Fault-Tolerant Poetry

by Andrew Duncan

I have always had the feeling that poetry is untranslatable. Translation is a lossy process. Contemplating the loss makes me deeply unhappy. But somehow I never do. I was listening to a song from Nick Drake’s first album, of 1969.

I heard this always as:

      Time has told me
      You’re rare refined
      A troubled cure
      for a troubled mind

      Time has told me
      not to ask for more
      someday our ocean
      wil find its shore

Troubled oceans make pebbles smoother. The opposition of refined and troubled is piquant. Sensitivity is the cause of distress. This fits in so well with the whole concept of singer-songwriter. However, the printed lyrics clearly say “you’re a rare rare find”. I first heard this song roughly 35 years before I discovered how this couplet actually ran. In the Southern English dialect which Drake spoke, “you’re a rare rare find’ actually has three r’s in it. He only pronounces two. ‘Yourrare refined’ is a more consistent interpretation of what he sings. The line he wrote is unsingable. Repeating a word in a line 5 syllables long is pretty sub-standard.

The point of interest here—given that my wrong line is better, as I’m sure you’ll agree—is whether detailed understanding is necessary in order to enjoy a work of art. Since after all I really enjoyed ‘Time has told me’ every time I listened to it. Something much smaller than the song created an atmosphere which drew me in so that I invented words to fill in a gap. The words I invented were beautiful. The critical minimum for the song is much smaller than the whole song. This gives us a thread to pull at for thinking about poetry translation, where what is translated is so small a sub-set of all the information in the original, and yet the translation can be overwhelmingly poetic and interesting. There is a generative core of the poem; this is what we really have to translate, but there is no notation and no name for it. My belief is that good poetry is massively redundant and that reading can be successful even if there is lots of the poem you really don’t understand.

The legend around singer-songwriters is that you hang on their every word and reach deep sympathy with them. I think that this state of deep sympathy does not imply that you grasp every line they sing. I think there is an overall state of sensitivity which is untroubled by the fact that a few lines are blurred by the music or by obscure turns of phrase.

In a poem I was translating this week, by Bert Papenfuss, is a word ‘niebieskoczarni.’ The poem is ‘attack song of the baltic hordes,’ and evokes a range of cultural episodes from many areas or ethnic groups of the Baltic. One of the issues was that the translation had to be read aloud to an English audience for whom the word would mean nothing, by an English reader who might stumble over the single Polish word. Another issue was that I didn’t know what the word meant. During the week, I first thought the poem was about Baltic pirates, then that it was about football teams, finally that it was about many different things. I could work out from Russian that the word meant skyblue-black, and assumed that it was the name of a song, then that it was the colours of a football team, finally found out from the Internet that it was a rock band. You could argue that misunderstanding so many parts of the poem would prevent me from enjoying it—but this wasn’t so. Once I knew that the poem was enthusiastic, rollicking, multinational, funny, etc., I didn’t care about the details. I felt enthusiastic all the way through three drafts. This raises another point: that giving value for money brings in a completely different set of psychological values from aesthetic enjoyment, and that clearly shifting into the “mind-set” where I worry about not making any mistakes (so that I can fulfill a contract with the commissioning editor, avoid being displaced by another translator, etc.). The fact that I had to turn in a translation for publication on the Friday of the week could have caused rasping anxiety. I finally came up with “the skyblue poles play to wake the dead.”

Two conventions of discourse about poetry are that information (formal or semantic) loses value as it becomes more familiar, and that precision and concision are central values, so that a redundant poem is ineffective (and unprofessional). However, I am arguing per contra that poetry ought to be very highly redundant and that artistic devices become much more effective as the readers acquire greater familiarity with them.

I think there are giant inexplicit forms which can be learnt, which can generate thousands of poems, which are possibly common to poems and to paintings, etc., and which make poetry clearer over time. This cultural learning is much more important than learning words, sounds, etc. It is based on imitation rather than on explicit instruction (and in fact it is much easier to show these forms than to make them explicit). The knowledge spreads rapidly and unstoppably. This is why it’s worth developing a poetic style which only 5 people grasp in 2001: because in 2007 a million people will be able to grasp it. In fact this consideration is what should direct the activity of critics.

It may be that a poet who eliminates redundancy from a poem also eliminates all capacity to influence the mood of the reader. The poem stops being a volume and becomes a plane.

Another line in the poem goes “hier wird nur mehr ranisch palavert.” I associated this with Wilhelm Ranisch, a scholar of Old Norse. I thought that the theme was ‘regions reverting to regional languages with the decline of credibility of the militarist national state’. So I related the line to Norse spoken by Vikings on shipboard on the Baltic, and translated it as “a Jutish grumble is all that’s said” because that sounded closer to English people and quickly evoked deep archaism. I was still with the pirates (like Stortebeker, famous Danzig pirate who does feature in stanza 3). However, Bert pointed out that the word meant “pomeranisch,” the West Slav language formerly spoken in Pomerania—the part of Germany (the DDR) where he was born. I then translated it as “sea-slav palaver is all that’s said,” since the Pomeranians were the Slavs who lived “po morze,” on the sea. This language may resemble Polish but is not in fact the same as Polish. The ‘said’ bit is there to rhyme with “& mikhail alexandrovich rises from the dead” in the previous line. (This refers to Bakunin, with whose ideas Bert identifies.) The Bakunin reference is one of about a dozen very specific allusions to Baltic cultural figures, which I suspect will be lost on the English audience. One of these is to ‘Mitjok,’ (pet-name for ‘Dimitri’) which Bert explained as a group of anti-western Russian radical artists of the 1980s.

I think of poetry as more like rain. You can be right inside the rain without having any chance of being splashed by every raindrop. The whole quality of rain is that it’s enveloping and on all sides of you. It would be so different if it were just five drops which you kept in a corked test-tube. But in fact every time you fall you fall inside the rain. You cannot lose the mood because it is still there in every direction. This flow has precision but also forgiveness. Reading poetry is like speaking our own language, we are in a state of flow where we move with trance-like sureness and everything we do is right.

Underlying culture are procedures like games. By definition, a game is a set of simple rules which generate uncountable variations. The rules themselves are fixed but there is room for personal choice in generating the variations.

When you are halfway through a poem, it is already enjoyable. You don’t need all the essential information in order to “get there” psychologically. So what if you read a poem and lose 25% of the information through linguistic problems? The same thing. You can still get there psychologically. Anyway, “there” may not be at the end of the message, but on the edge of the welcoming unknown.

In the landscape, we also find a game in which there is low tolerance for faults. The academic approach can be the most negative and destructive to enjoying poetry. If you don’t enjoy it, obviously you can understand nothing. So many people are in the business of translating and administering cultural wares who have no feeling for modern poetry at all. They have stuffed the libraries with miserable, dead in the water, poetry translations, my personal past is littered with bad experiences with awful translations which are literally accurate but block out all artistic feeling. This litter belongs in the world of childhood anxieties. But perhaps poetry translation isn’t so difficult for people who actually like modern poetry.

I am not arguing for mistranslation. Translation really has to face every word of the poem being translated. The details are what you work with. But they are not autonomous, they have to fulfill a melody which is much deeper and more accommodating.

One evening this week, I was reading a 17th C Gaelic text. This is a language I can barely understand. I have some familiarity with 20th C Scottish Gaelic, but this is a long shot from the classical Irish Gaelic of Geoffrey Keating. I had to write it all out first and translate it painstakingly word by word. I got through about one page in an evening. I think this is worth mentioning because it shows the pleasure of incomprehension. After all I have spent large parts of the last 30 years swimming in texts I barely understand. The space you don’t understand has different colours; either it makes you anxious or you find it inspiring, generous, intriguing, relaxing. This is like not knowing about the Mitjoks. Someone could feel that if they had not seen a few dozen of the Mitjok artworks, they had not reached the poem, not without loss. It is a game full of cards we have not turned over, whose values we cannot predict. Do they pose a threat? No, they are simply waiting for us. Their name is patience. Evidently there is a Gaelic world out there, which I perhaps will never understand. It does not threaten me. There are lots of other European languages I don’t know. I am glad they are there.

The ‘Mitjoks’ is like a group of Irish conceptual artists calling themselves ‘The Mickeys.’ Bert has just told me that the ‘blue-white underwear’ of line 4 refers to the striped sailor shirts which the Mitjoks wore as a populist gesture. The Kronstadt mutiny is referred to further on—along with the Kiel mutiny, by German sailors this time, still in the Baltic.

In Gaelic folktales, they say “the four red parts of the world” to mean the whole world over. In Russian folktales, they say, ‘bely svet’, which means ‘the white world,” i.e. “(in) all the world.” I don’t have an explanation for this. But, like the Mickeys’ sailor shirts, I know it’s important. Is one of these colours wrong?

Since there are thousands of different poetic texts, we would also have to ask how many of them are ‘massively redundant’ and so whether this is a typical condition. There may be many different categories or modes of text. I have a strong feeling about poetry which I find translatable, but of course I stay well clear of poetry which I find untranslatable.

This week I was also working on poems by Ulf Stolterfoht and Gerhard Falkner. In one of the Stolterfoht poems is a phrase ‘korpsion in severe’.

When I looked up ‘korpsion’ on the Internet I was led to an article on loan-words in Finno-Ugrian by Hartmut Katz. I had never heard of Katz, but he was briefly a pupil of Ernst Lewy, a refugee scholar at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies or DIAS (from whose textbook series I learnt Mediaeval Welsh and Old Irish as a student). I spent a happy afternoon looking at reviews of Katz’s master-work. Lewy was one of the mighty figures of European scholarship, a hero of mine, and I suspect that Katz was as heroic a figure. I would have been really happy to inject the historically vital stratum of 3rd millennium Iranian / Finno-Ugrian loanwords into the semantic realm of the poem. However, Ulf told me on Thursday that the phrase was something his brother used to say as a young child: he transposed parts of words with consonantal clusters, so that ‘scorpion’ came out as ‘korpsion’ and ‘reserve’ as ‘severe’. Older members of the family would say ‘Das ist korpsion in severe’ to mean ‘that is a rigmarole, I can’t make head or tail of it’. This is a private phrase, but in a poem about groping for words to name unnamed animals the idea of child-language in which the tails and heads don’t quite make proper words fits neatly. I translated it as ‘SPORPICON IN VARERSE’.

One can certainly ask whether a German reader would get every twist in one of Stolterfoht’s poems. But the texture is overwhelmingly welcoming, a deeply satisfying complexity and suggestion of order.

Of course not all poems have these deep rhythmic forms of pursuit. The details are pulled by invisible magnetic fields—which are sometimes not even invisible, since they are not there at all, the words fall in a lump. But the forms I am talking about are broad and tolerant, they are like a piece of folk music where you can go out for half an hour and come back to find it still going on.