Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Lost in translation: the fallacy that it's the ideas that really matter in poetry and art

Whenever reading a poetry anthology, I tend to skip poems translated from another language. The reason’s simple: novels can be successfully translated (a friend of ours has just finished doing Les Miserables for Penguin, and I’m looking forward to reading it), because, while the language is important, novels are as much to do with character and plot as anything else. When you read a novel in translation, you’re not reading the original – but, if the translator’s any good, it can still work as a novel.

Longer narrative poems can work in translation – the Iliad, the Odyssey and The Divine Comedy, for instance. And I recently found myself transfixed by Seamus Heaney reading his own translation of Beowulf on BBC Radio 4 Extra. (It doesn’t always work, mind you, no matter how good the translation – I’ve tried Pushkin’s verse novel Eugene Onegin three times now, and, despite being a lover of 19th Century Russian novels, I just can’t see why it’s considered a masterpiece: I’m sure that I’d understand if only I could read it in Russian). It’s the same for plays, of course – otherwise Shakespeare wouldn’t be admired the world over.

But when you come across a poem with a title like “Hope” by a poet with a name like Stanislaus Plodz, translated by Deidre Dreary, experience tells me that it’s best avoided. If the translator is a great Anglophone poet in their own right, it might be worth reading – but the fact that it’s a translation is irrelevant: again, you’re not reading the original poem – it has merely provided a stimulus for the creation of an entirely new poem in another language.

The idea that a short poem can be faithfully translated is, I think, based on the misconception that poems are essentially vehicles for ideas – i.e. it’s the ideas that really matter, and that they can be conveyed without the original mode of expression: non-narrative poems tend to disappear in the translation process, because the non-narrative poem pretty much is the language it’s couched in.

The same fallacy – that the idea is what really matters – is, I believe, responsible for the sorry state of modern art. While watching – and thoroughly enjoying – the last series of the American reality/competition TV show, Next Great Artist, I realised that what the judges were looking for was the idea or concept behind the artwork, and whether that idea had been successfully communicated. The problem with this approach, of course, is that, while modern artists may very well possess talent, they often aren’t particularly bright, and their ideas are therefore of no interest whatsoever (unless, of course, you value the views of confused, inarticulate adolescents).

Some of the work the competitors produced was actually rather good (one or two displayed genuine technical proficiency and a good eye), but the concepts underlying their work were invariably boring (it’s like, you know, hey, life, like, really sucks?) or mawkish (I was remembering, like, my dad, you know, who, like, died, taking me on a kinda trip in the car and, like, hey, we’re sorta on this beach, right, and… (competitor bursts into tears) or incoherent - it’s kinda like about growth, like how, you know, stuff grows into other stuff, yeah? (Being American, of course, the competitors are mostly very likable, and I even found myself warming to the judges - critics, gallery-owners and successful artists, whom I would previously have dismissed as a pack of charlatans.)

Of course ideas have a role in art and poetry – but, while discerning the ideas implicit in a poem or a work of art can help us to appreciate them, ideas don't make a poem a great poem or a work of art a great work of art.

There are no doubt thousands of superb short, non-narrative poems written in foreign languages – but, unfortunately, unless we understand the language they’re written in, we’re never going to get to appreciate them. And if that isn't true, please spontaneously quote a line from any foreign poem written in the last 100 years. Thought so. 


  1. This is an excellent post.

    First of all, wasn't Modern Art, much of which I actually love, supposed to free art from the text? Ha. You can't show anything now without handing out a statement of purpose. A long winded explanation of what is usually some infantile grievance. As you point out...talent doesn't equal good ideas.

    Secondly, and most interestingly I think, is the notion that ideas are not what matters in poetry. I couldn't agree more. We have a perfectly good vehicle for exploring ideas...prose. Certainly a poem can express an idea with power but, it's first concern MUST be with language as language...words as words.

  2. Agree with every word, Mr. Bartiam!

  3. Excellent! I mean, we can never have enough, as long as some languages are excluded some people will feel excluded. Nice work!