Six Degrees of Separation–or Death of the Original

Last night, I was not quite having a conversation with a friend whom I haven’t seen since 2003. It was late, and we were messaging each other through Facebook—my ambivalence about technology and social networking temporarily suspended while we “chatted” through e-space. He was telling me that he’s in the last gasp of getting an MFA, and he’s busy translating the work of a Catalan poet into English. Never mind he doesn’t speak the language. He has Skype and a translator on the other end. Now, let’s think a moment about how many degrees of separation we have here:

1) the Catalan poet is being read and interpreted by a translator in Spain,

2) the translator has somewhat of a loose grasp of English,

3) the translator and my friend are not conversing in person, but through an electronic medium across thousands of miles,

4) my friend is taking copious notes and pondering the many ways we misunderstand words even when both parties speak the same language,

5) my friend spends late nights re-creating the poems in English, and then

6) you, the reader will interpret these poems for yourself.

I don’t know what you all think, but I’m thinking that with six degrees of separation, my friend is writing his own poems possibly based on another writer’s inspiration.

 And now let’s consider the death of the original. What will the coroner say? Is it when the translator reads and interprets the original text and communicates its meaning in broken English? Or when my friend puts words to the page? In any event, I think the original suffers many deaths, both large and small. But if my friend’s translation turns out to have wings, I will celebrate his ability to call forth the Phoenix from the ashes—however, I will never presume to have known the original bird. 

7 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation–or Death of the Original

  1. Michael Odom says:

    Interesting enough as a first take, but consider this: every translation replaces a word of the original with a completely different word of a completely different language. If one considers co-option to be hegemony, the only solution would be to either master every language as a native or live only in the one narrow culture into which one is born.

    When I say ‘narrow,’ it is to remind you that only some translations are across languages; some are across cultures (not necessarily across borders), some are across the enormous divide between persons (even speaking the same language). To recognize the possible losses in translation is one thing. To refuse it for fear of loss is unacceptable.

    Changing subject only slightly: linguists, and the naive who listen to them, often assume the goal of translation is a literal word-by-word rendering. These are the people Frost was talking about when he pointed out that Poetry is what gets lost in translation. When challenged on the need to speak the language fluently before translating, the usual defense is to first point to all the poets who have been marvelously successful at it before – Merwin, Pound, etc. The next defense is to remind the linguist that all the textbooks and tapes and dictionaries in the world will not give you a locals experience of a native language. The type of research that requires is as available to a poet as to a linguist.

    But I rarely resort to either of those. My standard line is that no linguist is necessarily qualified to translate literature. That is to say: linguists translate words. Poets translate poetry. I am a poet. What I translate is poetry.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      Michael, Several thoughts. When my son builds some fantabulous creation with Lego and is faced with the decision of destroying his creation to form a new one with existing pieces (give or take a few thousand substitutions), we mourn the loss but also find joy in the new creation. You are, indeed, a poet, and no one will ever accuse me of being a linguist. I’m a fan of bending words, and (correct me if I am wrong) I am a fan of “misinterpretation.” Isn’t that the curtain behind which transformation hides.

  2. Rodney Coggins says:

    If you have something that a guy are able to do well, I say let him do it. Give him an opportunity.
    Regard becoming just as desirable to construct a chicken house as to develop a cathedral.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      If a person does something well, by all means he/she should do it. But I think the issue is intent. If a poet architect constructs a mighty fine chicken house when he/she was trying to build a cathedral, the attempt is a failure. Unless of course, the audience consists of chickens who don’t care if they get a swanky chicken house or cathedral. Since chickens don’t read poetry (the ones I grew up with were illiterate), I will interpret your comment broadly: if a poem starts life as a cathedral and the translator builds a chicken house, one could see this as willful misinterpretation. But if this is the case, the translator should warn the reader (and the original poet, if still shuffling around on this mortal coil) that the new “house” is not meant to be a faithful rendering of the original. The original merely served as inspiration. Readers can then decide whether the new house is an artful work of genius or simply a gimmicky construct used to draw attention away from the mediocrity—dare I say, incompetence—of the architect.

      • FictionFan says:

        Indeed, if I were a living author whose work was being translated into a language I didn’t speak, I think it would feel like sending my child off to a foreign country without any means of communication with me. How does the poor author know what the translator is doing to his/her work until it’s too late? When the reviews start talking about the language being ‘clunky’ (a word I’ve used too often for translations), or even saying that the storyline doesn’t flow properly? Ugh! If I had polished every word carefully to make each a little gem, and then someone had translated them literally and in so doing turned them back to rough ore…

        I’ve scared myself now – thank goodness I’m not a writer! Or a translator! 😉

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