POETRY/JAZZ BLOG.

Wood s lot points me to Jonathan Mayhew’s blog, which has been going since last September (and all of which is on a single page, so it takes a while to load: yo, Jonathan, how about showing a week at a time?); he discusses both poetry (he teaches and translates) and jazz (he drums—yes, I’m sure he knows the jokes as well as you do, so you can stop right now), and has interesting things to say about both. At the moment he’s engaged in a series of entries describing his twenty favorite poets, and the first name that hit my eye when the page finally appeared was that of Lorine Niedecker, who’s one of my favorites as well, so I was hooked. He doesn’t have comments; if he did, I would have left one responding to this (from Monday, September 23, 2002):

The idea of translating in order to arrive at “what the poet would have written / had she written in English.” This is a cliché, of course. More than that, it is radically false. How do we know what kind of English Homer would have written? How would Mozart have phrased his solos on 52nd street in the 1940s? A sonnet in English might have a totally different rhythmic feel from a sonnet in Italian: yet many would accept this exchange as “formal equivalence.”

This (it seems to me) is very forced. Of course we can’t “know what kind of English Homer would have written”; the point is that thinking in those terms can help us avoid falling back on our own linguistic habits and making everyone we translate sound like us. This, on the other hand (from Wednesday, September 25, 2002), strikes me as brilliant:

A brief poem by Antonio Machado, “Sobre la tierra amarga,” contains four words of Greek etymology: laberínticos, criptas, melancólicos, quimeras. I contend that these should be translated with their English cognates: labyrinthine, crypts, melancholy, and Chimeras, not, as one translator does, with maze, vaults, wistful, and fantasies. The Greek words form an “underlying network of signification,” to use a phrase from Antoine Berman: they have specific historical and linguistic resonance. A labyrinth contains a Minotaur in a way that a maze does not. A crypt is a tomb or something hidden, as in a “cryptic message.” A vault might be found in a bank. Burton did not write an anatomy of wistfulness. A Chimera is a specific mythological beast, etc… (Of course fantasy is also a Greek word, but not the one Machado chose!) Should the translator always go for the cognate? Of course not, but when the cognate is a richer, more resonant, or more specific word, the easiest solution becomes the best solution.

He mentions a story I’ll have to read:

Harry Mathew’s story “The Dialect of the Tribe” is the perfect Borgesian parable of translation. It speaks of a language that can be translated successfully while not revealing any substantive meaning. The story gradually fades out of English, as the narrator uses more and more words from the tribal language he is elucidating.

And this endears him to me: “I prefer irregular past tenses in English whenever possible. For me, the past tense of dream is “dreamt,” not “dreamed.” snuck, not sneaked, etc… “
(Oh, by the way, Jonathan—I have a copy of Robert Grenier’s a day at the beach…)

Comments

  1. He get the name wrong though. It’s Harry Mathews (not Harry Mathew). Mathews is a member of the OULIPO. The only things I read by Mathews were a few of his visual sonnets, however. (a “visual sonnet” is a sonnet wherein all rhymes are eye rhymes).

  2. He get the name wrong though. It’s Harry Mathews (not Harry Mathew). Mathews is a member of the OULIPO. The only things I read by Mathews were a few of his visual sonnets, however. (a “visual sonnet” is a sonnet wherein all rhymes are eye rhymes).

  3. He got the name right later; it’s just a typo, and I should have fixed it for him.

    He got the name right later; it’s just a typo, and I should have fixed it for him.

  4. Yes, it’s Mathews, nott Mathew. I was so intent on not writing Matthews that I slipped up.

    Thanks for the mention of my blog. I’ll have to rethink that comment about “what Homer would have written, etc…” I think I do have a valid point, but I have a hard time getting people to see what I mean sometimes. How could I formulate it more clearly?

  5. Doubling doubling is is even even more more irritating irritating on on the the word word level level ..

    :)

    And there was a typo in the very second word of my comment, so who am I to lay blame blame.

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