Tuesday, March 29, 2011

One Poem, Two Translations

I read Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces in my junior year of college and have returned to it several times since. The novel is so lyrical, it blurs the line between prose and poetry. It’s such a pleasure to lose myself in her words again and again, immersing myself completely before I come up for air.

My copy was used when I purchased it, so it was already marked up in a lovely shade of green ink. I did some dog-earing of my own when the book came into my possession, and it’s funny to see where I overlap with the mysterious first reader. There’s this beautiful quote we both picked out: “Reading a poem in translation is like kissing a woman through a veil.” 

I was reminded of this line when a friend posted a poem he had translated. Now, I’m a French speaker (with a tiny smattering of Italian/Hebrew), so the Spanish poem was all Greek to me. (Funny joke alert: Fugitive Pieces is set in Greece.) That is, until my friend removed the veil. 

Inspired, I did a little digging into the poet and found a second translation. Fascinating! The general direction was the same, but the difference was keen. It all came down to diction. (I have such respect for people who translate novels…What a Herculean task!) See for yourself:

by Antonio Machado

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino, y nada más;
caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino,
sino estelas en la mar.

Translation by my friend Sean:
Traveler, the path is made
by your passage, nothing more;
Traveler, there is no roadway,
for it is made as you journey.
By walking you make the way,
and turning, you look back to see
a path which you will never tread again.
Traveler, there is no roadway,
save the wild sea's wake.

Translation from Wikipedia:
Walker, your footsteps
are the road, and nothing more.
Walker, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
Walking you make the road,
and turning to look behind
you see the path you never
again will step upon.
Walker, there is no road,
only foam trails on the sea.

So, how did they stack up? Which one did you prefer? Why? Any Spanish speakers/studiers in the house that could do better? I’ll weigh in with my thoughts when some comments get going. :)


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  3. I consider myself a Spanish studier (and former Machado reader), and I'm having trouble choosing between the two versions. I think there is a beautiful simplicity present in the use of "walker" to address the reader that is lost in Sean's translation. That having been said, your friend's translation definitely fits better stylistically. His "a path which you will never tread again" is much more beautiful than "the path you never again will step upon."

  4. I have a degree in Spanish (in addition to the English Education degree that keeps me gainfully employed), and I just love Spanish poetry! And the rhythm of the original is just gorgeous and makes me think of movement. I think your friend's translation captures the music and the sound of the poem a bit more faithfully. And while "walker" is a more literal translation of "caminante", I think traveller is a bit closer to the feel/theme of the poem itself.

    Check out Pablo Neruda if you haven't already...his poems (I almost typed poemas...now I have Spanish on the brain!) are just gorgeous.

  5. I was having trouble choosing myself! I think it comes down to the last lines. Both of them really encapsulate their poem for me. I love the friendly diction and optimism of "save the wild sea's wake" but there's a haunting simplicity and loneliness in "only foam trails on the sea." Two entirely different moods translated from one poem...Amazing.

  6. As Spaniard I can say that Wikipedia translation is too literal and it does not remain much poetry and rhythm from original. Personally I love this poem because of the rhythm create between the words "caminante" and "camino", but unfortunately it is not in any version above. Having said that, I think Sean's translation is closer to the richness and beauty of this poem.

    I've just read that this blog is over. What a pity!

    (Sorry for my grammar mistakes)

  7. Hi, Nerea! What a pleasure to hear your opinion. :) I really will have to tell Sean.

    Thank for reading! And while the blog may be over, I still talk about books and things over on my Twitter: @simplebookworm