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Poetry Translation

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(A version of this article appeared in Lateral Moves No. 30, 2000)

Here are a few thoughts about the process and product of translation of poetry, based on a Spanish original (Mi Amiga La Foca) and English translation (Eating Disorder). A literal translation is included for those who don’t read Spanish.

The original poem was inspired by something said by a friend of mine when I turned up for coffee one day: she announced that she’d made me a cake as I was looking thin recently. My weight and basic body shape have hardly changed in years and I’m certainly not underweight. But anyway, from that point a poem was born.

There’s nothing complex about the original: it just wrote itself almost without thought. The only problem was in the fourth verse where I wanted to put ‘No escucha mi sugestión…’ which would have rhymed with ‘digestión’. Although my dictionary tells me that this is acceptable, my Spanish sounding board told me that ‘sugestión’ should be ‘sugerencia’, which threw out the whole verse and took me half a day to fix.

Then I decided to translate the poem into English. I wanted to keep the erratic rhythm structure but knew some changes to content would be needed if the form were to remain similar to the original.

The first problem is the idea of ‘una foca’. Literally ‘a seal’ it is used colloquially to refer to a plump person of either sex. Collins Spanish-English dictionary suggests it be translated as ‘ugly lump’ but I’m too used to it being used affectionately (I said I’m not underweight!) I also liked the animal imagery, which continues with the whale, so ‘cow’ was obviously an option. But note that although in Spanish you can ‘be a foca’, ‘to be a fat cow’ is not the same as ‘to be as fat as a cow’. The latter sounds substantially less pejorative to me.

In the second verse I was quite pleased with the almost rhyme which occurred to me quickly and felt it was better to keep this as a couplet rather than completely re-writing. It was also pretty obvious that saying she ‘had a real sweet-tooth’ (‘una auténtica golosa’) was going to leave me up the creek without a rhyme. A similar thought process accompanied the translation of verse three.

It’s possible that I would have stuck closer to the original number of lines if I had been willing to write in the dum-ti-dum doggerel which I usually find so easy in English. One of the objects of the exercise, however, was to break out of this rhythm and yet write a poem that rhymed. It had proved so easy in Spanish that I felt I should be capable of doing the same in my mother tongue.

The English verse four allowed me to use the word ‘suggestion’ as I had originally intended. The list of foods in verse five was re-written with a more English angle. (And, yes, I do know the joke about the rabbit who died of mixing his toasties).

It took an effort of will power not to end with a longer line with more traditional rhythm, but ‘She’ll pop.’ was all that was needed, and fortunately has the added advantage of appropriate suddenness.

Now, can someone tell me, is this a translation or a new poem? I wrote the original, so I felt no qualms about my alterations both to content and form; before I began the English version I had decided what my prime objectives were: the same basic couplet structure for rhymes, the same basic verse structure, and as much as possible of the idea to be maintained. But would I have had the nerve to do this to someone else’s work? And would they have been satisfied with it if I had?

As an English teacher I am constantly telling my students that I can’t directly translate what they say in Spanish: I need to convert it to English ideas and then express them in the equivalent language. That is what I was trying to do here.

I suspect that the fact that I was translating into my mother tongue was a considerable advantage as it meant I had a far wider range of vocabulary and phrasing. (I’d describe myself as functionally bi-lingual, but learned Spanish in my thirties, so will never speak it as well as I do English.) This probably accounts for the English title which is such a familiar expression but one I would never use in Spanish.

I also wonder whether the triviality of the poem made it easier to translate. There was nothing to be gained from reading between the lines, no great social comment, no ulterior motives or deliberate ambiguity. There was therefore no big problem with translation of puns or oblique references: it could all be dealt with on one, superficial, level.

As I say, I am quite satisfied with the translation I have produced. But what would happen if someone now attempted to put the English version into Spanish? Which criteria would they choose to concentrate on? Each translation will be seen to be producing a new poem. And the more obscure or profound the original, the more likely it is to lose (or gain) in the translation.

Naturally most of us will have to rely on translators to make our work accessible to others and others’ work accessible to us. But we should bear in mind that with any translation we read we are only viewing a misty image of the original, through the lens of the translator’s mind.

Mi amiga la foca (Original)

Mi amiga es una foca
Siempre con la boca
Pronto será una ballena.
Come cualquier cosa,
Tanto salada como sosa,
Y es una auténtica golosa.
No le satisface
Toda la comida que su madre hace
(Quien cocina todo el día
Para alimentar su voraz cría)
Siempre quiere comida
Incluso cuando está dormida;
No me deja sugerir
Que se detenga para digerir.
Sólo le interesa
La próxima hamburguesa,
Espaguetis, macarrones
Aceitunas, boquerones
Pan, galletas, queso…
Y todo eso.
Sigue comiendo,
Y tan gorda se está poniendo
Que me parece que se hincha
Como un globo: ¡A ver si no se pincha !

My Friend the Lump (Literal Translation)

My friend is a fat lump
Always with her mouth
Soon she’ll be a whale.
She eats anything,
Both salty and insipid,
And has a real sweet tooth
She isn’t satisfied
With all the food her mother makes
(Who cooks all day
To feed her hungry child.)
She always wants food
Even when she’s half-asleep;
She doesn’t let me suggest
That she stop to digest.
She’s only interested in
The next hamburger,
Spaghetti, macaroni,
Olives, anchovies,
Bread, biscuits, cheese…
And all that.
She keeps on eating,
And she’s getting so fat
It seems to me that she’s swelling up
Like a balloon: I wonder if she’ll burst!

Eating disorder (Translation)

My friend’s as fat as a cow
But she goes on eating anyhow;
There’s nothing frail
About her: she’s a whale.
She’ll eat anything and everything, sweet or savoury, it
Doesn’t matter, though pasta’s her favourite.
Her mother has no time to do what she oughta -
Always cooking for her daughter.
Her appetite would take some beating:
She just goes on eating
Ignoring all suggestions
About her digestion:
She binges on cheese,
And Devon cream teas,
Mixing her toasties
With beef, yorkshires, roasties…
And all of that stuff:
It’s never enough.
Now, she’s round as a ball:
As broad as she’s tall;
If she doesn’t stop
She’ll pop.

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