Leevi Lehto"In the Beginning Was Translation"

Workshop on "Poetic Sound in Translation",
MLA Presidential Forum, Philadelphia, USA, Dec. 28, 2006

I quote from my "statement" on translating "Besotted Desquamation", a poem by Charles Bernstein that can be seen as consisting of 27 sections, with all the words in each individual section sharing the same initial letter:

When I sat down to translate the poem (...), I was (...) confused (...), to find that the words my dictionary suggested for replacement seemed to begin with just about any letter. (...) I began (...) to have doubts as to the very fundaments of the profession of translation. I mean, how can we imagine to translate anything, when we cannot even get the first letters right? Eventually, (...) what I did was to put the original away - for good, I never looked at it again. (...) I then proceeded, not to translate, not even to rewrite, but to write the poem, exactly the way Charles had done before me...

We are evidently dealing with poetic sound in translation here. For most of us, I guess, it wouldn't even make sense to speak about translating poetry without accounting for the sound. On the other hand, it doesn't excactly make sense to speak about "translating sound" either. Perhaps more meaningfully we could speak of transferring the sound - but then, should we succeed in this, we would be back to the original.

I'll make two observations:

One. I want to refer with sound to a certain material dimension of language. I've always liked M. H. Abrams' remark of the sound in Keats' poetry being partly determined by the special physical pleasure of reciting it. The poetic sound usually represents a new material dimension inside a natural language.

Two. The differencies between languages are, "in the last instance", material ones. Think of Walter Benjamin's essay, where he famously distinguishes between "intention" (common to all languages) and "the mode of intention" (where they differ). In my view, Benjamin's example–the difference between German "Brot" and French "pain", for "bread"–is to be seen to refer to their material dissimilarity. His central argument would hold even if the words' fields of references in their respective languages would coincide.

Benjamin sees the translator's task as effecting "an echo" of the source languge in the target one - as part of creating what he calls "the pure language". On this latter, I will only note that if anything, "pure language", for Benjamin, represents the greatest poliferation of the impure. If the original, already, effects a new material dimension in its language, translation will unfold yet another one which is not, strictly speaking, situated in either of the languages. This way, Benjamin's solution to the "problem" of Babelization is - more Babelization.

In the history of translating poetry, Benjamin's method has been in wider use than is often recognized. I like to cite the example of transferring English, German, and French metrical patterns into Finnish poetry during its so called traditional period (1880-1950). Blank verse, for instance, is ill suited to Finnish where the stress always falls on the first syllable of the word; however, instead of trying to to show "how Shakespeare would have written should his native language have been Finnish", the Finnish translators went into great pains to invent new prosodies, foreign to the "natural language", to enable the Finns to hear an echo of Shakespeares poetical thinking. Quite Benjaminian, in fact.

Or Schleiermachian, to refer to the essay on "the methods of translation" by Friedrich Schleiermacher, a hundred years earlier. In it, translating the Greek and Roman classics to German is strikingly seen as modifying that language, to bring it up to its "historical task" - an attitude that introduces us to the politics of poetic sound in translation.

Compare the Schleiermachian intuition to the currently dominant conception of a "democratic" "equality" of languages, with its attached view of translation as neutral "transferring of content" between them–something that I've come to be increasingly critical about, not the least because of its flattening effect on what comes to be written in the first place.

Against these conceptions, I would claim that our global linguistic reality is more and more characterized by a (in my view) positive Babelization, including an increasing Cacophony of Sounds–calling for inverting the paradigm (still dominant even in the (most advanced) theory of translation–where the languages are seen as something primary, translation again as a secondary, ensuing "problem". To me, "in the beginning was translation".

My alternative view would emphasize the factual overlapping of languages with its peculiar dynamics and power structures–admitting some linguistic formations to be more "important" than others, but also ready to react against the structures of suppression and dominance between them. It would valorize misunderstandigs and misprisions, and as such, be against all language-based models of identification–models that, by the way, tend also to rely on sound, as epitomized by this middle-age, educated couple from Boulder, Colorado, who once told my wife how there was nothing special about their place of domicile, except that it seemed to be the only place in the whole world where English was spoken without any noticeable accent....

Let me conclude by three examples / recommendations.

The primacy of translation does not rule out the role of "original works" in creating the pure (read impure) language. I'm interested in this in the frame of what I see as the real dominant lingua franca of our world, yet one that, surprisingly, seems still to lack its literature–English spoken as a Second language. I'm all for creating and expanding this literature, a new poetry of Barbaric English.

Secondly, regarding the view of translation as an attempt to show how a "language A poet" would have written in language B, I like Schleiermacher's joke about this being equal to producing an image of what the author would have looked like shoud her mother have had her with a different father. Not uninteresting, but the question is: to whom? Evidently to the speakers of language A. In view of this, one can only wonder why a poet like John Ashbery, so widely translated, is still waiting to be translated into his native tongue. I would love to edit a volume of such translations.

Thirdly, in my scheme of the primacy of translation, works attempting at "untranslatability" retain a specific importance. Think of Eunoia by Christian Bök, a radical lipogram where, in each chapter, only one vowel is allowed. It, too, would be best translated without even glancing at the original. I recently started working on a related project, a book of 300 pages where I'd use the vowels of the first Finnish novel, Seitsemän veljestä (The Seven Brothers, 1870), by Aleksis Kivi - all of them, in the order they appear in Kivi's work, and no other vowels but them. In a sense, this would be a work for the Finnish speakers only. But even it would not be untranslatable - being, among other things, itself a translation of the work by Kivi - and, well, one where I'd finally got at least half of the letters right.