Google Translator vs. The poet.

Obviously translating into one’s mother tongue is easier (and hopefully more accurate) than translating into a language that you’ve studied in adulthood. My daughter will be truly bi-lingual, growing up with the two languages simultaneously. I will never be, even learning Italian from the ground up with the aid of her children’s books. But I have to ask, what’s a ‘serious’ translation? Signs, labels, menus, operating instructions for military equipment, legal documents? One you’re getting paid for?

Poetry is pretty serious business language wise; a distillation of the heart of a language that stretches sense and usage to its limits, layers multiple meanings, half-meanings, wry jokes, and rhythms into the briefest possible space sometimes into a single word. For this reason poetry is almost untranslatable; a poetic translation of the work is often a re-composing in a different language that strives to maintain the tone of the original, a literal translation can easily miss the nuances of individual words (see Robert Pinsky’s translation of ‘The Divine Comedy’ vs. the classic scholastic text of Mandlebaum). Translating instructions, menus, and traffic signs is comparatively straightforward (it is perhaps because of this that overconfidence or laziness causes so many charming and laughable errors).

The wonderful thing about translating is that it opens a door between two cultures. Grazie to all those who studied Russian so that I could read “The Idiot”  and “Crime and Punishment”. Despite the challenges, as a poet and a translator I take the work seriously and have had wonderful moments when my American friends read (and are interested in and excited by) the work of an Italian (or French) poet they might never have  otherwise encountered and when my Italian friends start asking me who William Carlos Williams is.

I do have to extend my sympathy to Google Translate, at least they offer (along with the unintended comedy) the option of suggesting a better translation.
My desktop widget translator is worse. If I translate from English to Italian “I’m a big fan of Mike!” (even with the proper name capitalized) it becomes: “Sono un ventilatore grande del microfono!” I have now become a large exhaust fan for a microphone…pazienza

~ by bonniemcclellan on July 21, 2008.

One Response to “Google Translator vs. The poet.”

  1. Dear Bonnie –

    To say something fresh and new about the nature of poetry is a formidable challenge, as there have been such famous and eloquent voices speaking to the question: Wordsworth, Shelley, Chiardi – to name a few. Your offhand, colloquial, “Poetry is pretty serious business language wise; a distillation of the heart of a language that stretches sense and usage to its limits, layers multiple meanings, half-meanings, wry jokes, and rhythms into the briefest possible space sometimes into a single word,” is a potent contribution to the conversation that has continued at least since Plato, in his “Republic,” said that poets ought to be limited to singing the praises of folk heroes – otherwise their inspired utterances wer not to be trusted.

    Love,

    Dad.

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