“That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.”
-Robert Herrick from: To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time
I have a strong memory of my Junior Year of high school, I was taking, what they called at the time, AP English or English IV. The class was taught by the redoubtable Donna Northouse who had recently received her doctorate degree (of which she was justly proud and of which I was, pure contrarian teen, deeply disdainful. I often think that if I could go back I would give myself a good smack in the head). If I recall correctly she’d done her thesis on the Cavalier Poets; I was disgusted! Poets who didn’t take poetry seriously, how dare they! Poetry was the sacred territory of unadulterated passion that poured forth directly from the heart; poetry was meant to be blood on the page, seething with raw emotion that would provoke tears and spine tingles in the reader! I wanted to go straight from Shakespeare to the real stuff: The Romantic Poets. I was so relieved when we arrived on the turbulent shores of the Mediterranean buffeted about with Byron, Shelly, and Keats:
“All my faults perchance thou knowest,
All my madness none can know;
All my hopes, where’er thou goest,
Wither, yet with thee they go.”
-George Gordon Lord Byron from Fare Thee Well
I was in love with Byron…he never revised (or said he didn’t), he was good looking, we were both born on the 22 of January! Here was the real stuff, passionate poetry with a capital “P”. From there we went on to study other literary movements and my memory becomes muddled; the image that remains is that of the Romantic Poets and those who followed rescuing me from the Cavalier Poets who were…well…so cavalier about it all!
It would be another 15 years before I came out of my swoon and discovered that there was more to poetry than fire in the blood: love, death, and hopeless despair. It would be almost that long again before I discovered that that the folds of language and the terrain of poetry were deeper than my own navel and more fascinating than the surface of my lover’s skin…
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