A Note on Translation

A poem is a mercurial thing, not so much an object of language as an event.  It asks to be called to life through readings, hearings and voicings, each giving way to contemplative movements and their consequences, including new and hopefully better ways of living.  In this sense a poem as we encounter it on a page aspires to be the start of something, and its accomplishment can be estimated in the ways that its points of arrival are constantly in the form of a beginning. 

If a pendant condition is one of poetry’s defining problems as a genre—a poem’s dependence on us, its receivers, to bring it into its aliveness, having somehow prompted us to want to attempt such a thing—the problem reaches a heightened stage with the challenges of translation.  The word “translation” only partly accounts for what it is to render a poem in another language, inasmuch as a poem asks more—or other than—an effort to find a loyal analogue of its specific co-mingling of sound, imagery and insight.  Even the most faithful analogue unavoidably involves significant departures from the original, leading to a core question:  are we to treat a translation as a loss or a gain?  Is it a pity we are forced to accept when we can’t read the original, or a form of permission to do overtly what we already do implicitly when we “read” a poem—allow it into our most open mind, in which listening becomes a generative act?  

For the last twenty years, I have collected an extensive library of poetry in English translation, including works from Arabic, Bengali, Celtic, Chinese, French German, Greek, Gujarati, Hawaiian, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Polish, Russian, Sanskrit, Spanish, Tamil, Telugu, Tibetan, Urdu and Yiddish.  For me, a poem coming into English from another language requires several things:  usually more than one English version, good foreign language dictionaries, an etymological dictionary of English, and various historical and contextual materials.  Most of all, it often requires that I try to write what I am reading and hearing as a new poem.  The poems here are my own reckonings with ideas and images that first formed poems from other times, places and languages.

My own voice is evident throughout these translations, but authorship belongs to others.  For reasons I don’t entirely understand, I find that my own voice is most distinct when bound up with the voices of other poets—perhaps in the way that certain musicians best sense their individuality when playing with others, or the way photographers work with what a lens gives rather than beginning with a blank canvas.  To call the poems here translations would be adequate but not quite right, inasmuch as I approach these poems as expansions rather than derivatives of the original, or more strictly, derivatives that expand the original.   In this sense the word “transcreation” comes closer to what I’m doing.  Such a word reframes the relationship between original and successor poems as horizontal rather than hierarchical, and more than that, it conceives of a poem as an inherently productive rather than inert phenomenon of language, a creative force specific to itself but not self-contained, a fruit which is also a seed.  Indeed, it seems to me that an “original” only becomes original by what it yields, and fulfills the promises of its originality precisely in its transcreated forms. 

Jason Francisco

Philadelphia, 2011