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Why I do what I do & why I love it: In defense translation’s target

The following was posted on POETICS Archives by Charles Bernstein
a day after 9/11. I am simply translating the text. Not a single word of my own is there. ––Zeyar Lynn

I am afraid some poetry translator aspirants from Burma might read this note in Burmese, posted on Zeyar Lynn blog as a preface to his translation of Charles Bernstein’s response to 9/11, as Zeyar Lynn, encouraging them to do literals. After all Zeyar Lynn, whose work I love and many of which I have translated, is the most influential Burmese poet and translator of his generation in my opinion and the head honcho of a well-known L=A=N=G=U=G=E / language school in Rangoon/Yangon.

Don’t we use our ‘own words’ in target language in all translations? To Bernstein [in an email], “poetry translation depends on ways of reading and requires interpretation, even more than reading or writing the source text.  Such interpretation means the translator must be creative and take all necessary liberties, to make a new poem work in the new language. The relation of the original to the translation is neither faithfulness and nor literality: the two becomes echoes of one another in a play of call and response, recall and responsibility.”

Huge linguistic and cultural untranslatabilities between Burmese and English exist, but they should not spook the Burmese-English-Burmese translators. A good poem is always translatable. And, what is ‘translatable’ is entirely down to an individual translator inasmuch as what is ‘poem’ or what is ‘good.’ Always choose a translatable poem.

When I heard various German translations of seemingly impenetrable Johnny Cake Hollow by Bernstein at a reading at Alte Schmiede in Vienna in April 2012, I was totally stung. The Austrians’ renditions of “Johnny Cake Hollowhave spurred me to render it into Burmese. I simply borrowed the concept and created a text of my own, a transliteration of the sound in gibberish ancient-looking Burmese in my translation of the poem. Of course what a Burmese reader – and a German reader who reads the German translation of “Johnny Cake Hollow, may be missing is Bernstein’s Dadaistic mockery of meter in traditional English verses, but the blaring that the piece is a stiff jab in the face of established notions of what is poetry and who are we to judge is not missed.

Several theories on literary translation abound. The common ground is that literary translation requires scholarship and rigorous research in the preparation and a stretch of imagination and creativity in recreating the text or the concept in target language. A translator who is supposed to know the target language like Molly the fish knows her tank also has to equip herself with the context and the historicism of the poem. As I translate mainly contemporary and living poets I am in the habit of getting the feedback on my translations from the poets I translate. Nothing pleases me as much as getting a ‘Wow!’ from the poet whose work I have translated. Not all poets, especially the Burmese bards, are as generous as Professor Bernstein. This might explain why most of the English translations of Burmese poetry published inside the country have been rigid, remaining loyal to the word-for-word-line-for-line tradition.

Scholarship aside, I here would like to stress the infinitely large room for ‘ways of reading’ in poetry translations. Following are three different readings of a celebrated Burmese haiku by the great modernist Tin Moe:

Great Guest
Cigar’s burnt down
The sun is brown
Will someone take me home.
………………….[translated by Anna J Allott]

Great Guest
I’ve smoked your cheroot
I’ve set the sun on you
Can you drive me home now?
………………….[translated by ko ko thett]

I’ve smoked my cheroot
The sun is about to set
I’m ready to meet my maker.
………………….[translated by ko ko thett]

Stogie smoked
Sun set
Take me home
………………….[translated by Charles Bernstein]

In translating Rangoon by Moe Way, many readers might have thought I overdid it when I write ‘I hear the bells and all is well’ when the literal of the opening line reads:  ‘I hear someone ringing the hour bells’ which does not sound good to me. In British Navy terminology ‘Eight bells and all is well’ means a watchman completes his watch with nothing particular to report. Bell ringing by vigilantes has not gone extinct in many parts of Burma/Myanmar, which remains a security-intensive state. The practice is not just meant to tell time but to assuage the insecurity and fear of the rulers and denizens of a city or a village that their night watchmen were doing their job. As such the yell ‘All is well!, a phrase often heard routinely in Burmese jails, often follows the ringing of hour bells and the chime of hour bells implies ‘all is well.’ Hence my translation ‘I hear the bells and all is well.’

Sometimes translation calls for the calquing of the original if the calquing sounds sexier than the translated text. Now-the-somewhat-known phrase ‘bones will crow’ has been calqued from a Burmese idiom whose closet English counterpart might be ‘chickens come home to roost’ by eminent translator Maung Tha Noe in Moe Zaw’s poem Moonless Night. I thought the title ‘Bones will Crow’ would fit the anthology I was co-editing with James Byrne as most Burmese poets are skin and bones, literally and figuratively. My hope was that the book might provide, at least, to some of them a wider international platform from which they can ‘crow.’ The phrase ‘bones will crow’ in the sense of ‘chickens come home to roost’ could also be a caveat to the Burmese authorities who have ruined countless Burmese lives.

Sometimes translators have little room for imagination when a Burmese poet uses transliterated English – as in ‘pencil heel’ in Eaindra’s celebrated Lily. James Byrne suggested to me a more sophisticated-sounding ‘stiletto heel’ but I stood my grounds and insisted it is written ‘pencil heel’ in Burmese and that all pencil heels may be stiletto heels but not all stiletto heels are pencil heels. Sometimes you might want to turn onomatopoeic hyperbole into hyperbole as in a line of my recent translation of Eaindra’s CASHIER where she compares her irrepressible urges for cash or cashier surging inside her to the sound of great waves. I have simply turned the sounds of the waves into ‘tsunami’ and I am glad Eaindra loves it. Some culture-specific concepts such as dukkha or metta may be untranslatable or only undertranslatable. And it is up to the translator to decide what to do with them.

In Lynnzinyaw’s piece, The Resource-Rich Country, I went to an extreme length when I did the cultural translation of the longish name of a Burmese cartoon character ‘Khin Maung Thein Tun Win’ as the Monty Python character ‘Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern Schplenden Schlitter  Crasscrenbon Fried Digger Dangle Dungle Burstein von Knacker Thrasher Apple Banger Horowitz Ticolensic Grander Knotty Spelltinkle Grandlich Grumblemeyer Spelterwasser Kürstlich Himbleeisen Bahnwagen Gutenabend Bitte Eine Nürnburger Bratwustle Gerspurten mit Zweimache Luber Hundsfut Gumberaber Shönendanker Kalbsfleisch Mittler Raucher von Hautkopft of Ulm.’

Have I gone too far? I hope not. ‘Khin Maung Thein Tun Win’ is extraordinarily lengthy for a Burmese moniker. For impact and irony, under the spell of “Johnny Cake Hollow”, I couldn’t help but rechristen Khin Maung Thein Tun Win, who represents the underclass of the Burmese society, the utterly unknown “Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern Schplenden Schlitter  Crasscrenbon Fried Digger Dangle Dungle Burstein von Knacker Thrasher Apple Banger Horowitz Ticolensic Grander Knotty Spelltinkle Grandlich Grumblemeyer Spelterwasser Kürstlich Himbleeisen Bahnwagen Gutenabend Bitte Eine Nürnburger Bratwustle Gerspurten mit Zweimache Luber Hundsfut Gumberaber Shönendanker Kalbsfleisch Mittler Raucher von Hautkopft of Ulm.”

 Sobre Ko Ko Thett

Poeta, tradutor, editor e exilado político até 2011, nasceu em Rangum em 1972. Em 1995, enquanto estudava engenharia no Instituto de Tecnologia de sua cidade natal (YIT), lançou clandestinamente seu primeiro livro de poemas Old Gold. Com o lançamento de Funeral do ouro resistente, seu segundo livreto, ele foi detido, em uma base militar por 135 dias, por seu engajamento na insurreição política de dezembro de 1996. Após a sua libertação, em abril de 1997, Ko Ko Thett deixou tanto o YIT como a própria Birmânia, mudando-se para Singapura e, em seguida, para Bangkok, onde passou três anos trabalhando para o Serviço Jesuítico aos Refugiados Ásia-Pacífico. Em 2000, Thett foi para a Finlândia, onde fez estudos de paz e conflito na Universidade de Helsinki, antes de se mudar para Viena, onde estudou no Instituto para o Desenvolvimento Internacional da Universidade de Viena. Atualmente, vive na Bélgica e é o editor do website birmano “Poesia Internacional” e co-editor e tradutor de Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets, an anthology of Burmese poetry, que, em 2012, recebeu o prêmio English PEN Writers in Translation Programme (Inglaterra) e foi considerado pelo jornal inglês The Guardian “um dos dez melhores livros que captam um dos países mais tumultuados da história”. Saiu, este ano, The Burden of Being Burmese, seu novo livro de poemas.