{ The Oberlin Translation Symposium and Why You Should've Been There }

"Poetry is what gets lost in translation." - Robert Frost

The above quote gets thrown around a lot when people are talking about the virtues of poetry, but after last week I've realized that I'm going to have to disagree with Robert Frost on this one.

On last Monday afternoon, I went to the annual translation symposium, an amazing, fantastic, perfect-for-a-comp-lit-major event that everyone interested in poetry or languages should be required to attend. (Can you tell I'm kicking myself for not knowing about this event until this year?) Between the 22 participants, there were eight languages represented - Chinese, French, Japanese, Latin, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Thai - a pretty wide variety for such a small school. As each student walked up to the front of the room to present their work, I was impressed over and over again.

There was a girl who told the crowd that sound is the focus of her translations, and proceeded to make the Chinese original and her English translation sing in a way I never would've expected. Another student translated a Russian "sonnet" so funny that it made me want to learn the language myself, or at least read a book of his translations. One of my translation classmates put a fresh spin on a long-dead Roman poet by taking an irreverent attitude and reading in a British accent. Most translated poems, but there were a few students who translated short selections from larger prose works and one student who presented a selection from a graphic novel that he translated into Russian!

But it would be odd to talk about the symposium without mentioning that I was one of the 22 students selected to read. As I mentioned in my last post, I'm taking a class on poetry translation so I already had some options ready to submit for the symposium. I ended up submitting two of my translations - the translation of "Spår" by Tomas Tranströmer that I included in my last post (I tweaked it before submitting it, but I'm refraining from editing that post to reflect the changes I made) and a translation of a short Spanish poem by Blanca Varela - and reading both for the symposium.

When the time came for me to read my translations aloud, I became suddenly and unexpectedly nervous, hands shaking and voice wobbling uncomfortably. At the time, I credited my nerves to having to read in Swedish without really speaking the language properly, but frankly, my imitation-Swedish accent was pretty killer. Maybe the nerves came from the high bar set by my previous translators or some desire to represent my poets well.

But all of that aside, something that's become more and more clear over the past semester and was confirmed on Monday is that poetry isn't necessarily lost in translation. I'll be that first to admit that I have to make all sorts of concessions (large and small) while translating, but at the same time, translating can lead to really wonderful discoveries on my part. To translate a poem well, you have to know it intimately, to give it the closest of close readings, and that is certainly a "gain in translation."

There's an important essay by Walter Benjamin called "The Task of the Translator" in which the author makes the claim that in order for a work to be translated, it must have "translatability" or a quality that links the work to a grander, more abstract "pure language." In translating, you unlock this "pure language" that was hiding in the original and attempt to make it more available to readers in your target language. In my opinion, this suggests that poetry is something in between the original and the translation, some quality that goes beyond the words themselves. I'll admit that this sounds a bit hippy-dippy, but the more I think about it, the more that I agree.

But you don't have to read Benjamin to disagree with the assertion that "poetry is what's lost in translation." All you have to do is read a beautiful, translated poem, whether it's the Song of Solomon or "I Love You When You're Silent." If you want real proof, though, I'd highly recommend attending next year's symposium because if it's anything like the one this year, you'll find poetry in abundance.


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{ Responses To This Entry }

I started reading this and decided right away that I was going to say something about how I read German prose for the Translation Symposium my freshman year and it was extremely rewarding and I was highly impressed with the work my peers had done - basically, echoing the sentiments you expressed - but then I saw Walter Benjamin's name. You read Benjamin? You understood Benjamin? What kind of superhuman mind do you possess?! My German senior seminar just spent two weeks machete-whacking our collective way through his "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and "One-Way Street" and I know I have only the most superficial understanding of his theses. I mean, I'm not actually sure if 'understanding' is at all appropriate to apply to the relation between my brain and Benjamin's works.

Anyway. Neruda is one of my favorite poets, so I should certainly hope poetry doesn't get lost in translation, otherwise I'd have to start learning Spanish! (Not that I'd mind. I just have so many languages on my to-learn list already.)

Posted by: Ida on April 17, 2013 1:02 PM


Ida: I thought I responded to your comment long ago, but better late than never I guess! Benjamin is certainly... thorny. However, I've read "Task of the Translator" for two different classes now and after sensing that I agreed with it without really knowing why, I devoted a lot of mental energy to working through it and boiling it down to something that I can understand.
But then again, I've also read "On the Concept of History" for multiple classes and I'm pretty sure I don't get it at all.

Neruda is (in my opinion and limited expertise)a well-translated poet, so don't worry about that. You still may want to start learning Spanish though, since the more limited set of sounds works so nicely in poetry. :)

Posted by: Emily on July 30, 2013 5:26 PM



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