Review- Poems in Translation: Sappho to Valéry

Poems in Translation: Sappho to Valéry
By John Frederick Nims

J.F. Nims' Poems in Translation: Sappho to Valéry (like Nims' posthumous collection of original poetry The Powers of Heaven and Earth) is a book that I have loved and admired for years, for both good and bad reasons.

The book's range marks it as a tour de force of Nims' discursive erudition. By Sappho to Valéry, Nims clearly means Sappho, Valéry and everything in between. The book's contents span 27 centuries (from the seventh century BC to the early 1960s) in ten different languages (French, Spanish, Catalan, Greek, Latin, Italian, Galician, Provençal, German and, of course, English.)

I. The introductory essay

The book's introductory essay on translation is a refreshing read when one compares it to similar essays by such poetry-translators as Walter Arndt, Elizabeth Gray, W.S. Merwin or Mark Musa. Though he spends a little time dallying on the familiar tension in translation between what is being said and how it is being said, Nims does not make the fashionable (yet ultimately misleading) assertion that he is trying to balance the how and the what. Moreover, he actually takes the most unpopular position, stating that
poetry is less a matter of what is said than of how it is said
This sentiment, though it has become an art-as-form cliché among authors of original poetry, is rarely if ever brought to bear on the issue of translating poetry.

Too often, verse-translators (whether they are poets, poetasters, or scholarly poet-impersonators) seem to think of translation as a brain-teaser. "I've got what the poem literally says" the translator seems to think, "now let's see how I can make this sound like a poem again without changing it too much." It baffles me how few poets realize that this is completely backwards from the way poetry normally comes into being. When writing your own poetry, you often know how you're going to say something before you even know what it is you're saying. Very few translators (Richard Wilbur is one) are skilled enough to reverse the process without making a mess of it.

Nims, on the other hand, is not trying to recapture the sense so much as
to write poems that will, to some degree, show what certain poems in another language are like. One cannot translate a poem but one can try to reconstitute by taking the thought, the imagery, the rhythm, the sound, the qualities of diction...and then attempt to rework as many as possible into a poem in English.
The essay goes on citing examples of successful instances of this in the work of poet-translators such as Jorge Guillén, Rilke and others.

In addition, Nims touches upon one of the most overlooked (and, in my opinion, most damaging) problems of translation. When poets translate poetry from various periods and authors, they tend to make them all sound a little too similar. In Robert Bly's work for example, poets as distinct from one another as Neruda and Hafiz end up sounding strangely alike (and strangely bad.) Nims aptly points the problem out when he says that
translations in which all the voices of the world's great poets speak with a single voice, in which Rilke and Sappho sound alike, may not satisfy all the possibilities of translation.
Well said, John. Well said.

II. The translations themselves

The translations themselves seem to represent Nims' attempt to implement the goals he sets forth in his introductory essay. Nims selection of what poets to translate seems to suggest a preference for poetry that, on the one hand uses colloquial diction and expressions to break with tradition and, on the other, employs traditional formal devices such as rhyme and meter to achieve effects of sound. In the brief introductions to most of the poets, one can consistently see him praising these qualities. Ausiàs March is lauded for the many "proverbial and popular expressions" of his work and for being the "first to write poetry in his native Catalan instead of the more literary language [Provençal] glamorized by tradition." San Juan de la Cruz gets saluted for writing musical verse with "simple, everyday expressions, popular, colloquial words that occur in folk song and might be used by country people. Literary words almost never." Goethe is praised for "language for the most part fresh and simple...that go back to the dawn of human consciousness." Sappho is said to be great because "her simplicity comes through in the word order which is that of common sense (of impassioned common sense.) Her poems are almost without literary artifice... she was perhaps the only Greek poet to use the very words she heard around her."

You get the idea.

These are the qualities Nims' prizes and which he tries to bring out in his translations, and often it works spectacularly, particularly in the versions of Ausiàs March, for example:
Old Tityus with the vulture at his stomach,
Gobble by gobble sees the gashes heal,
and still the feast goes on, the great fowl jabbing.
Grimmer than this, the settled grief I feel.
For there's a worm that gnaws the brain's sweet tissue;
another gnaws the heart remorselessly.
Nothing to interrupt their devastation;
Nothing, except the one thing closed to me.
It is refreshing to see translations of poetry that have the gumption to sound like this. However, in other poems, this desire for colloquial, unpretentious language seems to override his sense of the subtleties of tone and voice, and so he often fails his own test by making the poets represented in this collection sound inappropriately like him.

Goethe, for example, sometimes has his lines filled with inexplicable onomatopoeia, such as cru-ungk! and whang! for the sake of music. The songs of the troubadour poet Bernart de Ventadorn turn into unsingable verse laced with harum-scarum or hush-hush. Horace's poetry (which, unlike the rest of the poetry in this volume, has no reputation for being colloquial or simple) has its lovelorn boys use such expressions as figure the hell with. Too often, Nims seems to forget that, though a poet might display colloquial idioms, they succeed in the original by being elevated to the level of literary production (check out Robert Frost for an example of a poet who does this in English.) Nims, on the other hand, often heavily exaggerates the colloquial nature of the original.

In addition, Nims seems to take "colloquial diction" as a license to riddle his translations with clichés. This is O.K. occasionally in translations of Ausiàs March where the clichés are subverted by being put in new, interesting contexts. However, "clouds of dust" or "heart strong and warm" as translations of Rosario Castellanos' polvaredas or sólida y caliente de entrañas is simply an unimaginative waste of opportunity.

On the other hand, Nims occasionally gets carried away in the opposite direction and sacrifices simplicity, colloquial usage and even common sense to achieve music. I cannot see how "moroser/ moods that never long unloosen" is at all appropriate, in terms of diction, tone or even intelligibility, as a translation for "nin m'abandonarás nunca," a phrase by Rosalía de Castro meaning "you will never leave me behind." It does not sound at all like Rosalía in English. It sounds not only like Nims, but Nims at his worst.

Occasionally, these tendencies become so extreme as to turn the book into an utter parody of its mission. What is a reader to make, for example, of Catullus' famous lines
Vivamus mea Lesbia atque amemus
Rumoresque senum severiorum
omnes unius æstimemus assis
when they are presented as this?
So let's live- really live!- for love and loving,
honey! Guff of the grumpy old harrumph-ers
-what's it worth? Is it even worth a penny?
While a sympathetic reader can appreciate the desire to show Catullus' work as something other than the stilted, sophomoric light verse it is usually translated as, passages like this make me wonder if Nims knows the meaning of the word "overkill" in any language.

Final Grade: B

1 comment:

  1. For a course on literature from the middle ages, I had to read a translation of the 13th century scandinavian poem "Njals Saga" that was made in the 1920s. The translator used Elizabethan language like 'dost' and 'thou' because I guess it was trendy to translate poetry that way. It makes as much sense to me as translating latin into jamaican slang, but I guess it's a matter of tastes.