Other Ways to Leave the Room

Michael Wood

  • The Eyes: A Version of Antonio Machado by Don Paterson
    Faber, 60 pp, £7.99, October 1999, ISBN 0 571 20055 9

Translation is often thought to be impossible, an ideal, hopeless task. What we get in its name is a pale substitute, a distant echo of a lost original. ‘A poem,’ Don Paterson says in his afterword to The Eyes, ‘can no more be translated than a piece of music.’ Poets have only to think of the lines ‘in which they take most pride ... to realise they could not possibly find even their roughest equivalents in another tongue’. There is a loyalty to the density of language in such a sentiment, and it’s certainly a good corrective to the notion, if anyone holds it, that translation is the faultless reproduction of the effects and meanings of one language in another. But of course a poem, like any other arrangement of words, can be translated. Rough equivalents can be found, have to be found, because that’s what translation is. What’s impossible is not translation but the fantasy of perfect duplication, in which languages would miraculously and exactly map onto each other, as if the Tower of Babel had never been built and ruined. Translation can’t aspire to abolish the differences among languages, because it is itself a result of those differences, even, in strong cases, a measure of them.

Any translation has to face questions about gaps between meanings of individual words and about diverging syntactical structures. Is the Spanish dolor ‘pain’ or ‘sorrow’ in English? Well, there is Our Lady of Sorrows, but you would need to speak to the doctor about your pain. How should we render a subjunctive which is not exactly a conditional, as in a phrase like ‘cuando yo me muera’? ‘When I die’ doesn’t catch any of it, but ‘if I should die’ is too tentative, and ‘when I should die’ doesn’t make any sense.

It’s the poverty of the possible in such cases that makes us think the job may be impossible, and of course with poetry the difficulties escalate drastically, since now we have rhythm and tonality and undercurrents and much else to deal with. Paterson says his (excellent) versions of a selection of Antonio Machado’s poems are ‘something like piano transcription of guitar music. The bare octaves and fifths that Machado plays can find no equivalent resonance in the great contraption, no matter how loudly we strike them. The only thing we can do is work in a little more chromatism, a little directed emotional reading.’ I’m not sure English is a greater contraption than Spanish, and ‘no equivalent resonance’ is a long way from no equivalent at all. But the comparison is evocative and helpful, and makes clear what Paterson means by what he describes as ‘a version’, although his fuller account of what he is doing makes you wonder what can be left of Machado. There is ‘mangling, shifts of emphasis, omission, deliberate mistranslation, the conflation of different poems, the insertion of whole lines and on a few occasions the writing of entirely new poems’. I’m happy to take Paterson’s word for this, but the result sounds like a very good translation of Machado to me – unless by ‘translation’ we mean only literal translation, which seems to be Paterson’s leaning. ‘For an accurate translation of Machado’s words’, Paterson refers us to Alan Trueblood’s selection, which gives, he says, ‘a more reliable reflection of the surface life of Machado’s verse’.

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