Essay / 23 June 2021

The Splendor and Misery of Untranslatability

Authors of the Week: Latvia

Photo by Marjeta Marinčič

Uldis Bērziņš, who died this year on March 24, was, in my opinion (and I’m not alone), the most original Latvian poet of his generation. His poetry – a grand cosmos filled with semantic constellations, bustling with recombined cultural codes that are pregnant with meaning. A textual dynamo who performed his poems with fervor, spewing out electrified verses as if he were conjuring ghosts of the past. A mind as vast as the epics he translated, a spiritual giant comparable to Czesław Miłosz and Jaroslav Seifert, both of whom he’d translated as well. He devoured languages to satiety as if they were a kind of celestial feast available to all. A drinker, a lover, and a kind person by all accounts. But since his poetry is so deeply entrenched in Latvian language, so firmly chained to the phonetic, rhythmic, and grammatical structures of the Baltic tongue, his poems are considered by many to be untranslatable.

Untranslatable. This word haunts translation history like a spectre, condemning translators to inevitable capitulation. Andrew Chesterman identified untranslatability as one of the “supermemes” of translation theory – a code, a kind of “gene” imbedded in the DNA of the long line of thinking about cultural exchange. In the 21st century, untranslatability has experienced a renaissance: Emily Apter talks about the politics of untranslatability, reminding us about the inherent violence of translation and the necessity to respect cultural specificity. The edition of “The Dictionary of Untranslatables” shows the importance of understanding concepts within their respective contexts – the unique linguistic connotations, the philosophical tradition they appear in, etc. Last year, Paul Celan’s centenary raised the issue once again in conferences, seminars, readings, and lectures. And yet, even Celan himself had once told one of his translators that his poems were not at all hermetic, i.e., contrary to what we are tempted to believe, they were, in the poet’s eyes, open to translation.

I do not disagree with the need for retaining contextual specificity, but I believe that, when it comes to poetry, the categories of “translatable” and “untranslatable” are detrimental. In Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, just before reaching the ninth circle of Hell, Virgil and the poet meet Nimrod, the biblical giant who helped build the Tower of Babel. When the heroes speak to him, all he is able to say is gobbledygook: “Raphèl mai amècche zabì almi” – a phrase that is supposed to remain meaningless and represent the nightmare of confused languages. The giant is punished for the hubris of reaching for the heavens with the tower of a unified language; he is a symbol for the linguistic fall of man, the misery of Babel. Translators have usually treated Nimrod’s nonsense as “untranslatable,” and indeed left it unaltered in most translations, because it itself represents untranslatability, the inability to communicate due to linguistic difference. However, more recent translations have approached the seemingly untranslatable in creative ways, overcoming that which has been traditionally considered inaccessible. Nicholas Kilmer rewrites the giant’s babbling as “Shlog poona carcle flum hox!” Clive James’s translation is a repetition of the word “word” in multiple languages: “Palabra wort kotoba word parole!" For Ciaran Carson, Nimrod’s gibberish is transformed so that it becomes more Anglo-Celtic: “Yin twa maghogani gazpaighp boke!” In short, untranslatability itself can be translated.

The truth is that, if we are to fully embrace the traditional notion of translation – that it is a “transfer” of content from one system to another –, then we are met with the revelation that it is never fully possible since linguistic differences can never be fully transgressed. Translation is impossible, and yet – and precisely because of this impossibility – it is necessary and inevitable (to paraphrase Jacques Derrida’s stipulation). In other words, it is more fruitful to think of translation as a process of responsible transformation. Translation scholars have long known this, but actual translators, in my experience, are yet to rid themselves from conventional thinking.

The “untranslatability” of Bērziņš’s poems leads many to bemoan his chances of global recognition, stating that the “magic” is largely unavailable to the non-native speaker. “If only he’d written in one of the major languages,” I’ve heard friends say. If only? Then what? The Nobel Prize? Even greater fame? Bērziņš was not interested in trivialities. Yet we keep thinking that we’re in the sorrowful situation wherein we have a cultural product that showcases our cultural richness but are unable to share it. Despite having been translated in multiple languages already, even Bērziņš’stranslators consider their work as lacking the true value of his texts. When I asked Latvian translator Ieva Lešinska to send me some of her English translations of Bērziņš, she wrote in her e-mail: “Here are all my failures all spread out before you”. To a certain degree, I can understand her frustration. Indeed, how can we possibly translate, for example, “Neba eņģelis jums bija sūtīts!” where “Neba” means both “not” and a transliteration of the Russian word “небо”, which means “sky”, making it possible for the line to be read both as “An angel was not sent to you” and “An angel of the sky was sent to you”? How can such multilingual games be represented?

The solution, I think, is to accept a more contemporary vision of translation. A vision, furthermore, that is suggested by Bērziņš’s own poetics: that translation should not seek equivalence, but dialogue. Complexity does not prevent interpretation, it gets it going. To claim that Bērziņš is untranslatable is to confine his poetry within a solipsistic singularity that is closed off from anyone who wishes to hear, rendering it mute. But poems speak, and they speak precisely because they strive towards the so-called untranslatability. It is exactly because the poems are enigmatic that they call for interpretation and translation – they call for transformation within the reader and/or translator. They need hearing, attentive ears, but ears can only “hear” in their own language. Thus, Bērziņš’s poems resist that very dichotomy of “translatable vs. untranslatable”, and offer instead a chance to engage in conversation.

Ieva Lešinska is already and inevitably doing this, even if she, herself, thinks she’s “failing”. Her translation of a multidimensional poem reads:

Ships pine for wine and pounce on piers; will get me drunk on this belted seaglobe here, I'll wade through inlets in the raw, it ain't too cold: god warmed me in his fold! The punch-happy roaming Lund- and Lond: stand back-to-back, then all's just fiddle-faddle. The Russian grain rains on markets ill-obtained. Hey! watch your wallets, Livs, Cours, o blissful century! the Zlēkas treachery is still unknown. Time is still unknown. [..]

The translator has been “forced” to move around some words for the sake of new rhymes, assonance, and alliteration. But the message here is not that we should lament change, but celebrate the fact that a poet is giving us the impetus to create a new poem. I see the poetry of Uldis Bērziņš as a reason for translators to dig deep into their target language, to become drenched by its grammar and syntax, to serve their tongue not only by attempting to find corresponding expressions, but by creating their own as well. Creativity is not betrayal, because Bērziņš’s poetry is less about the evident meanings of each word comprising the poem, and more about the playful ways in which these words stand in relation to Latvian language; to translate such poetry, then, would be to create a poem that acts similarly in the target language, which is what I think Lešinska has done.

To honor Uldis Bērziņš, translators must not think that they can find sameness (in the traditional sense, they can’t), but that there are possible responses, echoes, replies, and reverberations, even imitations, re-imaginings. Foreign readers may never completely appreciate what this polyglot-alchemist did in Latvian. But his poetry can be seen as a chance to explore the potential of the translating language. If poetry surpasses the short segment of a poet’s life, then translation expands poetry beyond even further; it starts to live two, three, then four lives, etc. Much like the act of translating is a way to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, the translated text is a new existence in itself. A continuation, a well-deserved afterlife.