste of cloth. Eat, then sleep.

Man: With a rattan hammock,
The king’s robe on my back,
And rice in the shed,
Why shouldn't I nap
After a meal?

And:

Woman: King, father, mother, you and me
Are all sitting on a boat, about to sink
During a storm, who would you save?

Man: Under a vast sky, I won't lie.
The king, I'll carry on my head;
Father and mother, my shoulders;
And you, sweet wife, swim to me;
With my hands, I'll save the boat.

Continuing that tradition, I wrote my own let's-get-it-on duet. Is it postmodern? Who knows. American? Most definitely. It's published in "All Around What Empties Out":

Sturm und Drang

Woman: Coalesce not collate salutary not solitary sing along not song alone libraric twit who you are.

Man: Baby I'm not a dictionary bloated I-Ching conjured by a bed-ridden scientist ninety-eight percent paralyzed but for a solitary finger force-feeding a computer who speaks in a female voice although he has only one recent castration the other day the pus was oozing from the Indian mound on your forehead not to mention the other Indian mound on your forehead.

Woman: Vulgarity is a forte meaning your language don't prick my ears blast my hymen but in an oblique way which is to say immaculate conception.

Man: Baby I'm not a dictionary bloated I-Ching conjured by a bedridden scientist but once or twice if you ask me nice I'll blast your hymen.

Woman: This dress made from toilet seat covers is not the see-through variety you're after but true enough I'm pretty even if nothing but mud is covering me the kind that daily oozes from your orifice.

Man: Your orifice is my orifice although the subtle difference is worth noticing don't crook your thumb like that the mere sight of which is making me lecherous.

12 comments:

Murat said...

Linh,

A quick response to what you wrote:

The Technicians of the Sacred pointed me to a very important tension which exists in translation. On the one hand, assuming that translation of poetry starts out of a linguistic lack in the host language which the "source" poem has, translations leads to linguistic experimentation, what in another context I described as "to make English grow a new limb." That is the polemical driving purpose of The Techinicians. From that angle, the two languages, through the poems, open to, get modified by each other.

The other side of the tension has to do with the idea of the Sacred (or its very reverse, the Profane, as often in your case I think). The sacred is that part of the original poem/text which resists opening up, assimilation, keeps to itself.This quality in the original text can only be translated, moved to the other language/culture through the concept of "style" I think that's what you are talking about in this post. Style is that which remains other,detached, in Walter Benjamin's words "hanging like a loose gown," in the other language.

That is to say, translation of poetry, in my view, is linguistic experimentation which tries to "preserve"-in a new medium/language what the original "resists" to give;in other words, the underlying subject of translation is distance.

What makes, I think, the Eskimo and American Indian translations in The Techinicians breathtaking and revolutionsry is their complete absorptions in their own styles -those unforgettable repetitions, their minor variations, etc., the very voice of their preserved otherness.

Isn't "poetry in two voices" referring to the same thing?

In my Turkish Eda anthology, different poets in it constitute different stylistic islands, voices,aspects of the "sacredness of eda," pointing, in Benjamin Friedlander's words, to delirious possibilities.

Murat

The other

Linh Dinh said...
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Linh Dinh said...
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Linh Dinh said...

Hi Murat,

I agree with you completely. The many resistances in the source poem force the translator to compensate and invent, and thus enrich the language he is translating into.

Approaching it from a different angle, Vietnamese poet/critic Trinh Thanh Thuy made a similar observation to yours: "Influenced by the peculiarities of foreign languages and cultures, Vietnamese texts written overseas do not lose their strengths but gain new dimensions through awakened, previously latent capabilities."

In both cases, you have one culture or language trying to accommodate another. This meeting point, this border, this collision of avant-gardes, is where the new, improvised and unexpected can happen.

Earlier, you mentioned Pound's Cathay, which was a (deliberate?) misreading of Chinese poetry. Pound's conversion of metrical and rhymed Chinese into free verse English resulted in a cool, almost pointless, style. More Chinese, more "zen," more oriental than the originals, Cathay revolutionized American poetry.

Linh

Murat said...

""Influenced by the peculiarities of foreign languages and cultures, Vietnamese texts written overseas do not lose their strengths but gain new dimensions through awakened, previously latent capabilities."

Linh,

When I say that in one of its aspects, in a translation, both text open to each other, altering and being altered by each other, that is exactly what I am talking about.Certain pivotal translations change the concept of the specific poem and of poetry in general on both sides. I think many of us can give multiple examples.

In this last issue of The New Yorker Magazine there is an article by Kundera very much on this subject -what is is to write in a "minor" language (Kundera himself?) or in a central language, German, english, French.

I have my opinion about Cathay. I think Pound's basic purpose in his Chinese translations is to introduce a Dantean "transparency" -what T. S. Eliot calls visual specificity- into English. He can not do so directly from Dante because Dante is too encumbered with earlier translations, also carries religious baggage which does ot interest Pound.

This is particularly so in his "Letter to a Merchant's Wife"(?). Pound distorts the text in subtle ways. For instance, the merchant's travel through the mountains has a reference to a "third layer" (I am quoting from memory here). This #3 is not in the original poem, but belongs to the "stamp" on the tablet (scoll?)on which the poem exists. On the other hand, the #3 subliminally connects the Cathay version with Dante's "layers" in the nether world. This is what translation enables Pound to do.

Also, Pound undercuts the distinction between "original" and "translation" in Cathay, Many poems in it do not have specific originals, but they are projections of a "style," opening up American poetry to new possibilities (imagism, a Dantean/Chinese transparence of thought/light, which is very different from "photographic realism."

Jack Spicer goes through a similar process in "After Lorca." Many of the pieces do not have "Lorca originals," Lorca anachronistically answers letters from his grave, and there is a third poet in "After Lorca," which Spicer is also writing after, W. B. Yeats.

I wish the people who retrieved their posts can re-post them in some shape acceptable to themselves. This discussion would benefit from the involvement of other people.

Ciao,

Murat

Linh Dinh said...
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Linh Dinh said...

Hi Murat,

There are no other people, just you and me talking, apparently. It was me who deleted those premature comments. Anyway, Pound always took tremendous liberty with his translations. At the opposite end, you have Clayton Eshleman, who takes great pain to bring back these foreign objects whole, even effacing himself in the process. His inventions, interventions and style still exist, I'm sure, but he always strives to make his English "gown" hug the alien body as tightly as possible, unlike too many reckless translators out there.

Linh

Murat said...

Linh,

I don't know what "to bring back those foreign objects whole" means. I think the concept is a fiction.

Every authentic translation, in my view, starts with a misreading, which fragments the original text. It is in these fragmentations that texts open up to each other.

Did you have a chance to hear Eshelman read from his new book? On the page, I find the translations unreadable, existing more on the level of intention (the footnotes, the annotations often being more interesting), rather than the performance of the texts. Perhaps that's only me!

Yes, this conversation is taking place between us. Good enough by itself. Hopefully, at some point others will join.

Ciao,

Murat

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Murat,

I've never heard Eshleman read, actually. Influenced by people who did "versions," my first translation attempts were very freewheeling. Luckily, none of these were ever published. Although "to bring back these foreign objects whole" can only be an unachievable ideal, or a fiction, it is still a worthwhile objective, I think. If you settle for the loose gown from the beginning, you won't get any body parts at all.

Linh

Murat said...

Hi, Linh,

"Loose gowns" has nothing to do with freewheeling. In fact in the kind of translation I am talking about, it is absolutely crucial to be faithful to what one sees as the essence of the original.

Historically important translations -such as Chaucer's of French Medieval romances or of Boccacio, or translations of The Bible or Pound's Cathay poems, etc.- always involve a crucial misreading/twisting of the original text which opens up that text. That misreading occurs at the point at which the original text is the most relevant to the translator and his/her language. It is their tangential point of contact. Walter Benjamin talks a lot about that.

Without that misreading/tangential contact the two text texts exist in their totally parallel universes (in their own modes of intention) without speaking to each other.

Paradoxically, a translation which tries to "bring the whole object whole" ends up with the reverse, an extremely solipsistic text.

Ciao,

Murat

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Murat,

I remember reading a Pound translation of an Oscar Milosz poem where he deleted at least 10 lines from the French original. Pound may have gotten the poem's essence, likely improved on it, but I cringe at the man's chutzpah. But we're talking about Pound, of course, so all's well that ends, well, in Saint Elizabeth. As for Clayton Eshleman, his edition of Vallejo's posthumous poems must be my favorite poetry book of all time. I'm very surprised you don't care for his translations.

Linh

Murat said...

Hi Linh,

Translation does require chutzpah.

Yes I do have problems with Eshelman's Vallejo translations, the actual texts. Many of his solutions, for me, do not work, though I find the paths to them interesting. In that way it is an interesting book.

One might also take the annotations as the translations (the path to translation as translation). That would be a new idea.

Ciao,

Murat
Murat