The Translation of Poetry as an autonomous Literary Genre
by Franco Buffoni
Franco Buffoni (1): “I wonder” asked L. F. Céline in the letter to M. Hindus of May 15th, 1947, “ how can they compare me to Henry Miller, who is translated?, while everything is a question of the intimacy of the language! not to mention the emotional output of style…”
Style, for Céline, was therefore “untranslatable,” just as poetry was “untranslatable” for Benedetto Croce.
These theoretical positions, which play on the assumption of the uniqueness and irreproducibility of the work of art, end up denying the translatability of poetry and “high” prose. Such conceptions are the expression of an idealism that is particularly outdated nowadays, against which Italian aesthetics of a neo-phenomenological bent (from Banfi to Anceschi to Formaggio to Mattioli) have fought for three decades at least (victoriously, I would say).
It all started with the observation that the dichotomies (faithful/unfaithful; faithful to the letter/faithful to the spirit; ut orator/ut interpres; verbum/sensus; “traductions des poètes/traductions des professeurs”) – from Cicero to Mounin – inevitably lead to a cul de sac, which puts, on the one hand, the untranslatability of “style” and of the poetic “ineffable,” and on the other hand, the conviction that it is possible to transmit just the content. Naturally the fact that it is possible to transmit just the content is a pure abstraction, but it is where you get starting from both “idealistic” and “formalistic” assumptions.
I don’t think that the dichotomous situation of impasse changes by analysing the academic argument between Meschonnic and Ladmiral, alias between sourciers and ciblistes, or between a naturalizing “target-oriented” tendency, which would push the text toward the foreign reader “naturalizing” it, and an alienating “source-oriented” tendency that would drag the foreign reader toward the text.
According to this kind of thought, the clash between schools of translation would resemble the one that exists in the world of art restoration: to show it as much as possible, or hide it as much as possible.
If we set aside the fondness that certain definitions may elicit as opposed to others, I believe it is clear that – if we continue with a dichotomous layout – we only add new pairs – like domestication/estrangement, visibility/invisibility, violability/inviolability to those of previous centuries: liberty/faithfulness, betrayal/assent, fluency/literalness. This is what happens with The Translator’s Invisibility of Lawrence Venuti despite the fact that his constant reference to Schleiermacher and the hermeneutic school inspired by him is certainly of a very high level.
“How then, can we reproduce the style?” The heart of the matter, in my opinion, is in the verb used to ask the question: reproduce. Because literary translation cannot be reduced conceptually to a mere reproduction of a text; it should rather be considered as a process, which sees not an “original” and a “copy” move through time and possibly bloom and flourish again, but two texts equally endowed with artistic dignity.
The Movement of the Language by Friedmar Apel is a fundamental study in this regard. The concept of “movement” in language comes from the necessity of deeply analysing the so-called language of departure before embarking on the translation of a literary text.
The idea is commonly accepted for the so-called language of arrival. No one, in fact, casts any doubts on the need to constantly retranslate the classics in order to adapt them to the transformations that language continuously undergoes. The so-called departure text, on the other hand, is usually viewed as a monument – immobile in time – marmoreal and rustproof. And yet, it too is moving in time, because the words which compose it are also moving semantically in time, as well as the syntactic and grammatical structures and so on.
Essentially, what is being proposed is to consider the classical or modern literary text to be translated not as an immobile rock in the sea, but as a floating platform, where the translator works on the live body of the text, but the text itself is in constant transformation, or precisely, moving in time. In this view, the aesthetic dignity of the translation appears as the fruit of a meeting between equals (the author and the translator) fated to cause the traditional dichotomous pairs to fall away, since it is aimed at removing all stiffness from the act of translation, by giving its product an intrinsic autonomous dignity as text. This principle was already anticipated by Blanchot through the image of the “solemn drift of literary works.”
You can go so far as to affirm that the movement of the language in time, during this process of literary translation, begins even before the drafting of the “definitive” version of the “original,” when it is possible for the translator to access the “pre-text” (that is, all those documents from which the “definitive” text takes shape).
In this way, the translator takes possession of the path of growth and germination of the text in its various phases. In this regard, a linguist may speak of the formativity of the text; while a poet may speak of sympathetic adherence, on the part of the translator, not so much to the finished text, but to the myriad of emotional cells that made it possible.
The text, therefore, moves toward the future but also toward the past if we take into account the “pre-texts.” Think of the eight thousand sheets which gave rise to the four hundred pages of Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit, or of the Epiphanies from which Joyce’s Portrait descends, or the Cahiers upon which La Recherche du temp perdu is formed …All this in the awareness of the stratification of historical languages. It is a concept that Luciano Bianciardi exemplifies with “architectonic” clarity at the beginning of his La Vita Agra (Sour Life), when he describes the building that houses the library of Grosseto. Previously it had been the teaching house of the Companions of Jesus, and before the Convent of the Humbled, and even before the Braidense Library…
By transferring this description to language, you obtain the diode effect, which is like seeing from high a heap of piled up but transparent phonetic and semantic layers. This is why I consider the translation of poetry as an autonomous literary genre, according to a tradition that sees in its developement Thomas Sébillet in the 16th century (Mounin reminds us that, according to Sébillet, translation at that time was considered “parmi les genres littéraires en vogue”), and Jiri Levy, who in the early Sixties of the 20th century published in Prague Umeni Prekladu, a fundamental essay the subtitle of which is quite meaningful: “Theorie einer Kunstgattung”, that is to say “theory of a literary genre” . — Franco Buffoni
(1) Franco Buffoni is a highly-esteemed poet, translator from English and professor of literature; over the years, his verse books (which have been issued by renowned publishers such as Mondadori and Guanda) have been rendered into many languages, including Dutch, French and Spanish.