18 November 13 | Chad W. Post

A current MALTS student here at the University of Rochester, Allison M. Charette is also a translator from the French who recently helped launch the Emerging Literary Translators’ Network in America. After attending this year’s American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference, she wanted to write up a couple of the more interesting panels. Here’s one.

You know those list-y blog posts, right? “Top Ten Things You’re Doing Wrong at Work” or “8 Commonly Mispronounced Words” or “25 Ryan Gosling GIFs to Make You Smile”?

Don’t worry, this isn’t one of them.

But I, a true member of my generation, read lots of them. Some of them even have to do with translation (which I also do). And those lists of “Top Ten Things to Make You a Better Translator” always include a directive to talk. Specifically, to read the original text out loud. Then to read your written translation out loud. Everything is supposed to make more sense when you do.

Jordan Smith agrees. As he pointed out in his panel at the recent ALTA conference, “Decentering Semantics: Poetics and Meaning in Translation,” there’s more to words and characters than just their content and contextual meaning. He’s currently translating some wonderfully experimental poetry by Yoshimasu Gōzō, a Japanese poet, which involves a lot of puns, wordplay between different languages, and homophonographic play within its own language.

There’s a practice in Japan called ateji, which replaces a normal kanji character with different characters that are pronounced the same. English has these word games, too—mondegreens, or the physical card game Mad Gab—but it seems to be more poetic and less slapstick in Japanese. Jordan gave an example from Gōzō’s “火・Fire . . .” (published in last summer’s Poetry Review):

smoke: kemuri 煙
ke               mu                           ri
毛               無                             里
HAIR          NOTHINGNESS    VILLAGE

By sounding out each word carefully, the reader gets a new, alternate meaning in each character (or, in English, set of letters). Sounding it out gives it a new sense. In this particular poem, it’s a deeply interesting feature and a novel idea.

In poetry translation, though, it’s something more: the most extreme way to support the idea that sound is more important than content. Rendering a poem literally into another language is stilted at best and wildly off the mark at worst. Jordan argued that the best approach is to keep the semantic meaning decentered, or at least to recenter it somewhere in the space between languages.

To translate this ateji, though, Jordan was faced with a challenge. No matter how you elongate or twist the sounds in the word “smoke” in English, you’ll never hear anything about hair, or village, or a void. But if the sound is all that matters, then “some-oak” or “sumo-oak” should work just fine. And so it does, in Jordan’s translation:

          Thinking of the fire in the heart of Adonis
     «drapé de feu»
“soft flames of the earth’s surface, …….(July 8, 2000. From Miyake-jima, like the hand of an infant, // fresh some,oak (smoke, …….) = hair,nothingness,village (ke毛,mu無,ri里, ……)”
     door = «戸»
seed of the fire even beyond the seed of the fire in the heart of Adonis-san
     door = «戸»

My first reaction to this poetry was “wow, this is strange.” This poem includes three different languages in just this one little excerpt, plus bibliographic information as part of the poem itself. It’s not something you see every day. But it’s beautiful. It sounds beautiful when you speak it out loud. Even though there’s no semantic reference to “oak” in the original poem, it fits. The sound itself fits. And in the end, with poetry, that’s what matters most.

This poem and more will be included in a forthcoming anthology entitled Alice, Iris, Red Horse: Selected Poems of Gozo Yoshimasu: a Book in and on Translation, edited by Forrest Gander.


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