On the incompleteness of reading

Ellie Duncan gets lost in the countless possibilities of translation

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“The more personal the metabolism, the deeper the satisfaction…it is not a question of borrowing only, or of imitation, but of bringing forth in one’s own language what has been experienced in another.” Barbara Reynolds’ definition evokes something intangible: a feeling of reassuring illogicality that nevertheless makes perfect sense. But trying to conflate two different expressions of an experience generates resistance. One version of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem ‘Night’ visualises the boundaries of translation that suggest ultimately irreconcilable meanings—the reader’s eye immediately catches on the word “saeta” dappling the English. “La constelación de la saeta” becomes “the saeta’s constellation”. The simplicity of this phrase only makes the untranslatable element more apparent.

“Saeta” (“dart”) reappears in many others of this edition’s English versions of the poems, along with other non-translated words that create gaps which delay any sense of a complete understanding of a poem. Stopping to Google-translate “saeta” mid-Lorca doesn’t lend itself well to discovering a poem for the first time. In his translator’s note, Sorrell explains how “Lorca’s poetry poses the recognised problems of translation in an intense way. His Spanish is highly charged, culturally specific, strongly rhythmic, always musical.” So much so that sometimes, there simply isn’t a word that can replace and reconfigure.

The English “arrow” only reaches for what the Spanish encompasses. For a non-Spanish speaker, the accompanying Spanish text in Sorrell’s edition only increases an awareness of a gap between the original and the translation, a gap into which words and meanings fall. Most frustrating of all is not being able to know precisely what has been lost. But the translation gap is also productive. Though reading something in translation is to read it at a remove from an original, it is still an experience that is singular, not superficial or lacking.

Sorrell’s translations are echoing and elegant and the result will still produce personal responses that belong outside the realm of comparison or loss. The English translations are their own work of literature, by no means superior to the original, just a new dimension unfolding from the edges. And Lorca’s poetry itself conveys a way of thinking about writing which touches on an important aspect of translation: its minimalist, sparse style “reminds us that poems work on the basis of what comes out of them rather than what allegedly goes into them.” It would seem that translation only literalises what all reading is, a process of the reader’s private articulation of a writer’s expression.

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Though reminding us of the privacy of reading, translation’s purposes look outward too. Indeed, it is often used as a marker of a poet or novelist’s commercial success, presented as a requirement generated by the text itself. Harry Potter has been translated into over seventy different languages and dialects—information usually included in the introductory note or the blurb for example. But it is of course a testament to the imaginative element of Rowling’s story too. In the Ancient Greek version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (incidentally, the first children’s book to have been translated into that language) the translator decided to keep the unique vocabulary of the fantasy world, such as technical Quidditch terms. Rather than show up as an irritating limitation, this amusingly reaffirms the inventiveness of language, and captures the way in which different contexts and vocabularies can be patched together.

Translation reminds us of the countless possibilities for interpretation of a text, though some might remain inaccessible to us. New meanings are generated by a Shakespeare play reworked in modern contexts, the realisation of an individual director’s vision; listening to the cover of a favourite song produces new emotions via an appreciation of choices and changes. The incompleteness of reading is worth celebrating too.

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