I love words. I love their origins, their nuance, how they reflect the culture, what they mean. Mostly I love that they actually do mean something, that you can pick the right one. It bugs me beyond measure when people use the wrong words to convey important thoughts (I have a list). Agnostic is a word that particularly aggravates me—and has for years. It literally means “a person who holds the view that any ultimate reality (such as God) is unknown and probably unknowable.” It's from the Greek agnōstos meaning “unknown, unknowable” (who knew?). For years now, people have used it to convey a verbal shrug, to say they don't really care. As in when someone asks, “Hey! Would you rather have dinner at Applebees or The French Laundry?” And the person responds, “I'm agnostic about that,” instead of saying “I don't really care,” or, if they want to be slightly fancier, saying, “I'm indifferent.” Or if they wanted to tell the truth, saying “Who’s paying?” When people say they are agnostic about anything except God, I do not shy away from rolling my eyes bigly.
So, this morning I got the poem “¿Y Tú?” in my inbox. It's a poem by Alfonsina Storni, an Argetine poet who was born in Switzerland in 1892 and died at the age of 46 in Argentina. It's translated by Muna Lee, an American poet who was born in Mississippi in 1895 and died at the age of 70 in Puerto Rico. The poem in my email was in its original Spanish and also in Lee’s translation.
I am doggedly studying Spanish, so I first read the poem in Spanish and then I read the translated version. They didn't seem to be the same poem in very important ways. And because words are a chief way that we convey meaning, I was not indifferent about this. It bugged me. So I translated every word. The difference between the translator's version and the real-words version is vast. I know that translation is as much about the spirit of the thing as the actual words, but it seems to me that this translator missed the spirit by a Montana mile. Both poet and translator are long dead and I have no idea if the poet approved of the translator's version. But take a look: This is the poem in Spanish:
Sí, yo me muevo, vivo, me equivoco; Agua que corre y se entremezcla, siento El vértigo feroz del movimiento: Huelo las selvas, tierra nueva toco.
Sí, yo me muevo, voy buscando acaso Soles, auroras, tempestad y olvido. ¿Qué haces allí misérrimo y pulido? Eres la piedra a cuyo lado paso. This is the translator’s version: Running Water
Yes, I move, I live, I wander astray— Water running, intermingling, over the sands. I know the passionate pleasure of motion; I taste the forests; I touch strange lands.
Yes, I move—perhaps I am seeking Storms, suns, dawns, a place to hide. What are you doing here, pale and polished— You, the stone in the path of the tide? This is the word-for-word translation: And You?
Yes, I move, I live, I am wrong; Water that runs and mixes, I feel The fierce vertigo of movement: I smell the jungles, I touch new land.
Yes, I move, I'm looking for a chance Suns, auroras, tempest and oblivion. What are you doing there, miserable and polished? You are the stone to whose side I step. What I love about the direct translation is that it is much less smoothed over. I mean, I suppose the poem might be about running water, as the translator has retitled it. But what was wrong with the poet's original title “And You?” And didn't that original title matter? “And You?” invites the reader into the conversation. The poet is asking the reader to answer a question—“Hey, what about you?” The translated version is a placid poem about a stream doing some thinking about the way it goes hippety-hop down the ol’ stream bed. But in the word-for-word translation, it grabs me by the throat and asks me about my hippety-hopping, my languor about my life. For example, the first line directly translates as “Yes, I move, I live, I am wrong.” The phrase “I am wrong” is a much more personal insight than “I wander astray,” which seems less like an insight about heading in the wrong direction than simply an observation about going hither and thither. (I love the word “thither.”) Same with the third line, “the fierce vertigo of movement” (rather than “the passionate pleasure of motion”) because really moving, as in getting on with it, getting going, getting awake to your life sometimes does feel vertiginous and sick-making. Often going has very little to do with passionate pleasure, and more to do with ripping your butt up off the couch and having your blood pressure drop to the floor in a throw-uppy kind of way because you are changing things. Then the first line of the second stanza, the word-for-word translation is “Yes, I move, I'm looking for a chance.” I know that fear of looking for a chance, that near desperate feeling of seeking and hoping, that terror that if you do make a move you will end up dying in subsidized housing in Fargo, North Dakota with pee stains in your underwear. I know the fear that accompanies getting out, getting going, and trying to find a way, looking for a chance. It is so much more disruptive than “perhaps I am seeking” as if maybe you are, maybe you're not. “Perhaps” is a word of dithering. When you're “looking for a chance” you are long past “perhaps.” And the second line in the second stanza, the translator says that the impediments she will encounter (the “pale and polished stones”) are “Storms, suns, dawns, a place to hide.” But in the word-for-word translation the speaker announces that you will go up against “Suns, auroras, tempest and oblivion.” Oblivion. You will come up against the possibility that you will be destroyed. Simply “seeking a place to hide” isn't what troubles you. Oblivion is. It's the fear of oblivion that will keep you from facing the “fierce vertigo of movement.” And in the third line of the second stanza, in the word-for-word translation, the speaker asks a direct question of her impediments. She confronts and challenges their legitimacy: “What are you doing there both miserable and polished?” That the barrier to her movement is both miserable and polished is magnificent. Because that's the lure, isn't it? That in the right light, the miserable thing looks so appealing, and makes you second guess. Yet the translator calls this barrier in the movement simply “pale and polished.” No threat. Kinda pretty even. Super OK. Relax why don’t you! And then the final line is finally the victory, when she addresses the stone directly. In the word-for-word translation it reads, “You are the stone to whose side I step.” Bang. Decision. I am headed out. Bye-bye. Yet the translator makes the last line a question, not a statement. Instead of the speaker deciding and declaring, the translator has the speaker simply asking the question “what are you doing there?” She does no more that simply wonder. The translator’s version dissembles, it seems, stripping the poem of its power. Retitling it “Running Water,” in my view, not only misses the point, but also misdirects the reader to experience the poem as a description of nature rather than as a revolution of the heart.
I love the real words. Always, I think, I love the real words.
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >