Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A post I would've written in December but didn't because I didn't (and still don't) have the right picture

But here is the wrong picture:
In December, when I was in Pasadena, a poem got into my head, and it wrote itself simultaneously in Russian and in English.  In Russian it went like this:
Жарко.  Ветер.  Меткими бомбами
С платанов обрушиваются листья, оглушительно шурша.
Где-то тут затерялось время.
Под каким листом оно спрятано?
And in English, it went like this:
Somewhere above there's a breeze. With bomb-like precision,
Leaves hurtle from the trees, rustling thunderously.
Somewhere here I lost track of time.
Do you know which leaf it's hidden under?
Even if you don't speak either language (in which case you're probably not reading this) you can see that these are not entirely equivalent pieces of text.  Yet I claim that they are the same poem: they express the same set of concepts that happened to be in my head at the time.  Certain techniques match -- it's fortuitous that there was enough onomatopoeia in both languages for the concepts in the second line -- but in other places the two diverge, for example in the first line, where they leave different details unspoken, to be reconstructed from the rest of the scene.  This sort of self-analysis is what has convinced me that translating free verse must be excruciatingly hard -- perhaps harder than metered poetry, and certainly much harder than prose.  Not that I've tried it.  But the relation of the meaning of a poem to the meanings of its words and phrases is decidedly nontrivial.

In Le Ton beau de Marot, Hofstadter pours a great deal of invective on Dylan Thomas' “How Soon the Servant Sun,” claiming that it is untranslatable because it's meaningless.  Now, this poem is obscure, but it's clearly not meaningless.  You can call it bullshit, sure -- in other words you can question how much of the meaning was intended by the poet -- but meaning (some of it, of course, personal to the reader) is still there in spades if you look for it rather than purposely sweeping it away.

Anyway, Hofstadter also gives an example of a French translation of this poem that I remember being far too true to the words to be true to the sense.  To me, the real moral of the story is that to translate a poem like this you really need to internalize its concepts and write a new poem that encompasses the same meaning, without trying to map words to words.

I haven't tried to analyze “How Soon the Servant Sun” in detail.  If I did, the output would be a translation to Russian.  It's not that I think that analyzing the meaning of a poem through prose is always inappropriate, but it's not what I want to do with my life or these pages.

So, a future project?


  1. I like this, especially the last two lines.

  2. Hm. Having now read "How Soon The Servant Sun", the thing that most strikes me is that the words are all (or nearly all, maybe I missed one) of Germanic rather than Latinate extraction.

  3. 'servant'???

    'trumpet', 'sponge', 'strange'...

    I think you're right that there are fewer than normal Latinate words, but it's not pure Anglo-Saxon.