Translations are like lovers: the faithful ones aren’t beautiful, and the beautiful ones aren’t faithful.
This expression, which I picked up in graduate school from one of the musicologists on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, pretty accurately sums up the general state of translation. When it comes to translations, we don’t live in glass houses; we live in the Tower of Babel, hearing each other’s languages, but not understanding them – even when, in a literal sense, we speak the same language. We are always, it seems, playing a game of Telephone, mired in human imperfection as we are, and so prone as we are to hearing what we want to hear. Misunderstanding is all but inevitable.
Given the generally sluttish state of translations, I consider myself extremely fortunate that the first translations of some of my poems into a language other than English were exceptionally brilliantly executed. Big thanks to editor Beate Conrad for publishing two of my haiku in English and in German translation in the most recent issue of the German journal Chrysanthemum.
Here are my haiku as published in Chrysanthemum 20 (October 2016), in the original English and in Beate Conrad’s German translations:
full moon glow Vollmondschein
blankets eggs deckt Eier zu
in the abandoned bird’s nest in dem verlassnen Nest
dropping from the cone aus dem Hörnchen tropft
the ice cream melts das Eis, zerschmilzt
into a frown in ein Stirnrunzeln
I love that German allows “full moon glow” to appear as “Vollmondschein,” speeding up into a single word the ephemeral haiku moment the poem conveys. In the second haiku, I love that German syntax allows the ice cream – “das Eis” – to drop from the verb “drops” at the end of the first line to the beginning of the second line. In English, such a construction would come across as stilted:
out of the cone drops
the ice cream …
But as good as Conrad’s translations are, her editing is at least as compelling. I have long thought that there should be an editor’s Hippocratic Oath, paraphrased something like this: I will use treatment (read: I will edit) to help the sick (read: to help the writing) according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing.
Why is it that so many editors perpetrate bloody murder on writing and get off scot-free? Why are good editors so few and far between?
But Beate Conrad suggested a brilliant edit to my ice cream haiku. My original text read:
dropping from the cone
the ice cream melts
her face into a frown
Isn’t it so much more vivid that not the face, but the ice cream itself melts into a frown, as in Conrad’s edited version?
Brilliant. Just brilliant.
This one edit – so subtle and yet so great – says so much about the essence of poetry, about showing not telling, about using fewer words to say more.
Thank you, Beate Conrad, for making my words better – in English and in German. And thank you for your beautiful journal.