Dispatches: Creativity through Constraint

By Ana María Correa

It is easy to think of translation in terms of confinement, especially when it comes to the translation of poetry. But there are have been literal renderings (Nabokov's Eugene Onegin), out-and-out rewrites (Lowell's Imitations), and even translations by those who aren't familiar with the source language (Hughes' The Desert of Love). Before embarking on my studies, I had always been intimidated by the very idea of translating poetry. How could it even be possible? It was a relief to read W.S. Merwin's open confession: "I continue in the belief, you know, that I don't know how to translate, and that nobody does. It is an impossible but necessary process, there is no perfect way to do it, and much of it must be found for each particular poem, as we go." So it is always tricky and there is never any one right way to go about it.

And then I read Phyllis Gaffney's essay, "'The achieve of, the mastery of the thing!' Pierre Leyris's Verse Translations of Gerard Manley Hopkins" in The Practices of Literary Translation: Constraints and Creativity. Gaffney discusses the straightforward, yet ingenious methods Leyris uses in order to translate Hopkins--wildly complex, effervescent Hopkins--into French. It's a marvelous essay filled with dazzling examples of Leyris' renderings, but grounded in clear-headed common sense and an undeniable love of words.

Gaffney describes the three main difficulties presented by Hopkins' work. First, there is his use of archaic words ("of Saxon or dialect origin and his deliberate avoidance of Romance words") and his invention of new compound terms: for example, "Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows flaunt forth, then chevy on an airbuilt thoroughfare"(!). Then, of course, comes his intentional disregard for syntax. He "breaks all the rules, substituting a verb for a noun, an adjective for an adverb" and a whole host of other things. As Gaffney writes,

The third difficulty is acoustic. Hopkins wanted to restore to English poetry the prosody of earlier times, trying to combine in his verse the metre of ancient Greece, of early Welsh poetry and of traditional English ballads and nursery rhymes. Eminently oral, his poetry is measured by stress rather than syllabic count.

She then shows how Leyris approaches each of these issues, explaining his solutions in numerous examples. He creates similar effects in his French versions by drawing on a "huge vocabulary, not bounded by modern French" to help maintain Hopkins' "vital strangeness and otherness." He has a keen sense of the "cultural resonance of individual words" and is inventive when dealing with coined compounds. He subtly alters syntax where necessary and is "extremely faithful to the overall sound patterns of the original poems", using internal rhyme, alliteration, and assonance to compensate for the French difficulty of reproducing "the rhythms of Hopkins's English". Reading example after example of Leyris "giving as good as he gets", I was exhilarated by the myriad possibilities presented by his careful reworkings. It's quite amazing. So lines from Duns Scotus's Oxford go from

Towery city and branchy between towers;

Cuckoo-echoing, bell-swarmèd, lark-charmèd, rook-racked, river-

rounded.

to

Cité tourée, cite branchue entre tes tours;

Coucou-sonnante, embourdonnée, d'aloues charmée, de freux rouee,

de rus cernée.

But it all begins with a love of literature. When asked about his process, Leyris "explained that he first translates the impression that the poem leaves in his ear and his heart." He then balances both the "aural and semantic" aspects of a poem and works gradually "over months at a time" with many dictionaries, but is careful to never lose "sight of the original." Solutions sometimes reveal themselves at random in "sudden flashes of insight" as well.

I think this is a favorite aspect of studying literary translation: learning how translators have used creativity and a love for what they do to find solutions to complex situations and create something wholly new.

A.M. Correa is working toward her masters in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. You will also find occasional updates on her litblog, "Out of the Woods Now."


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