Marsh Hawk Review is an online poetry journal sponsored by the Marsh Hawk Press collective. Marsh Hawk Review will appear twice a year, under the revolving editorship of collective members. Each issue will offer a selection of poems solicited by the editor, in addition to new work posted by poets in the collective.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sandy McIntosh


Four Problems of Translation

 I. A Lecture From the Bartender at Grand Hotel, Oslo 

Translation is difficult.
We don't expect our American tourists to speak Norwegian so we learn English.
One language can do violence to the other. Pick its pocket, so to speak.
For instance, Oslo gets many meters of snowfall. Knut Hamsun, in Hunger, has his character sleeping in the snowed-in streets of Kristiania. (Oslo used to be Kristiania in 1899.) Hamsun knew those streets. But then your Robert Bly comes along with his egregious English translation and messes up the map so that it neither resembles Kristiania nor Oslo.  A tourist could get lost in the snow and die following Bly's map!
Knut Hamsun was our breakthrough novelist and maybe deserves more respect, though he was often down and out.
Henrik Ibsen was our breakthrough dramatist--hardly down and out!--but you wouldn't know it from the English translations. 
For instance, in Ghosts, Mrs. Alving refers to her husband lying around reading "bank journals," which doesn't make any sense in English.
But Norwegians know instantly that "bank journals" really means "pornography." 
Ibsen drank and dined at the Cafe every night. His dinner was always an open sandwich, beer and schnapps. And often a pjolter, which is our word for Whisky and Soda.
And he could get drunk!
Hamsun and Ibsen lived here in Kristiania at the same time, and I think they met only once, poverty and wealth being discrete languages.
One night Ibsen was too drunk to sit. He insulted the waiters and we had to translate him into the street.
Hamsun was down and out, living in a wooden crate outside the Cafe. Ibsen landed next to him and decided to take a little nap. Then you could see Hamsun's arm reach out of the box and pick Ibsen's pocket!
Then Hamsun translated himself into the Cafe and ordered a splendid supper!


 II. James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. published in 1791

They meet at a bookstore, but it doesn't go well. Boswell: "I apologize for being a Scot. I cannot help it." Johnson: ''That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.''
See "Bozzy" of a morning enjoying a public hanging, darting down an alley for quick sex, and later, a fervid night in public or private house playing the buffoon or worse, worse for drink. How could this besotted poltroon produce such a work of light and intelligence?
Well, Macaulay says in 1831, that dolt didn't exactly write the Life, he merely took it down: faithful, mindless stenographer. The Biography has merits, he concludes, but only a fool could have written it.
Later, though, attics and closets of Boswell descendants in Scotland and Ireland open. Manuscript caches take flight, caught up by the universities. Boswell is recognized an exigent writer, not at all vapid, prepared by life for the great work, the superb Biography.
Johnson, moral and intellectual touchstone, now slumps in a grubby corner, mistranslated into something else: Hapless literary marionette.
"Do us a little dance, will ye?" leers lubricious Bozzy.
Johnson arises, clears his throat--ever ready with a pithy quotation.


 III. Goethe Writes Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811-1833)

Goethe's friends entreat him to write the autobiography. One friend: "We try to guess many a riddle, to solve many a problem." But they've reached an impasse. They beg him: "Yet a little assistance here and there would not be unacceptable." "This desire," writes Goethe, "so kindly expressed, immediately awakened within me an inclination to comply with it." But how? One cannot simply write everything that has happened. One needs method. "It must be a very agreeable and re-animating task to treat former creations as new matter, and work them up into a kind of Last Part." He cannot include everything, so he selects incidents, compresses or expands others, eliminates many.

He feels the danger, diddling with history, but he has an honest end to achieve. He declares the title of his autobiography: Dichtung und Wahrheit, Poetry and Truth.

Immediately, it is misconstrued in the press. Dichtung is understood as meaning Fiction. "What has Goethe given us?" they ask. "Is it part fiction, part truth? And indeed, which part is which?"

"No, no no!" Goethe screams. [I translate freely here.] "It was my endeavor to present and express to the best of my ability the actual basic truths that controlled my life as I understood them." The work is translated into English as Lies and Truth in My Life. "Scheiße Kopf!" shrieks Goethe [in my free translation]. "Lies? Are they all idiots? I wanted the word Dichtung understood not in the sense of fabrication but as the revelation of higher truths. Doesn't anyone see this?"

"They say your novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther is secretly autobiography," I tell him. "But that was a fiction!” he protests. “Certainly the structure contains autobiographical elements, but I made everything else up!" "Well," I say. "Maybe it was easier reading. I mean, after all, your autobiography is, what? Thirteen volumes?" "That's what you need to get to the truth," he answers. "And, possibly," I suggest, "Young Werther is what you need to get to the poetry."

"Ach," he shakes his head. "Perhaps we shall never resolve this."

"Well then," I say, stretching after a long sit down. "Möchten Sie ein paar Bier trinken? Would you like to drink a few beers?"
"Ja. Natürlich. A brilliant idea! Wir zu den Biergarten gehen."
Arm in arm we stroll to the beer garden, and as we stroll we sing: Du, du liegst mir im Herzen, the song about the man whose heart breaks because his great love cannot take him seriously.


 IV. According To My Mother (6)

My mother was frightened. It had been
fifty years since she'd visited the home country.
"I don't think I remember the language!" she fretted.
But she got on the airplane, an old woman
pacing the Jetway hesitantly.

We heard nothing from her for a month.
Then a telegram: "Returning tonight."

We were surprised when we saw her: her face radiant,
her steps full of life.
"It was a wonderful trip," she gushed
as we drove away in the car.
"At first I couldn't communicate with my sisters.
But, after awhile, I began to remember the words.

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