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One Poem, Two Translations: A Three-Way Conversation

By Peter Constantine

When I was starting out as a translator in the late 1980s, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei had caused a stir in American poetry and translation circles.  Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz had taken a four-line Chinese poem, over a millennium old, and presented it together with nineteen very different translations, each vying to be definitive.  The poem is called Lù zhái, “The Form of the Deer.”  Or perhaps “Deer Park Hermitage,” or perhaps “Deep in the Mountain Wilderness,” or even perhaps “Deer Fence.”  Its memorable opening line is: “There seems to be no one on the empty mountain.”  Or “Through the deep wood, the slanting sunlight.”  Or “Not the shadow on a man on the deserted hill.”

Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz and the reader quickly know which of the translations are their favorites, but presenting so many approaches together is also a celebration of translation in its many guises.  If a strict literal approach has its strong points, so do translations with varying degrees of creative flair, as well as translations bordering on daring adaptations. 

When I recently translated “Speed Dating,” a poem by the Athenian blog poet Stathis Baroutsos, I was surprised to come across a very different translation by the American author Peter Neofotis.  A good opportunity for a conversation! The three of us read the translations, then discussed (in both Greek and English).

Speed Dating
by Stathis Baroutsos
Translated by Peter Constantine

I’m in an endless search.
I burn out in the beds of strangers,
I ride in cars,
always in the same passenger seat,
my hand always in the same place on your thigh.
The rooms all seem the same,
same showers every morning,
same sounds on all the balconies
where morning cups of coffee always taste the same.
I try to escape those beds after every premature ejaculation.
The embraces whisper what they always whisper
and anyone resembling those closest to me abandons me—
some resemble my father,
others my mother.  Some want me a lot,
some just a bit, and I
walk the streets with careful eyes
and unsure dreams.
I haven’t picked anyone.
But let me tell you how I’ve turned into my father and my mother:
Like them, I worry about myself—
the more I knock down prison walls
and accept that siren sadists mean nothing to me
the more I sink into my bed of nails.
Though every day I count to three and run
from myself, from you, from him.
I know it’s futile.
I give myself only two days
to roam you,
to map you,
to prove that you’re not for me.
I’m empty now, a mirror,
I face my impotent body.
You see it’s frightening to raise your eyes
even for a moment, and look straight before you,
not up, but straight before you, looking
me, you, and him
in the eye.

Speed Dater
by Stathis Baroutsos
Translated by Peter Neofotis

My quest is never-ending
to burn beds and ride cars
always in the same poise, with the same arch to my back
my hand knowing how to delight your inner thigh.
Who cares about the size of your rooms, the showers that shoot forth from your metal faucets, the height of your balconies, the taste of your coffee?
By the time you’ve cum, I know how much of a man you are.
Why is it that the only man who loves me is my father?
You want my dreams, my body, to be seen with me, a youth—while I am young.
Fuck you.
Let me tell you about where I came from, you pinstripe-suited fuckhead.
The Earth was my mother. The Sun was my father.
They taught me to dream like a giant tree.
Not to think of prisons, which have no place for the loving.
Instead, I shall kiss my captor like a spider woman
and spin him into a cocoon of his own foul paper money.
Who are you? What the fuck have you made with your own two hands?
Your success, your celebrity, your smugness smells worse than vulture puke.
Marx was right.
But I know your games.
Nature has afforded me many costumes, yet nakedness remains my most enchanting disguise.
So here I am to map you. Glean what you can teach me.
Survey your world so that my web can be cast there too.
Your gossip chatter before bed, the phone calls you feel you must answer
let me know your weaknesses.
I have become your biographer.
Do I frighten you? Even for a moment?
Raise your eyes. Look straight before you.
Look up at Heaven. Down to Hell.
I am here to save the World from you.

            Peter Constantine: Stathis Baroutsos, could you say a few words about the general experience of seeing your poetry in a translation.

            Stathis Baroutsos: When I started blogging a few years ago, it would have never occurred to me that a translator in the United States or in Japan or in the Philippines might knock on my door (my cyberspace door, I should say) to request permission to translate something I've written. It was a shock. A pleasant one. When I first saw one of my poems in another language, I looked for lyrical moments in my words that were now in an alien form. Some of those moments in English, for instance, seem to suit me more, I felt they might be better than the original Greek. When I saw my poems in languages that I do not know—the Philippine languages Kapampangan and Tagalog, for instance, or Japanese—then the experience was more a matter of finding a connection to the unfamiliar sounds or the visuals of Japanese characters.

            PC: When you are translated into English or German—languages you know well—do you tend to interact with your translators? Have you ever corrected a nuance you feel was not caught, or objected to a choice one of your translators made?

            SB: My hope is always that the living part of every poem—its pith—will remain intact. But when poems leave their creators they take on a life of their own, not only in translation, but on the screen or the page readers are reading. Poems managing to remain rigidly within their tracks would be striving for stagnation. Doldrums. I'm always ready to interact with my translators, but I definitely would not try to lay down rules on how they should approach my poetry. Unless they ask me. I have been very happy, and sometimes very surprised, by the results.

            PC: Peter Neofotis, in your book Concord, Virginia: a Southern Town in Eleven Stories, which came out last year, I felt that style and rhythm played an extremely important role. Is translating poetry a similar creative process for you?

            Peter Neofotis: I actually try to avoid paying too much conscious attention to "style" and focus mainly on the story and its images. I try to tell the tale as cleanly as possible. If I use a metaphor, the image must arise organically from the tale. I find "artistic" repetition usually clogs the flow. Also, I try to put modifying words next to one another—and the end of one sentence should relate to the beginning of the next. I then memorize the entire story for performance. That is, I'll perform it as a show in an Off-Broadway theater—often cleaning it up more in the rehearsal process. Usually, a lot gets cut. When I was learning to translate Virgil, I admired his playing with word order—often using the spaces and distances between the words to add meaning. In English, since we lack case endings, we do not have the artistic freedom to be sophisticatedly liberal with our sentence structures. Inversely, I think great elegance can be achieved by utilizing close and clear order to allow the story to flow. In translating poetry, my first question is “What’s the heart of this poet’s poem?” I then just try to get there as clearly as possible.

            PC: One of the Greek poets you have translated, Dimitris Athinakis, did in fact say that you succeed “in finding the core of a poem and then successfully recasting everything—everything is upside down and inside out, but it is very much a viable and exciting rendition of the poem.” To what extent do you agree with his statement?

            PN: Well it’s certainly what I strive to do. I’d say that both as an author and as a translator I listen and absorb material and then mix it all up, allowing it to inspire something new. I feel that particularly as a translator, if you try to literally grab hold of something and freeze or recreate an exact mold of it, you rob it of its essence and life. As a translator of poetry you run the risk of killing the poem. But if you allow the poem to breathe, it lives, grows, and evolves.

            PC: Would you say then that you are walking a fine line between being a translator and a poet in your own right?

            PN: Yes. But I think even "literal" translators walk this fine line. And I think there could easily be a more literal translation of the poem "Speed Dater" that is much further away from the original core than the version I created. So, is a literal translator who translates a poem but in the process gives it a new soul more of a poet in his own right than a less literal translator who creates something that is closer to the original poet's intent?

            SB: Despite the opposing approaches, from my perspective as a poet all translation is very much an act of creation.

            PC: As you have been translated by a number of translators, do you have any specific reactions to their different approaches

            SB: There do seem to be two basic approaches among my translators: one is the careful recreation of the poem in the other language, while the second takes more creative initiative. I think I can say that your translations of my poems, Peter Constantine, are very representative of the first approach, while the translations of Sarah McCann or Diamanda Galas are perhaps more representative of the second. I see Peter Neofotis also as belonging to the creative group, though his approach is definitely the most daring. Seeing my poems translated opens up new perspectives for me—vistas seen through the eyes of the translators.

            Peter Constantine and Peter Neofotis will read from their dueling translations this Saturday, September 11, at WWB’s stop on Lit Crawl New York, "Words without Borders: Down and Dirty Round the World."

Published Sep 9, 2010   Copyright 2010 Peter Constantine

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