January 28, 2010

On Translation

Some people say that poetry is untranslatable.  I've found myself thinking along those lines before, and yet I'm really quite happy with the way my Bertran de Born translation came out.  What makes that poem great is the cadence and the imagery - flowing from the gay springtime to the gay and bloody mele at a galloping pace evokes the mad, perverse glee that's what I love about the piece.  And I think that's more or less preserved in my translation.

Then there's verse that I just can't bring myself to translate.  Take, for example, Mikhail Lermontov's "Выхожу один я на дорогу"  The link leads to a page with the poem in both English and Russian, and includes further links to audio of the poem read aloud, in Russian.  Surf around for more classic Russian poetry.

What I love about this piece is the sounds of the words.  These words are not just arbitrary markers of abstract concepts, rather the very sounds that Lermontov chooses express the images and ideas they stand for.  "Сквозь туман" (skvohz tum-an) in the second line evokes a darker, thicker, warmer feeling than "through the mist," and recalls the rich, full "oo"s and "oh"s in the first line.  The poem is full of that, and I can't render English that preserves what I love about this poem.  I've yet to see a satisfactory translation - the one included in the link is a good and valiant effort, but it doesn't make much effort to preserve the music of the poetry.  What you're reading is not the poem I love.

To take an example relevant to the SCA, let's return to the troubadours.  The only song by a trobaritz (female troubadour) that survives with a melody is "Ah chantar," by the Comtessa de Dia.  Here is the third verse, in Old Occitan:

Be.m meravill com vostre cors s'orguoilla,
amics, vas me, per qu'ai razon qu'iem. duoilla;
non es ges dreitz c'autr' amors vos mi tuoilla
per nuilla ren que.us diga ni acuoilla;
e membre vos cals fo.l comenssamens
de nostr'amor!  ja Dompnedieus non vuoilla
qu'en ma colpa sia.l departimens.

This verse speaks of the author's confusion at her lover's sudden coldness, and fear of losing him to some other woman.  Most of the lines end on the feminine rhyme "way-lia" (or-gway-lia, dway-lia, etc), and to me it sounds like a wail or a plea, like an expression of confused hopelessness.  She breaks from this rhyme scheme in ordering him to remember the beginning of their love.  This expression of strength is accompanied by a masculine rhyme, strong, unusual enjambment and "oh"s and "r"s which provide a powerful foundation for the melodic high point of the verse.  Without understanding a word, you can tell by listening that she goes from helpless to angry and back to helpless during this verse.

I love singing this piece because when I do, it seems that my mouth and my mind are one, that the disconnect between what I'm thinking and the sounds I can use to represent that is gone.  I've given translating this piece a shot, but I've yet to produce a single line in English that preserves that seamless marriage of sound and thought.  What I love about this piece is not really what she says - she was neither the first nor the last to write a "My man done gone and left me" song.  But I'm in love with how she says it.  I haven't given up completely, but I'm not sure I can bring myself to tamper with that.


  1. Greetings, lady of Langedoc (Lengadoc? Langeduc?)

    Rather neat job you have done with that ol' Bertrans' piece... If it still cannot match the stinging of rhyme: -atz in the oc language, blame more English than yourself. I especially liked the humour of your "Go pawn your castle baron" in your youtube video. I am also touched by keeping the word "seignor" in the third stanza.

    You have certainly noted (as you have written it in your paper) that a melody of one Guiraut's canso (Non puesc soffrir) is ascribed as possible for singing Bertrans' song, because they have the same formal structure. At least according to that big orange-violet volume on Bertrans that was helping you.

    As I am thoroughly poor singer and deprived of anyone with strong affinity to Bertran and knowledge of old Occitan simultaneously, I cannot sing it aloud, nor command any jongleur to do it for me... Damn!
    And I quite desperately wonder how it could sound in that melody... How does it fit with the mood? It would be, probably, at least a fine joke. If you had already tried to sing it like that, could you post somewhere your feelings about it?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8hdSBAgIV8 - is the Guiraut's canso, but the one couldn't be overlooked...

    The other thing not to be forgotten to say is that Ezra Pound have done nice works about Bertran. I mean: Near Périgord, Altaforte - that one is sestina, and so on... Have you read also those?

  2. Couldn't agree more about the "-atz" rhyme - I love all of the "e platz" in the second verse, and I rather like the clashing "-atge" rhymes as well. One definitely cannot have it all in translation.

    I'll try to get around to posting a rough recording of the poem sung sometime soon. I'm REALLY happy with how it works with the melody! It's this bright, happy melody that lends itself just as well to reveling in the springtime as it does to the gleeful bloodlust of the rest of the song. "Giddy is a good word for it." :-) So much fun to sing!