Confessions of a Rooky Translator

/ by Tom Phillips

I began translating Bulgarian poetry by accident. Marina Shiderova – the artist I collaborate with on the online art/poetry project Colourful Star – is a friend of the poet Iliyan Lyubomirov. Three years ago, she put us in touch, and I asked Iliyan if I could read some of his work. At the time, none of it had been translated into English, and my knowledge of Bulgarian was minimal, so he arranged for two Bulgarians in Canada – Iliyana and Tsvetomira – to translate a few of his poems. These translations were far better than the literal “cribs” I’d been told to expect, so I suggested that we polish them up a bit and see if we could get them published.

Old Bulgarian alphabet
Iliyana, Tsvetomira and I collaborated via Facebook, engaging in lengthy and – for me – late-night conversations about nuance, rhythm, tone. Was the word “шкаф” best translated as “cupboard,” “sideboard,” “bureau,” “closet” or “dresser” if it was going to evoke the same nostalgic feel that it had in the original? Should we transliterate “ракия” as rakiya, but leave it untranslated, because “brandy” carries different cultural connotations, even though some people might not know what rakiya is? Was “panties” too slangy or too much of an Americanism? The thorniest questions often involved prepositions – which I soon discovered was because there is no simple one-to-one equivalence between the jobs that Bulgarian and English prepositions do. Depending on the context, the innocent-looking на might mean “at,” “on,” “to,” “by,” “with,” “in” or it might be a possessive – as in книгата на Илиян (Iliyan’s book) – while the equally innocent-looking за could be “by,” “in,” “as,” “for,” “to” or “about” – as in книгата за Илиян (the book about Iliyan). Conversely, English words like “to,” “of” and “in” might be translated by any number of different Bulgarian ones. Thankfully, I don’t seem to be alone, and a seasoned Bulgarian translator admitted to me this summer that prepositions are tricky beasts, even for him.

It is, of course, easy to become obsessed by such things. Translating a poem means having to immerse yourself in it and discover what every word, every sound, every line-break is contributing to it. The early stages are rather like doing what my father, an engineer, did when he serviced his car: He’d dismantle the engine, lay all its components out on a sheet, check that each one was doing its job properly and then reassemble them. One difference, perhaps, is that when you’re not a native speaker, it’s not always easy to work out what job a particular word or phrase is actually doing, and that sometimes leads to mistaking a spark plug for a carburetor. What’s more, you’ve then got to replace all the components with different ones, which are hopefully up to doing the job that they’ve been allocated. A similarly tortured analogy might be that translating poetry is like getting the current English and German football teams to replicate the 1966 World Cup final, so that – players’ names aside – the original TV commentary still fits the action.

All of which loops back to the two questions that everyone gets asked if they happen to translate poetry: Isn’t translating poetry impossible? And isn’t the poetry what’s lost in translation, as Robert Frost said? The British poet and translator Peter Robinson offers answers to both those questions, in his book Poetry & Translation: The Art of the Impossible (Liverpool University Press, 2010). These answers might be summarized as a) no, because people have done it quite successfully, and b) if the poetry’s lost, then there’s probably something wrong with the translation. Robinson, of course, goes into far more detail on these questions than I can here, but these seem to be entirely valid arguments, and ones which, unlike Frost’s aphorism, gives translators of poetry some hope that they’re not simply squeezing the life out of poems, in order to make them comprehensible to readers who don’t speak the language they’re written in. The Bulgarian poet and translator Alexander Shurbanov – whose translations into Bulgarian include Shakespeare’s “big four” tragedies and Milton’s Paradise Lost – echoes this more positive view in a note to Foresun (Scalino, 2016), a collection of his poems translated into English, mostly by himself. Acknowledging that a translation has to “accommodate itself” to “the public sphere of linguistic and aesthetic traditions” of its new language, he also observes that he would rephrase Frost’s aphorism “more optimistically: poetry strives to be reborn in translation.”

Maybe one solution lies in the idea of trying to create an equivalent reading experience. For all sorts of reasons, a translation is unlikely to be able to reproduce exactly the same linguistic effects or cultural resonances as the original, but it might perhaps offer something equivalent, without straying into imitation country (as in Robert Lowell’s famously “loose” translations in Imitations) or having to subtitle a translation with an apologetic After…

This came up, in fact, during an email conversation with Alexander Shurbanov. I’d been asked to translate his poem “Ode to Veliko Turnovo,” and it soon became apparent that I wasn’t going to be able to replicate precisely the same word play he uses, and precisely the same effects he creates in Bulgarian, without distorting the poem beyond recognition, or burdening it with footnotes and variant interpretations. The best I could do was put in a few slightly different devices – a half-rhyme here, a bit of alliteration there – which aren’t in the original, but which hopefully mean that the translation replaces what’s been lost or reduced with equivalent effects, and works as a poem in its own right, whilst at the same time remaining as faithful as possible.

It is, I suppose, a question of being realistic about what can and can’t be achieved. Some poems seem to translate more easily than others. I suspect, for example, that the villanelle by Lyubomir Terziev, which I’m going to be translating soon, will require a great deal more work – and luck – than some of the free, or at least less formally constrained, verse that I’ve translated so far. I don’t yet know what the solution will be, but I suspect that, because it’s a villanelle and the form is so intrinsic to the overall meaning of the poem, I may well have to allow myself a bit more leeway with the literal meaning of individual words, if I’m going to produce anything like an equivalent reading experience. Using another poetic form, or turning the poem into free verse, would distort the overall meaning just as much as if I translated one of its key rhyming words страх as “fever,” rather than “fear.” Neither option would make for a particularly successful translation, and it may well be that I end up admitting defeat altogether.

That said, rising to the challenges posed by formal intricacies is all part of translating poetry and is, if I’m honest, one of its attractions. Vladimir Levchev’s “В Навечерието” (“On the Eve”), for example, is a sequence of six short poems, each of which is written to the rhythm of a different dance or musical style, from waltz to rap, quick step to rock’n’roll. Similarly, Mila Lambovska’s poem “От рибите” (“By the fish”) consists of a list of verbs, all of which begin with the syllable от (i.e. “from” or “by”). As with Terziev’s villanelle, the form – although invented, rather than inherited – is so intrinsic to the meaning of both poems that avoiding any attempt at replication would be to miss the point. Thanks to luck, rather than judgement, solutions offered themselves which, while I’m not at all sure that the translations as a whole do justice to the originals, did at least allow me to experiment with finding ways to echo the formal patterning intrinsic to them.

I would like to stress, though, that I’m very much a learner, when it comes to translating poetry. I am, as it were, still finding my feet. Collaborating with the poets themselves has undoubtedly helped, as has working with translators of my own work into Bulgarian, and having the temerity to write a collection of poems in Bulgarian, which I then translated into English myself (Unknown Translations, Scalino, 2016). Translation, after all, is a medium for inter-cultural dialogue, and that can take many forms, from late-night arguments about Bulgarian prepositions, to conversations over coffee in downtown Sofia. In an increasingly polarized world, where nations divided by the same language have taken populist votes as the authority to attach yet more moral and political weight to words like “foreign” and “other,” it seems ever more important that translation happens, that all these various “others” are brought into a dialogue.

In the summer, I gave a talk at the Sofia Literature and Translation House called “Translation as a Subversive Art.” To be honest, it was one of those titles you make up when you’re in a bit of a hurry, but during the course of the talk, I came to realize what I meant. Translation is subversive, because it cuts across the grain of nationalist discourse. It reveals that “us” and “them” only has a meaning or a use-value as a grammatical distinction. Translation is not a one-way street and, as translators and poets, the fact that we all work differently is perhaps what makes us the same.

I began translating Bulgarian poetry by accident. Marina Shiderova – the artist I collaborate with on the online art/poetry project Colourful Star – is a friend of the poet Iliyan Lyubomirov. Three years ago, she put us in touch, and I asked Iliyan if I could read some of his work. At the time, none of it had been translated into English, and my knowledge of Bulgarian was minimal, so he arranged for two Bulgarians in Canada – Iliyana and Tsvetomira – to translate a few of his poems. These translations were far better than the literal “cribs” I’d been told to expect, so I suggested that we polish them up a bit and see if we could get them published.

Iliyana, Tsvetomira and I collaborated via Facebook, engaging in lengthy and – for me – late-night conversations about nuance, rhythm, tone. Was the word “шкаф” best translated as “cupboard,” “sideboard,” “bureau,” “closet” or “dresser” if it was going to evoke the same nostalgic feel that it had in the original? Should we transliterate “ракия” as rakiya, but leave it untranslated, because “brandy” carries different cultural connotations, even though some people might not know what rakiya is? Was “panties” too slangy or too much of an Americanism? The thorniest questions often involved prepositions – which I soon discovered was because there is no simple one-to-one equivalence between the jobs that Bulgarian and English prepositions do. Depending on the context, the innocent-looking на might mean “at,” “on,” “to,” “by,” “with,” “in” or it might be a possessive – as in книгата на Илиян (Iliyan’s book) – while the equally innocent-looking за could be “by,” “in,” “as,” “for,” “to” or “about” – as in книгата за Илиян (the book about Iliyan). Conversely, English words like “to,” “of” and “in” might be translated by any number of different Bulgarian ones. Thankfully, I don’t seem to be alone, and a seasoned Bulgarian translator admitted to me this summer that prepositions are tricky beasts, even for him.

It is, of course, easy to become obsessed by such things. Translating a poem means having to immerse yourself in it and discover what every word, every sound, every line-break is contributing to it. The early stages are rather like doing what my father, an engineer, did when he serviced his car: He’d dismantle the engine, lay all its components out on a sheet, check that each one was doing its job properly and then reassemble them. One difference, perhaps, is that when you’re not a native speaker, it’s not always easy to work out what job a particular word or phrase is actually doing, and that sometimes leads to mistaking a spark plug for a carburetor. What’s more, you’ve then got to replace all the components with different ones, which are hopefully up to doing the job that they’ve been allocated. A similarly tortured analogy might be that translating poetry is like getting the current English and German football teams to replicate the 1966 World Cup final, so that – players’ names aside – the original TV commentary still fits the action.

All of which loops back to the two questions that everyone gets asked if they happen to translate poetry: Isn’t translating poetry impossible? And isn’t the poetry what’s lost in translation, as Robert Frost said? The British poet and translator Peter Robinson offers answers to both those questions, in his book Poetry & Translation: The Art of the Impossible (Liverpool University Press, 2010). These answers might be summarized as a) no, because people have done it quite successfully, and b) if the poetry’s lost, then there’s probably something wrong with the translation. Robinson, of course, goes into far more detail on these questions than I can here, but these seem to be entirely valid arguments, and ones which, unlike Frost’s aphorism, gives translators of poetry some hope that they’re not simply squeezing the life out of poems, in order to make them comprehensible to readers who don’t speak the language they’re written in. The Bulgarian poet and translator Alexander Shurbanov – whose translations into Bulgarian include Shakespeare’s “big four” tragedies and Milton’s Paradise Lost – echoes this more positive view in a note to Foresun (Scalino, 2016), a collection of his poems translated into English, mostly by himself. Acknowledging that a translation has to “accommodate itself” to “the public sphere of linguistic and aesthetic traditions” of its new language, he also observes that he would rephrase Frost’s aphorism “more optimistically: poetry strives to be reborn in translation.”

Maybe one solution lies in the idea of trying to create an equivalent reading experience. For all sorts of reasons, a translation is unlikely to be able to reproduce exactly the same linguistic effects or cultural resonances as the original, but it might perhaps offer something equivalent, without straying into imitation country (as in Robert Lowell’s famously “loose” translations in Imitations) or having to subtitle a translation with an apologetic After…

This came up, in fact, during an email conversation with Alexander Shurbanov. I’d been asked to translate his poem “Ode to Veliko Turnovo,” and it soon became apparent that I wasn’t going to be able to replicate precisely the same word play he uses, and precisely the same effects he creates in Bulgarian, without distorting the poem beyond recognition, or burdening it with footnotes and variant interpretations. The best I could do was put in a few slightly different devices – a half-rhyme here, a bit of alliteration there – which aren’t in the original, but which hopefully mean that the translation replaces what’s been lost or reduced with equivalent effects, and works as a poem in its own right, whilst at the same time remaining as faithful as possible.

It is, I suppose, a question of being realistic about what can and can’t be achieved. Some poems seem to translate more easily than others. I suspect, for example, that the villanelle by Lyubomir Terziev, which I’m going to be translating soon, will require a great deal more work – and luck – than some of the free, or at least less formally constrained, verse that I’ve translated so far. I don’t yet know what the solution will be, but I suspect that, because it’s a villanelle and the form is so intrinsic to the overall meaning of the poem, I may well have to allow myself a bit more leeway with the literal meaning of individual words, if I’m going to produce anything like an equivalent reading experience. Using another poetic form, or turning the poem into free verse, would distort the overall meaning just as much as if I translated one of its key rhyming words страх as “fever,” rather than “fear.” Neither option would make for a particularly successful translation, and it may well be that I end up admitting defeat altogether.

That said, rising to the challenges posed by formal intricacies is all part of translating poetry and is, if I’m honest, one of its attractions. Vladimir Levchev’s “В Навечерието” (“On the Eve”), for example, is a sequence of six short poems, each of which is written to the rhythm of a different dance or musical style, from waltz to rap, quick step to rock’n’roll. Similarly, Mila Lambovska’s poem “От рибите” (“By the fish”) consists of a list of verbs, all of which begin with the syllable от (i.e. “from” or “by”). As with Terziev’s villanelle, the form – although invented, rather than inherited – is so intrinsic to the meaning of both poems that avoiding any attempt at replication would be to miss the point. Thanks to luck, rather than judgement, solutions offered themselves which, while I’m not at all sure that the translations as a whole do justice to the originals, did at least allow me to experiment with finding ways to echo the formal patterning intrinsic to them.

I would like to stress, though, that I’m very much a learner, when it comes to translating poetry. I am, as it were, still finding my feet. Collaborating with the poets themselves has undoubtedly helped, as has working with translators of my own work into Bulgarian, and having the temerity to write a collection of poems in Bulgarian, which I then translated into English myself (Unknown Translations, Scalino, 2016). Translation, after all, is a medium for inter-cultural dialogue, and that can take many forms, from late-night arguments about Bulgarian prepositions, to conversations over coffee in downtown Sofia. In an increasingly polarized world, where nations divided by the same language have taken populist votes as the authority to attach yet more moral and political weight to words like “foreign” and “other,” it seems ever more important that translation happens, that all these various “others” are brought into a dialogue.

In the summer, I gave a talk at the Sofia Literature and Translation House called “Translation as a Subversive Art.” To be honest, it was one of those titles you make up when you’re in a bit of a hurry, but during the course of the talk, I came to realize what I meant. Translation is subversive, because it cuts across the grain of nationalist discourse. It reveals that “us” and “them” only has a meaning or a use-value as a grammatical distinction. Translation is not a one-way street and, as translators and poets, the fact that we all work differently is perhaps what makes us the same.

....
Tom Phillips

is a poet, playwright, lecturer and translator living in Bristol, UK. His poetry has been published in a wide variety of magazines, anthologies, pamphlets and the recent collections “Unknown Translations” (Scalino, 2016) and “Recreation Ground” (Two Rivers Press, 2012). He translates Bulgarian literature and was translator-in-residence at the Sofia Literature and Translation House in August 2016. Other work includes the plays “I Went To Albania” and “Coastal Defences,” teaching creative writing at the University of Reading and editing the poetry magazines Raceme and Balkan Poetry Today.


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