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Should translated poetry books be bilingual?


There are various arguments for and against translated poetry being presented in bilingual books. You get fewer poems, since each one is printed twice, and you might not be able to read the original language. Those are some of the possible reasons against. On the other side of the argument, you can see the shape of the original poem, often you can read the original with the help of the translation, even if you don’t have much command of the original. They allow different people to engage with the poems in very different ways. And they remind us that the poems are translated, and that what we are reading in the translation is therefore the translator’s work. It’s clear from this that I prefer such books to be bilingual. But I know some people don’t. It would be very interesting to know what everyone thinks.


I wish they always were. I can’t see the reason for not. I’d like to see the original in parallel for the same reason my chef friend always has, when she’s preparing brains, tongue, tripe or fromage de tête, for arguing if one is to eat the animal one should do it the honour of eating the whole thing. There’s something about honouring the original that’s important, and retaining its status as a poem with an accent, something which has a non-domestic provenance, which comes to us with travel stickers on its luggage.

And separately I like that mechanic’s aspect of being able to ‘police’ the translation: looking under the bonnet, seeing how it’s been fixed. I just worked with a translator on a chapbook of my poems and he’s produced an entirely different poems in French which are at the same time exactly the same – I’d like to be able to see both on a page to see what’s added, what’s lost, how he solved some of the knotty parts. In some ways this would be best done online, with the possibility of scrolling to the footnoted commentary of the discussion we had about various points. And room for reader comment. Perhaps this idea’s narcissistic, and perhaps that’s also why it reminds me of Nabokov’s approach to Eugeny Onegin. VN’s mostly talking to himself: this would be a more democratic, interactive Nabokovian exercise.


I do very much want the original to be there, for siilar reasons to Claudia, but I am aware that translating from Russian means that many people are faced with a non-Roman alphabet and can’t get the feeling of what the sound of the poem is. It isn’t hard to learn Cyrillic but it is pretty much a first step to learning Russian, and not the situation of being able to look up the pronunciation rules for a Roman-alphabet language you may be faced with, like (say) Hungarian which linguistically is much further from Russian for an English speaker.

[Housekeeping note - I’ve been signed up for this forum but the system decided my password was too short. There was no option to change the password, so I had to sign up as a new person with a different email - forutnately I had a different email I could use, but others might not!]


And what about non-alphabetic scripts such as Chinese? Yes, even them. (For one thing, Chinese calligraphy is a joy to behold, even if you don’t recognize a single character—and there’s no excuse nowadays, what with all the pseudo-calligraphic fonts available, for publishers to use those ghastly mechanical Chinese fonts that used to be standard a decade or so ago—but also more and more readers of Chinese poetry in translation these days CAN read at least some Chinese. They can then check how much literal accuracy has been sacrificed by the translator in the interests of creating something that works in English. And for non-readers of Chinese, a simple character-count can tell one how much wordier any English translation has to be. (For my money, the nearer the number of syllables in the English version to the number of characters in the original classical Chinese text, the better.)

One aspect as yet unmentioned about parallel poetic texts in any language, is the importance of rhyme in the original. This would be obvious even to a non-reader of Cyrillic scripts, though not, of course, to a non-reader of Chinese . . .


I’d be delighted to see the Russian next to the English, Peter, though yes, it would be if not pointless certainly less pointful for me. I can’t read Russian, though I can decipher a bit of Cyrillic and I like trying to find the words I can read, though that’s hardly a scholarly approach. Actually I don’t think enjoying a language needs to be scholarly.


the importance of rhyme…h’m. A difficult one, because rhyme doesn’t always translate and very often rhymed texts work better (these days) translated unrhymed. Of course this is fashion, of course subjective, but you can’t ignore how style mutates. Back to Nabokov, who was hugely hostile to the idea of trying to render rhyme. My view is there isn;t one hard and fast rule – that a rhyme in the original gives you the option to consider whether rhyme is the right way to go in the version.

Chinese calligraphy - yes, how fantastic. And you get into a whole new area with the beauty of the graphics themselves, a beauty which presumably is untranslatable merely linguistically, no?


The source country is also a market. (Anyone who knows the source language.) Lots of people out there know English, or want to. For them, bilingual is ideal.


My point about the ability to see whether the source text uses end-rhyme (or internal rhyme for that matter) is that the reader of the translated poem than then judge more accurately what has been sacrificed, and what has been ‘reproduced’ in the target language. Of course, the same applies to some rhetorical ‘schemes’ as well: parallelism, for example (so common in Chinese classical poetry). Has some attempt to replicate this been made, or has it been sacrificed (perhaps for very good reasons)?

It’s true that many modern translators avoid end-rhyme, for the very good reason that when one concentrates too hard on achieving end-rhyme (fun though this can be), the meaning inevitably gets more and more distorted, though the form may be retained. However, the fact remains that end-rhymed verse in some languages translates more efficiently into English than others.

The trouble with Chinese classical verse is that Chinese, whether ancient, medieval or modern (the former two being largely monosyllabic), contains so many more rhyming ‘finals’ than does English, that the distortion becomes that much greater: look at the far from pedestrian though now almost unreadable work of Herbert Giles. However, a tiny handful of modern translators have managed to overcome this problem: Vikram Seth in our own time, or Ayling and Mackintosh a few decades earlier showed how this could be done. What’s more, European and Russian verse from earlier centuries often cries out for end-rhyme: think of Petrarch, Ariosto, Tasso, Gongora, Ronsard, Pushkin: the form being such an important component of the meaning. My own practice (for what it’s worth) is to use end-rhyme whenever it suggests itself, provided the semantic distortion is kept to a minimum.

You’re right about calligraphy being something that really does get lost in translation: Chinese poets were very often just as famous for their painting and calligraphy as they were for their poetry, and very frequently one can’t easily dissociate the calligraphy (or the calligraphic style chosen) from the poem itself—to give one example, in a particular poem by Du Fu about a night-scene beside the lake, there’s a preponderance of characters containing the ‘water’ radical, which is immediately apparent to the reader of Chinese, but which is hard to reproduce in any translation; and in another, more famous poem by Wang Wei, describing blossom slowly opening the five characters in that first line slowly unfurl and exfoliate as the flowers emerge: an effect impossible to mimic in English.


Actually, why not? As for me, a person who likes to see bilingualism in daily life. It will be very interesting to read a book like that. :wink::slight_smile::ghost: