Sound and meaning

20 January 2012 | Essays, Non-fiction

Harri Nordell’s poem from Huuto ja syntyvä puu (‘Scream and tree being born’, 1996)

Translating poetry is natural, claims Tarja Roinila; it is a continuation of writing it, for works of poetry are not finished, self-sufficient products. But is the translator the servant of the meaning – or of the letter?

I am sitting in a cafe in Mexico City, trying to explain in Spanish what valokupolikiihko, ‘light-cupola-ecstasy’, means. And silmän valokupolikiihko, ‘the light-cupola-ecstasy of the eye’.

I take to praising the boundless ability of the Finnish language to form compound words, to weld pieces together without finalising the relationships between them, never mind establishing a hierarchy: the eye is a light-cupola, the eye is ecstatic about light-cupolas, light creates cupolas, the cupola lets out the light, the eye, in its ecstasy, creates a light-cupola.

I am meeting the Mexican poet Coral Bracho for the nth time in connection with a Spanish-language anthology of contemporary Finnish poetry that we are working on for a Mexican publisher. Over the past weeks and months – together with my fellow editor Jukka Koskelainen – I have been selecting poets and poems and have produced a number of Spanish-language drafts: literal renderings along with explanations, lists of alternative ‘equivalent’ words or lines, suggestions for translations of whole poems. I have sent them to Bracho, and she has worked on the texts further. Now for the final stage: we sit at a table together and polish up the final versions.

Spanish is an analytical rather than a synthetic language. And Harri Nordell’s poems are a love letter to the synthetic quality of the Finnish language. Nordell creates innovative compounds that often go against linguistic norms: powerhouses of words, seamless distillations of meaning whose parts are linked in a relationship of inexhaustible mystery.

At what is the ecstasy aimed? Is the cupola made of light, or does it reflect it? The form is tight, but the meaning shimmers. You can’t do the same thing in Spanish. The parts of the word have to be spread out over the page and prepositions placed between them.

In a way, one cannot say anything about a poem; one can only reproduce it. This, in fact, is what makes a poem a poem. Now, unpacking a Finnish poem to my colleague Bracho, what I really want to do is read it aloud to her. But since she does not know Finnish, I cannot repeat the words of the poem, or its rhythm, with my mouth, but merely spout explanations. The literalness of reading aloud is replaced by a description of how the Finnish language arranges its building blocks.

I get on to the subjects of cases, phonetics, echoes of The Kalevala. I speak of word order and alliteration, how a line deviates from a normal sentence here, how poetry becomes prosaic there. How Nordell’s text tests and breaks the limits of grammar. I talk about images and our form of modernism, about how a compound is more kaleidoscopic than the usual poetic image: the reader can turn it over herself and create images, take part in the continuous birth of meaning.

I talk about the Finnish language, Nordell’s language, and the Finnish literary tradition. These three things at least are at play in a close reading of a poem, when translation is the aim. And of course I talk about my own interpretation. In fact, that’s what all of this is about.

Talking to Bracho, I realise that this is perhaps the first time I have made a concrete list of the elements involved in my reading experience. Normally I do it in my head, in the silence of my study; now I am doing it here, in a busy cafe where there are two translators present. It’s like that bad joke about a pair of dim policemen: one of us can read, the other write.

When I translate alone, a large part of my work is intuitive, and I do not need to reveal my train of thought to anyone. The finished translation provides the only documentation of the reading process. In contrast, the two of us have a lot to talk about, for we need to reach a common way of reading. Our shared task is to write a poem which is in the same language as, and in a different language from, the original: in Nordellian and in Spanish.

Bracho creates poetry in her mother tongue. ‘How about that?’ she suggests, and quite often I reply: ‘That’s great. But can’t this tone or that shade of meaning somehow be introduced?’ I’m almost ashamed at times by how frequently I say ‘but…’.

The same dialogue hums in my head when I am translating alone. I read the poem closely, make notes, draft lines in Finnish. I read by writing and I write by reading. The writer makes a suggestion, and the reader nods: not bad, but…. ‘But’ is important; it is a ball the reader returns to the writer, having looked at the source text once again.

The translator is a ‘multilingual reader’. When we translate a poem, we expose it to linguistic difference. Bracho’s questions make me notice things I would not, as a monolingual reader, notice; they make me perceive how meaning is formed at the level of ever smaller details. Linguistic difference is always radical; it illuminates the source text in a new way.

The meeting in the cafe on a San Ángel square is a staging of the translation process. The translator-reader and the translator-writer play different roles, but they analyse the text together. This collaboration is indeed crucial for success. The translator’s expertise does not lie in reading or in writing, but in the simultaneity of the two, or close alternation between them. In this process, the reader urges the writer on, and vice versa. In the translator, reading and writing unite to form a unique activity that gives birth to a new work. Often, this work brings to its own language a way of saying things – a style – that is alien to its tradition.

The source text supplies everything that is needed to make a translation, but it does not offer a single direct answer as to how to do it.

Tú eres bella / éxtasis-cúpula de luz / del ojo, te miro / desde el yo-silencio (‘You are beautiful / the ecstasy-cupola of light / of the eye, I look / from the I-silence’). Sinä olet kaunis / silmän valokupolikiihko / minähiljaisuudesta / sinua katson: these are the first two verses of the original poem. The translation makes significant changes to the original’s use of space. ‘Eye’ has dropped to a different line from ‘light-cupola-ecstasy’; ‘I-silence’ is now at the end of the second verse. In the new poem, ‘eye’ and ‘looking’ are next to each other in the same line, giving rise to a new meaning. Del ojo, te miro also means: ‘I look at you from the eye’. Yo-silencio is a radical formation, more so than the Finnish minähiljaisuus, since Spanish does not generally use hyphens. The same goes for éxtasis-cúpula, whose rhythm is arresting because both words have the stress on the first syllable, rare in Spanish.

Are the ‘seamless’ compounds in Nordell’s poem – or in his poetry – an indispensable feature? Do we lose too much in sacrificing the organic unity of the constituents of meaning, the word-clusters that are as solid as objects?

Let us imagine for a moment that prose and poetry are clearly distinguishable from each other. The translator of prose can imagine that she is translating the meaning of the text, coding it through another system of signs. She can abandon the letter of the source text and convey its spirit. The poetry translator gets entangled with the letter. The more the text experiments and renews form, the more she does this. In a poem, meaning and letter are inseparable. Or as the French poet and philosopher Paul Valéry puts it: poetry is an incessant hovering between sound and meaning.

It is often said that poetry translation is impossible for this reason: one cannot translate poems because one cannot translate letters. The translator has to let go of the letters of the original, and then the poem is destroyed.

But one can work with the letter. This is not a matter of copying or reproducing, but rather of ‘drawing attention to the games the letters play’, as the French translator and theorist of translation Antoine Berman writes.

A translated poem does not come about through one person building the base, the other adding the decoration, because poetry is not simply normal language dressed up. That is why Bracho and I sit at a table together, learning Nordellian.

It is not enough for a translator to understand passively. She has to acquire an active knowledge of the language, she has to become a poet. We aimed to internalise Nordellian to the point that we could write poems in it.

In the best case scenario, a new form presents itself from the jungle of written Spanish – or from the Mexican rain forest – one that differs at least to some extent from previous known forms. The poetry translator is all about biodiversity.

Nordell’s Tú eres bella is ready. I look at the pieces of compound words spread out all over the page:

éxtasis-cúpula
de luz
        del ojo,

and suddenly I understand to what extent Nordell’s poems speak of the wound and of separation, of silence and the yearning for sameness. As if translation, too, were written into them. As a possibility, a choice: shedding the old, adopting the new. Perhaps the unpicking of word-seams does fit Nordell’s aesthetic, perhaps we haven’t gone against it.

The last line of his poem puts it like this: La otredad ha venido a través de nosotros. ‘Otherness has come through us.’

Translation is often thought of in terms of (non-fiction) prose. The whole idea of translation is based on the notion that meaning can be transferred over the language barrier. Ideally, factual prose serves the message effectively: the language does not pay attention to itself, rather it yields to the meaning and serves it. The language moves along. The thought is extracted from the source language and is given new clothing, one fitting the rules of readability in the target language. Thus the meaning is conveyed clearly, free of the foreignness of the source language.

If poetry is taken as a model for translation, things become more complicated. At first it seems that one cannot say anything about poetry translation. Thinking about translation presupposes that form and meaning can be separated. A poem, however, resists this division; the ‘content’ of a poem is nothing without rhythm, harmonies, the arrangement composed in the source language. The tie between meaning and letter is unbreakable.

A concept of translation that has prose as its model is founded on a distinction between form and content. Poetry challenges this conception, but does not escape it, for one cannot speak about translation without differentiating between the letter and the meaning. Antoine Berman claims that translation indeed embodies this Platonic division, which is parallel to the body/soul divide. The soul of the text – the meaning – is higher than the body, and the translator is the servant of the meaning.

The union of meaning and letter in a poem makes translation impossible in two senses. The meaning of the poem cannot be dissociated from the letter, and so one cannot translate it. It is precisely this that makes the poem different and unique, and so one must not translate it. One cannot touch the poem or else it will break. Or looked at another way: what kind of a poem is translatable? Isn’t untranslatability the mark of a ‘real’ poem?

A classic response to the problem of poetry translation: it is not possible to produce a translation of a poem, only a new poem – which is the prerogative of poets.

Probably we cannot get away from Platonism, but let us not accept it without question. First of all, from Romanticism onwards, modern literature has overturned the distinction between prose and poetry. Secondly, my own experience of translation privileges poetry over prose as a prototype for the process, if one has to choose between the two. I have realised that poetry in fact teaches us more about translation, and I have come to apply the lessons it teaches to the translation of prose, too.

This realisation is at odds with Platonic conceptions of translation. Even though Platonism does touch on something essential about translation – I do not dispute that – it also hides a fundamental truth: that translation involves working with the letter, the form of a text.

Realism, the reference to a common reality, generally plays a lesser role in poetry than in prose. In a poem, the creative and renewing power of language breaks loose; the poem creates its own reality. Poetry often serves as a linguistic laboratory from which prose too draws inspiration. For this reason, poetry could be better suited than prose as a ‘model’ for translation. The poetry translator cannot side-step the letter and claim she is only conveying the meaning.

And yet we talk disparagingly of literal, word-for-word translation. Or of the dead letter. It is only when the text feels lifeless or when there is a problem with the translation that we talk of the letter of the text.

Poetry is translated all the time. Literature leads a multilingual life. Is it not time that we change our understanding of translation to one better suited to practice, rather than forcing the work of the translator into too narrow a mould? Are we perhaps afraid that a conception of translation that pays attention to poetry will enable the translator herself to enjoy poetic licence?

Why should poetry be translated? This is a matter of cultural politics and it demands a cultural-political answer. Our language needs it, literature needs it, it enriches our ecosystem.

A poet’s texts realise one of the numberless possibilities opened up by language. In the translator’s hands, this creation itself becomes a possibility, a field of enquiry which contains the seed of a poem in another language. By bringing a work into contact with another language, the translator renews the creative process; a new linguistic being comes to life in the receiving language. The chain stops there in that the translation does not itself spawn further translations, but it continues in that the new poem enlivens its own language and its poetry.

Recently I had a conversation with the editor Alice Martin, who referred to Finland as ‘a translation superpower’. This was startling and pertinent; we do indeed have an exceptional culture of translation, perhaps in part the result of the ‘foreignness’ of the Finnish language, which is granted by its difference, its non-Indo-European-ness. Given that the structure of Finnish differs so radically from almost all source-language texts, the translation process has to be analytical and creative. There are no short-cuts to a translation into Finnish, it will not work just to ‘mimic’ the surface of the text without profound rewriting.

Our wonderful translation culture, which has developed in just over a century, is a national treasure that we need to cultivate. Poetry translation in particular deserves protected status, since it constructs language and literature just as much as writing poetry does. In addition, the uncommercial nature of poetry translation means that it is threatened.

The significance of poetry and literature as art forms is immense, because they are made of the same language as the one we live in. Because language is our home, we need people who will make it more habitable and richer. Each ‘invention’ produced by the poet and the translator enriches the repertoire of all language users, for the whole linguistic community breathes the same air.

That is a fundamental thing.

There is another answer to the question of ‘why translate poetry’, and it is contained within it: in poetry. Works of poetry want to be translated because they are not finished products or self-sufficient. Translation is not an additional activity to be carried out on the original work, but rather an organic part of its life. It is as important as writing poetry, its natural continuation.

Translation, like reading, is poetry’s way of breathing. It is self-evident, simple, and unavoidable, for poetry’s own reasons. A poem calls for translation.

Together, we have to do our utmost to create the best possible circumstances for the call to be answered, to be met without the risk of starvation. And for poems to reach books, shops, libraries. Everyone.

Translated by Emily Jeremiah

This essay, entitled ‘Ääni vai merkitys, merkitys vai ääni’ (‘Sound or meaning, meaning or sound’) was published in Liittolaiset. Nuoren Voiman Liitto 90 vuotta (‘Allies. The 90-years-old Young Power Association’), edited by Eino Santanen & Aki Salmela (WSOY, 2011)
The poetry anthology – edited by Jukka Koskelainen and Tarja Roinila – mentioned in the beginning of the essay is entitled Habla la luz con voz de corneja. Once poetas finlandeses, published in Mexico by Conaculta, 2004

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