It is not everyday a person has the pleasure of seeing Mark Harman, Richard Howard and Sarah Ruden together in one place. Mark Harman, responsible for Kafka’s Amerika and many other Kafka translations, Sarah Ruden for Virgil’s Aeneid, and Richard Howard of course for Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. Brought together by esteemed, holy, magical Professor Serge Gavronsky of Barnard, and followed by another panel of publishers Sara Bershtel, Stafania Heim, John Kulka and Matvei Yankelevich, the event was a double-whammy Serge Gavronsky/Barnard translation love-in.
íFor people who cannot read Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, translators have given us literature,ë Gavronsky generously began. The talk was on re-translation of works already printed in English and re-visited. I was ready for question-and- answer time, I was ready to say, íYes, you are incredible translators, but please, can’t you find a writer who hasn’t been brought to America yet? Can’t you help out the unknown, little guy, waiting quietly in the shadows? The hidden manuscript in someone’s great-grandfather’s library desk unrealized?ë Mark Harman, who is so cool, in my humble opinion, picked up the collective thoughts I was shooting into the ceiling and said, íWhy did I choose to translate something into English that had already been translated into English?…Because each translation should hold it’s own artistic integrity.ë I got the feeling what he was trying to say, but wouldn’t was that other translations may have not actually harvested the essence correctly. Kafka’s dry-humor subtext, for example, is nowhere in certain translations, and omnipresent in Harman’s.
Richard Howard, however, would come out and say it. He brought us two sheets of paper, which he handed to the audience and then read from, which made my eyes teary. The first was Baudelaire’s Correspondences and the second, from which he read aloud in its entirety, Meditation. It was truly an honor to hear the definitive translator of these two works, next to Robert Lowell and Allen Tate and Baudelaire himself, read such a powerful piece.
On each sheet of paper, were four versions of each poem. Howard explained to us that he wanted everyone to directly see how a poem can change over time during translation. A lesson on translating, really. This is when he laid the truth down, pointing to Lord Alfred Douglas’s 1909 version and Arthur Symons’ 1897 versions and referring to them as íJust awful! I mean, it’s a sonnet, and he switched the rhyme scheme and forgot what a sonnet even was!ë Howard exclaimed. This was when I decided I should quickly come up with new questions to ask, because I had been given my answer. These translators re-translated because they thought they could do it better, but also because they thought they could get closer to the original text.
Sarah Ruden, acclaimed Virgil translator would cement this sentiment further. She explained, in all honesty that she felt while translating Virgil, that he manifested for her. She felt so close to his words that he as an entity somehow, had come to visit. She explained that this was hard for her to accept and think about because she is a devout Quaker and it goes against her moral and religious answers, but she pressed on and translated the work anyway. She would then grace the audience with the actual act of translating three sentences of Virgil, stopping herself at one point to mumble, íNo, I have to backtrack.ë It was really quite an experience. I think there is truth in the manifestation sentiment, somewhere, actually.
Richard Howard turned the conversation toward the nitty-gritty, explaining the difference in choices historically when translating. He echoed Mark Harman’s statement that íthe historical moment under which a translation is undertaken inevitably affects the outcome of the work.ë (I would point you toward various Shakespeare versions produced in the American 1960s, which veritably make use of terms such as èdaddy-o’) Howard pointed toward Richard Tate’s decision to pick certain what he called èrecipes for symbolism’ which are decidedly modernist choices, and for my secret love affair with tracing history through word choice in literature, it was ídreamy.ë One hundred years from now, I hope to manifest to Sarah Ruden’s students and say, íSee, when the rap artist used the word, èphat’ that was a choice in linguistics relevant to the time in history,ë etc. This exercise had me thinking more than ever, that again, I should re-think my original question, because again, translation and re-translations are a map and marker of time; the work is viewed through a current magnifying glass, and oooh it makes my nerdy little heart skip. íLo ètis here’ is a period problem,ë Howard quoted from a version of Baudelaire he disliked.
The talk about publishing in the current landscape, as always seems to be the case lately, was tough. Professor Gavronsky asked íHow long is the life of a published translation?ë To which Sara Bershtel of Metropolitan Books answered, íIt’s a spirit and attitude that goes toward any one commitment.ë John Kulka, Executive Editor at Large of Harvard University Press had an honest, in-touch point which was that, íSmall presses are able to focus on translated works because they don’t have to make economic restraints…something is happening.ë Matvei Yankelevich of Ugly Duckling Press would prove this sentiment true by explaining UDP’s ambitions to continue to print obscure translated works in runs of 750-1,000, a number to which he optimistically and pretty wonderfully said, íI mean, that’s 1,000 more people reading than weren’t.ë Stefania Heim, of Circumference, a great publication which encourages new translators to submit their versions of poetic work explained the magazine welcomes what advice Mark Harman would give me after the panel. His advice was for people wanting to try translating to íJust do it.ë