How Loving Your Source Can Make Your English Translation Into Doggerel

I think that some translators must have a terribly sad streak inside, but let me start with doggerel since it’s lighter. By doggerel I don’t only mean the unintentionally funny or the inventive and exploratory. To get a sense of these, for the funny end of the spectrum, try William McGonagall’s “The Tay Bridge Disaster”: 

It must have been an awful sight, 
To witness in the dusky moonlight, 
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray, 
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay, 
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay, 
I must now conclude my lay 
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay, 
That your central girders would not have given way, 
At least many sensible men do say, 
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses, 
At least many sensible men confesses, 
For the stronger we our houses do build, 
The less chance we have of being killed.

Then, for the exploratory and inventive end, imagine a bass and drums background and a rap artist delivering, “I must now conclude my lay by telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay….”

But it’s hard to salvage much else (beyond those two lines) for serious purposes from the overwrought rhetoric, uneven meter, poorly matched lexical registers, grammatical and syntactical stretches, triteness, logical lapses, and willful rhyme scheme (which can be called a scheme only because of its humorous effect). This is one of two ways to make doggerel. It is characterized by errors so obvious that they make us laugh and the juxtaposition of the seriousness of the form with a degree of perceived narrative buffoonery. (This can also be intentional — imagine a holiday party where one makes up verses for one’s co-workers….)

The other is by doing almost the opposite, taking a poem from another language and time period, and translating it so regularly into English — matching exact rhymes to exact rhymes, and regular meter to regular meter — that nothing ever varies, making it into something that sounds like a sing-song ditty. This is of course fine if it’s a sing-song ditty in the source culture. But it’s likely to become doggerel if it was anything other than that, an epic, say, or a love lyric. This way of making doggerel is much harder to provide examples for, or rather, it is hard to say why this way of translating might come across as doggerel to a listener or reader, probably because it is not “over the top” in the manner that McGonagall masters in his oh so ill-fated bridge. It also results from cultural assumptions about equivalencies of meter, rhyme, punctuation, and form in general that are difficult to name explicitly.

About the closest to an explanation for this phenomenon that I have encountered is something that W. S. Merwin describes in one of the prefaces to his Selected Translations (published by Copper Canyon in 2013). He seems to have begun his approach to practice with Pound, who once spoke to him “of the value of translation as a means of continually sharpening a writer’s awareness of his own language” (12). He then struggled over the next fifteen years to free himself from the idea, advanced by Pound among many others, that “fidelity in translating a poem should include an ambition to reproduce the original verse form” (168). By the end of this struggle, he notes, “I had come to consider the verse conventions of original poems as part of the original language, in which they had a history of associations like that of individual words—something impossible to suggest in English simply by repeating the forms” (169).

On the one hand, such a statement suggests that translators look for something deeper than formal equivalency or what is sometimes loosely called equivalency of effect. This is about meaning primarily, semantic translation, what Merwin touches on as “fidelity” and what some translator colleagues have referred to as “unpacking,” before they turn to the “repacking,” which is making the poem in English. That re-made poem, if it is to be effective as an English-language poem, may or may not share the same formal features as the source version. On the other, embedded in the statement is the question of effect, how an audience receives the English version, how they hear it. This is where my poet-translator friends will note that, unless there is some sort of a formal challenge that poets have knowingly set for themselves (a sestina, a ghazal) motivating it, much of the most interesting poetry published today does not exhibit the sort of regularity of, say, nineteenth-century rhymed verse, and if one tries to write such verse today, it tends to sound uncannily like, well, the nineteenth century.

Getting beyond the first kind of doggerel, the kind characterized by unintentional errors that make your readers laugh, is mostly a question of understanding the source and having a good sense of English prosody. Avoiding the second kind, which comes from sounding dull if not trite in the receiving culture, is a challenge of a higher order, largely because the more you study the source, the better you know it, the closer you get to it, and the more you tend to love it.

At this point, as a translator you are faced with a terrible truth, which is where that sadness I started with lurks. Loving your source as you do, you want to share, convey it in all its beauty, integrity, and meaning — the meaning it has had for you, the way it has moved you, been a part of your life — to others who might not have access to it. But the only way to do this is, first, to take it apart, this thing you love, word by word, sound by sound; and second, to change it, this thing you love, into something else.