Frosting by Rhina P. Espaillat
The one thing everybody knows about translation—because it’s repeated so often and with such authority—is that it’s impossible. But people who love to read and are curious about books produced by cultures other than their own know a second thing: that translation may be impossible, but it’s also essential. Without the long history of this universally disparaged art, there would be none of the intellectual and aesthetic cultural crossbreeding that gave us Homer, the Hebrew Bible, Virgil and Dante, to name only a few of the texts without which our literature would be unrecognizable. Clearly our view of the world and of ourselves as a species depends, in large measure, on what authors distant in space and time have left us in all the world’s languages.
Those of us who spend most of our lives thinking in two or more languages know still another thing about translation, and it’s this: whatever else it may be, translation is also inevitable. Human curiosity about the thoughts and experiences of others demands it, as it demands gossip, because somewhere in the human psyche lives the suspicion that we are, wherever and whenever we live, a network of neighbors, at the very least, and probably more than that, as geneticists are learning. It is tantalizing to encounter the family secrets of gods and men, civilizing to discover our similarities, and crucial to learn our differences.
Those of us who are early transplants from one culture to another begin by translating the contents of memory into the new language as part of the learning process involved in transplantation, but many of us then go on to reverse the process, translating the contents of our current lives into the old language, in order to retain a measure of continuity between past and present, there and here, dead and living, family circles and groups of friends in two places.
I began translating some years ago as a means to bring into English those poems in my native Spanish that I wanted here with me, the way immigrants have always wanted old photographs and family keepsakes. I needed to let the two halves of my mind understand each other, and also needed to share what memory and books could salvage from a Dominican childhood, with my Bronx-born husband of eastern European ancestry, my Queens-born children, and with many friends in the U. S. not familiar with Spanish.
More recently I’ve been working in reverse, translating into Spanish beloved poems written in English, the language that has been mine since 1939, because those poems, too, are part of how I think, windows through which I look at what there is. Certainly Robert Frost, with his distinctive evocation of a certain American landscape and mindscape, has colored my view of my adoptive country at least as much as Emily Dickinson, and far more than Walt Whitman. Taking his blend of humor, music, insight and darkness into my native language has become, for me, a labor of grateful love toward the poems, and service toward that other literature I hope to enrich with imported treasure.
It’s also a challenge, because my goal is to produce rhymed and metrical translations that imitate—or, rather, create the illusion of imitating—the sound of their originals. English, rich in monosyllables, distinct possessive pronouns and the apostrophe, can cram a great deal of content into each line. Spanish, highly polysyllabic, with undefined possessives and no apostrophe, and therefore dependent on prepositional phrases to stipulate just who owns what, usually requires more syllables to convey the same information. That disparity became clear—and frustrating—with the failure of my attempts to render the familiar opening of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in octosyllabic lines. The very first phrase, “Whose woods these are,” taught me an important difference between my two languages, and the difficulty of conveying the percussive terseness of one in the liquid rippling musicality of the other.
The meter I finally settled on—and all translation is a “settling”on and for—is hendecasyllabics with three or four stresses per line. My every punctilious effort to eliminate the extra three syllables resulted in a kind of telegraphese that was both unnatural as diction and false to the almost chatty casualness of the Frost original. That struggle to keep the syllable count down without losing the conversational tone— tone in which this most subtle poet disguises utterances less casual and far stranger than they appear on the surface—is a constant one. So is the need to create the effect of regular iambics—what the Anglophone reader expects—in a language that resists regularity in favor of gently shifting tensions in a flux of sound. Luckily for me, the “loose iambics” advocated by Frost are much closer in sound to the syllabic prosody of Spanish than, say, the short staccato lines of Emily Dickinson.
The other difficulties I’ve encountered translating Robert Frost are those common to all translation: the elusiveness of colloquial diction, puns, jokes, local references, and imagery based on scenes and customs that may be unfamiliar to the reader. Those are real, but not insurmountable.
What is insurmountable—and this is what renders the ideal translation ultimately impossible—is the peculiar unity that exists in every successful poem between what is said and the manner of its saying. For example, there is no substitute, in other words in another language, for the effect of these precise words from “After Apple-Picking”:
...I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
The combination of regret, fatigue, utter simplicity, backward-looking gratitude, loss perceived if unexpressed, and barely-hinted-at relief is perfectly captured by the rhyming words that seem inevitable and yet strain against each other, by the rich associations of “harvest,” and by the stately pace of the language that suggests both rue and ripeness. What to do with insights that word themselves so flawlessly that it seems almost wrong to diminish them by dressing them in words other than those they wear so well?
Even the best translation is, by its very nature, “a diminished thing,” but how else make the original at least partly accessible to a foreign reader? Diminished or not, great poems should—and do—belong to everyone, but only translation makes it possible for foreign-language readers to claim what is and ought to be theirs. I think the work of the translator is to give those readers as full and accurate an impression as possible of the original unavailable to them—its sense, sound, imagery and tone—without pretending that he has done, or can do, the admittedly impossible.
© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas