Retaining the Strange: Tomas Transtromer (and Ismail Kadare) in (Re-)Translation

Last week, poetry critic David Orr published a great piece (“Versions: Tomas Transtromer’s Poems and the Art of Translation“) in the New York Times about two competing English translators of Swedish poet (and recent Nobel laureate) Tomas Transtromer’s work. While it’s typical, Orr explains, for Nobel laureates “outside the Anglophone world” to experience “a fair amount of pushing and shoving among your translators (if you have any)…”

…[T]he most interesting debates over English versions of [Transtromer’s] work actually took place before his Nobel victory. In this case, the argument went to the heart of the translator’s function and occurred mostly in The Times Literary Supplement. The disputants were Fulton, one of Transtromer’s longest-serving translators, and Robertson, who has described his own efforts as “imitations.” Fulton accused Robertson (who doesn’t speak Swedish) of borrowing from his more faithful versions while inserting superfluous bits of Robertson’s own creation — in essence, creating poems that are neither accurate translations nor interesting departures. Fulton rolled his eyes at “the strange current fashion whereby a ‘translation’ is liable to be praised in inverse proportion to the ‘translator’s’ knowledge of the original language.” Robertson’s supporters countered that Fulton was just annoyed because Robertson was more concerned with the spirit of the ­poems than with getting every little kottbulle exactly right.

Orr then goes on to examine–in really a very illuminating fashion–the tonal/metaphorical/stylistic variations between the two translators’ versions of Transtromer’s work, and how those do (and don’t) reflect back on the originals. (His thoughtful but accessible analysis of the few Transtromer poems in the article actually makes a very convincing sell for Orr’s forthcoming book, Beautiful & Pointless, a guide to poetry in which he “argues that readers should accept the foreignness of poetry in the way that they accept the strangeness of any place to which they haven’t traveled—that they should expect a little confusion, at least at first.”)

Orr’s explanation of why Transtromer’s poetry is “exactly the sort of writing that tends to do well in translation, at least in theory” is also useful. As he explains,

“The plainer a poem looks — the less it relies on extremities of form, diction or syntax — the more we assume that even a translator with no knowledge of the original language will be able to produce a reasonable match for what the poem feels like in its first incarnation.”

Ultimately, Orr is skeptical of Robertson’s “alterations,” although he concedes that they “do a fine job of conveying a poem’s spirit.” But what I found perhaps the most interesting about the article is that Orr does not dismiss out of hand the possibility that Robertson could have produced a successful version of Transtromer’s work, even though he doesn’t understand Swedish. Instead, he looks at two shot poems in alternate translations by the two translators and comes to the conclusion that in Robertson’s versions, “The changes generally make Transtromer less, well, strange and more typically ‘poetic.'”

For my own part, I have to say that I audibly tsked when I read that Robertson didn’t speak Swedish and had used, presumably, other (English) translations to render his own versions. It sounded to me more like a cover song (a parallel Orr draws himself late in the article), or an homage, maybe–but not a translation.

I won’t use this as a moment to completely digress into debates about translation theory and practice (which honestly, I’m not even fully equipped to have yet), but suffice to say that maybe before completely writing off Robertson’s viability as a translator, I should have taken Orr’s approach and considered–for one–how his ‘translations’ were or weren’t appropriate for the medium. After all, there have been scenarios in which “twice-removed translations” have been successful.

I’m referring in particular to the English translations (by David Bellos) of Albanian author Ismail Kadare’s works. For a whole host of viable–and fascinating–reasons, Kadare’s novels have almost entirely been translated into English not from Albanian, but from French. Kadare not only hasn’t minded that his works have been translated in this manner, he’s preferred it.

The history of Kadare’s body of work and its later translations is complicated (and again–really, really interesting), so when the Orr piece got me thinking about “re-translation,” I took the opportunity to re-read a piece that Bellos wrote in 2005 called “The Englishing of Ismail Kadare: Notes of a retranslator.” I would highly recommend this (short) piece, if any of the above topics are of interest. As with everything Bellos writes about translation, it’s sensible, articulate, and nuanced, and provides a fresh lens through which to consider the roles of translation and translators.


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