THE PROBLEM OF
The difficulty of
translating poetry is twofold: the words and meaning on the
one hand, the flow and rhythm (or rhyme) on the other. Most
translations of poetry are bad. This is mainly because the translator
knows the foreign language too well and his or her language
too poorly. In Albanian poetry, a good example of a classically-bad
translator is Dr Robert Elsie, a Canadian albanologist of high
distinction and erudition, but someone whose grasp of English
is limited to the writing of tergid academic papers and dissertations.
His translations read as if they were written by a student -
or an Albanian - and, in their awkward, unconvincing, almost
robotic English, do a disservice to the originals.
In fact, after reading
his (non-bilingual) anthology AN ELUSIVE
EAGLE SOARS some years ago, I concluded that,
unlike Macedonia, Albania had surprisingly poor poets - and
started to write Albanian poems myself! It was then I realised
that however good an original might be, it can be completely
swamped or undermined by poor translation.
Dr Elsie is not
a poet - but that is irrelevant: some famous poets are extremely
bad translators, the most obvious case being Robert "Iron
John" Bly whose translations of Rilke are embarrassing.
"Famous Séamus" Heaney and his fellow-Ulsterman
Paul Muldoon are not much better. On the other hand, another
Ulsterman, Ciaran Carson, is a superb translator - one of the
very best, as can be seen in his rollicking and faithful translation
from the Irish of the 18th century satire 'The
do not even need to speak either language natively: an excellent
example is Ewald Osers, a Czech who has made good translations
of (Slavonic) Contemporary Macedonian Poetry (Forest Books),
and of his fellow-countryman Miroslav
Holub, into English. Admittedly, though, Holub (like Popa)
modern translator is Herbert Lomas (Bloodaxe Books) who
has translated Contemporary Finnish Poetry. Neither of
these books is in a bilingual edition - so it is impossible
for me to say if the original is much better. But one which
is - THE ERROR OF BEING by the outstanding Romanian
poet Ion Caraion - can be seen to be poorly translated by Marguerite
Dorian & Elliott B. Urdang without any knowledge by the
reader of Romanian other than through other Romance languages
and Latin. (See
my own translation from this collection.)
TRANSLATION IS ONE THAT HAS AN EXISTENCE INDEPENDENT OF THE
The most famously
good translator is Edward FitzGerald, whose universally-known
rendering of The Ruba'iyát of Omar
Khayyám reads as if it were originally composed in
English. In fact he re-wrote and re-ordered a selection of Khayyám's
verses, and sacrificed the original (rather obscure) meaning
to fluency, thus creating not just a new poem in its own right,
but an uniquely visionary poem of genius.
Even more extreme
a translation is Yeats' early poem When you are old and grey
and full of sleep... "translated" (or rather very
freely paraphrased) from the incomparable Pierre
de Ronsard's sonnet Quand
vous serez vien vieille...
of which only one line is actually translated from Ronsard's
to see Ronsard's original, my own translation, and Yeats' paraphrase
and egregious Albanian poet Luljeta
Lleshanaku has a whole posse of translators and her American
editor Henry Israeli. But there are many examples of awkwardnesses
and poor English in their translations; I think I have made
a slightly better job of translating her splendid poem Provim.
Many Albanian poems
sent to me by my co-translator Zana Banci simply will not go
into English. What sounds fresh in Albanian sounds banal in
English, and there is no way to be faithful to the spirit of
the original without traducing it at the same time: traduttore,
traditore, as the famous Italian dictum has it.
Albanian, like Serbian,
is not a laconic language. English now is. When one is encounters
zappy, laconic poetry in Albanian or Serbian, it is very difficult
to render it in English - especially if there is word-play.
On the other hand, it is equally difficult to translate more
wordy Albanian poems without reducing them considerably.
An example is a
marvellous poem by Mitrush Kuteli, whose real name was
Dhimitër Pasko, born in Pogradec, south-eastern Albania,
in 1907, translated Gogol's Dead Souls into Albanian
- and so was himself no stranger to the problems of translation.
He was (like everyone of talent) sent to a labour-camp by Enver
Hoxha, but escaped execution, because good translators were
needed by the régime.
Here is our translation of his fine,
I love you, Albanian
I love you
relating to you
as wolf to forest,
wave to wave
and dirt to dirt.
Up to my knees
I'm into you,
born out of you
as was my father
I love you, Albanian
up to my waist
and higher yet.
word which I have translated as 'dirt' is BALTË
I use the word in
the American double-sense of soil/earth and filth.
In British English dirt does not carry the meaning of
soil - what plants grow out of.
BALTË has, however, many meanings
1. Mud, soil, earth, dirt.
2. Clay, silt, sediment, sludge.
3. Muck, muddy place, mire.
4. Ground, earth.
5. A substance from which something is made.
6. Dregs, sediment, lees, grounds, refuse, alluvium, filth,
7. A cheap, dirty, worthless or disgraceful thing.
8. Mess, trouble, stew, muddle, bad situation, imbroglio, cock-up.
9. Native land.
So here is a poem
whose pivotal word cannot properly be translated into English.
It can mean 'mud' or 'muddle' or 'mire' or 'motherland'. Yet
it is such a light, witty and deep poem that it would be a shame
not to unearth it for English readers.
This is not the
only problem with this poem. In the very first line is another
ambiguous word, DUA which means not just 'love' and 'like',
but also 'need' and 'want'.
So to accommodate this, I have had to insert quite gratuitously
the very modern English phrase 'relating to' (which also has
a double meaning), so that the succeeding lines flow with the
clean speed of the Albanian.
Here is the Albanian
Anyone can see that it is a very neat, rhyming poem - and that
our translation is neither so neat nor so resonant - hence this
dua, baltë shqiptare!
si ujku pyllin,
si vala valën,
si balta baltën!
Se gjer mbi gju
jam brenda teje;
se lerë kam këtu
dua, baltë shqiptare
se gjer mbi bel
dhe përmbi bel.
About his difficulty as a writer
- the difficulty of any writer under a totalitarian régime
(and any dissident writer beyond the Pale in a 'liberal democracy')
- Pasko wrote:
O such a surprise
to want not to be human,
to envy the stones
that suffer not
when the storm descends on Tirana!
Të duash të mos jesh njeri
Dhe gurëve t'u kesh zili
Se gurët s'vuajn' kur bie shi
The 'storm' is the disfavour of Hoxha and the Party - what Dalan
Luzaj called 'the hurricane'.
A poem he wrote to his wife
from the horror of the prison camp:
afër jemi, por kaq larg,
Të lutem mos më prit
Na ndajnë terre rreth e qark
Dhe yll për mua s'ndrit.
ta lidhësh fatin tënd
Me një pafat si unë,
Kur di se emri im u shëmb
Me dhunë e përdhune?
hidhe hapin guximtar
Ndaj jetës së gëzuar
Dhe më harro këtu, në varr,
Të vdekur pa mbuluar.
utterly defeats decent translation