The Third Shore (in three parts): 2

(Here’s the second section of my intro to The Third Shore – this part almost stands alone, I think, as an introduction to the ‘poet to poet’ translation itself. It’s certainly informed by my work in collaborative teams on Farsi, Somali and Turkish poetry, among others, including a few encounters with hyper-sensitive translation types who wanted their names on the credits without giving much credit to the stage these teams of poets were engaged in – the one of making the poem work in the target language as a poem. But it’s also by way of tribute to those other writers who very much got it – and agreed that this stage was almost as exciting as original composition itself.)
Yangzhou calligraphy (a Wang Wei poem)

So what was the Poet to Poet method, and how has it evolved over the eight or so years encompassed by this anthology? How specifically did its processes lead to a change in emphasis in how we translated poetry in both directions?

Arguably, the method has its roots in a remark by Pound from ‘How To Read’, where he states in typically absolute fashion:

Another point miscomprehended by people who are clumsy at languages is that one does not need to learn a whole language in order to understand some one or some dozen poems. It is often enough to understand thoroughly the poem, and every one of the few dozen or few hundred words that compose it.

Poet to Poet translation, then, is one whereby a poet sets out to inform another poet of the full cultural significance of those ‘few dozen or few hundred words’ from the dubious position of authority of having written them. Literary translation utilising this dialogic method was initially conducted without any preparatory literal or interlinear text, where there was a common language (almost always English).

Later it was also done between poet and poet with an accompanying interpreter, often a skilled translator or poet/translator in their own right. Sometimes, where the original poet could not be present, it was done between poet and translator. In this latter case, which clearly strains the original term, the translator tended – indeed needed – to be not only an expert in the field of literary translation, but also a close contact of the originating author, able to verify their responses through consultation.

In both the latter cases, literals tended to be used, giving rise to complications of their own, which I’ll return to later.

However, in all three cases the aim remains to create a publishable text through the dynamic dialogue between writers in source and target language. This changes normal translation procedures in several significant ways.

Firstly, and most importantly, the work is usually selected by the original author. This reverses the procedure, whereby the expert translator selects from the passive canon of a foreign poetry, and thereby it also inverts the hierarchy whereby the selection of the poem can be made according to assumed ease of translation, or for ideological or aesthetic ‘fit’ with the target culture. Chinese has for a long time been subject to a series of orientalising gestures which this method counters even though we understand it cannot entirely escape them.

This procedure has its hazards – a work may be discovered to be effectively untranslatable, or at any rate less effective in the target language. It often proves to be far harder to translate than either party realized at the outset. But these dangers are outweighed by the benefit of discovering how the originating poet wants to be represented (assuming this was a factor in their selection process – it is still of course possible for the poet to select ‘easier’ pieces.)

Secondly, the active presence or accessibility of the originating poet allows for a more detailed, more informed and, arguably, more accurate picture of the poem to be constructed. It at least brings out into the open the amount of second guessing any translation process must be filled with, making explicit the degree to which the translator has to consider intention as much as meaning, gesture as much as tone – because the translator can simply ask the author. This is one of those areas that feels very different depending on whether you are the translator or the translated. It is as marvellous to be able just to ask, as it is challenging to have to answer.

Thirdly, the presence of a poet fluent in the target language can mean a high level of discussion about formal issues, with the result thereby achieving more of an agreed equivalence in metrical, imagistic and, where suitable, idiomatic finish. Effectively, the Poet to Poet method allows for a strong engagement with the issue of cultural translation on the level of craft.

These three positive elements allow for an almost unique moment of shared reflection for both originating poet and poet-translator. Many of the questions one is asked as part of this process are not those one asks oneself during composition. Indeed, some such questions may need to be avoided, deliberately or instinctively, in order for composition to take place.

Equally, for the translator, this process may oblige them to reflect upon aspects of their own creative habits and perspectives in a more exteriorized and critical light, to assess whether they are indeed fit for purpose. Both writers are, after all, often encountering the different cultural weight they attach to the same literary technique, mode, or sphere of reference.

This moment in which both parties achieve however partially a conscious perspective on their own poetic procedures and creativity may be seen as a kind of secondary effect of the translation process, but it is one with huge implications for the success of the project. Depending on each party’s ability briefly to escape their own milieu the dialogue mode of Poet to Poet allows, indeed causes, change to take place in their approach or practice, and the successful translation is often more dependent on the nature of this change than either party may have allowed.

To be able to let go of the poem or the practice is, effectively, not to impede transmission. This condition is the ‘third shore’ to which we refer in our title, a place that cannot be completely governed by the poetic customs or cultural tides of either the original or the target languages.

The Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who often had to negotiate those treacherous crossings between the languages of the British Isles, referred to a similar sanctuary at once of transition and translation when in his long poem, In Memoriam James Joyce, he welcomes Joyce ‘to our aonach’, conflating two Gaelic words – one for a meeting place or fair, and another meaning a ridge or high place.

The third shore as a point of colloquy between poets and between poetries finds its corollary in his poem ‘On A Raised Beach’, where the shoreline has been literally lifted above the sealine by eons of geological change, and the stones stranded on this beach symbolise an ‘inoppugnable reality’ the poet attempts to approach through language, deploying an extraordinary extended range of scientific vocabulary and Shetlandic Norse in an attempt to translate the stones into words:

This cat’s cradle of life; this reality volatile yet undetermined;

This intense vibration in the stones

That makes them seem immobile to us…

This kind of intense encounter with what lies within the line, the metre, the image, the tone, the character or the word – with that which may well prove untranslatable – is the goal of the Poet to Poet method.

The very intensity of this dialogue, however, may sometimes contain within it the seeds of its own undoing. There is a temptation for the translated poet, reconsidering his or her own work, to use the translation to develop an idea explored through discussion, i.e. for the translation to become a means of revision. There is a similar temptation on the part of the translating poet to make sense of the poem according to their own instincts and principles, rather than having the patience to allow the meaning and style of the source text to emerge through discussion and redrafting.

This confusion of the fluidity of the draft translation with that of the compositional draft can lead to a kind of folie à deux, in which both poets do what they do best, composing, while believing they are acting in the best interests of the poem. This is why the dialogue is often better chaired by a translator who, like a marriage counselor, can pull both parties back to the text at key moments. It is also why having more than one translating poet means they too can enter into dialogue about stylistic and interpretive issues in the target language, the results of which might be less individual, but they can also be more resistant to personal habit.

The ideal model for the Poet to Poet translation method as it has evolved might therefore be the quadrilogue, consisting of, firstly, the originating poet either present or accessible; secondly, the interpreting or intermediating poet/translator; and, thirdly and fourthly, two poets from the target language. Of course these four roles can be played by just two or three parties, but four allows for the greatest degree of engagement and objectivity.

What this evolutionary process has also given rise to is a more sophisticated understanding of the different roles played by different kinds of preparatory text. Originally, as stated above, there were none: two poets sat down together with a poem selected by the source language poet, and off they set. Gradually, the role of some form of literal translation in order to determine which poems to translate began to seem useful. But this brought its own dangers.

Literals are, naturally, never only that – a literal version of the poem, which enables work to begin. They tend to be, already, versions, often produced by writer-translators with strong aesthetic principles of their own, articulated or not, which mean they have made a series of decisions about how to produce the literal, which they then have to, but may not be in a position to, explain to the target language poet or poets. Therefore, a certain amount of this translation method – especially if the original author is not present or is not fluent in the target language – is spent assessing the literal rather than engaging with the original.

Authors of literals often feel they have already done the hard work because they have the source language expertise or know the original author well, and may have less grasp of the significance of the stage the target language poets are embarking on. It can be difficult to explain that, as is sometimes the case, their version may not be publishable in the target culture, and that an emphasis on dictionary definition or on loyalty to the author can reach a point where it becomes obstructive.

For this reason, poets working in this method often use the literal mainly to help selection, whereupon they embark on the creation of an interlinear – a word-for-word crib, preserving word order, listing synonyms, and noting cultural or stylistic issues as they arise. This construction of the interlinear is achieved specifically by a deconstruction of the literal, and directly engenders the dialogue discussed above.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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