Apologia for Translations
By Brendan O'Kane, published
A while back, I came across a poem Vladimir Nabokov wrote, in Onegin stanzas, justifying his decision to render Eugene Onegin in blank verse. I don't necessarily agree with him that all translations must of necessity be inferior to the original works -- more on this, perhaps, in a future post on David Hawkes and John Minford's masterful translation of 红楼梦 -- but the poem does nicely state the dilemma faced by any translator:
On Translating Eugene Onegin
What is translation? On a platter
A poet's pale and glaring head,
A parrot's screech, a monkey's chatter,
And profanation of the dead.
The parasites you were so hard on
Are pardoned if I have your pardon,
O, Pushkin, for my stratagem:
I traveled down your secret stem,
And reached the root, and fed upon it;
Then, in a language newly learned,
I grew another stalk and turned
Your stanza patterned on a sonnet,
Into my honest roadside prose--
All thorn, but cousin to your rose.
Reflected words can only shiver
Like elongated lights that twist
In the black mirror of a river
Between the city and the mist.
Elusive Pushkin! Persevering,
I still pick up Tatiana's earring,
Still travel with your sullen rake.
I find another man's mistake,
I analyze alliterations
That grace your feasts and haunt the great
Fourth stanza of your Canto Eight.
This is my task--a poet's patience
And scholastic passion blent:
Dove-droppings on your monument.