So this spring — to my great excitement and gratitude — I’ve been allowed to sit in on a graduate seminar on translation theory and practice. (EEEEE!)
For this week, as a practical exercise, we were to translate a brief Spanish-language poem (actually, a single stanza from a much longer Spanish poem) into English or our native language. The catch was this: the translation had to include rhyme and meter.
As my Saudi students like to say — easy peasy lemon squeezy!
If only …
The Assignment: A Nicaraguan Classic
Darío’s original consists of 69 lines in total, with 17 quatrains and a final single-line stanza. Among the 17, one quatrain repeats as a refrain, with only minor variations.
Juventud, divino tesoro,
¡ya te vas para no volver!
Cuando quiero llorar, no lloro…
y a veces lloro sin querer…
If you translate it literally, it looks like this:
Youth, divine treasure,
already you’re departing, never to return!
When I want to cry, I don’t cry…
and sometimes I cry without wanting to…
Not very pretty that way, is it?
The Spanish quatrain rhymes with an AbAb pattern. Tesoro and lloro have a stressed-unstressed pattern in the last two syllables, making them “feminine” rhymes (expressed in a capital A), while volver and querer are stressed at the very end, making them “masculine” (lower case b).
As for the meter, this gets tricky. English is a stress-timed language, which means the meter depends on the number of stresses and rhythmic “feet” in a line (feet = iambs, anapests, etc.). Unstressed syllables tend to get swallowed or glided over, while we slow down on stressed syllables. They’re the drumbeat.
Spanish, however, is syllable-timed. The drumbeat doesn’t rely so much on stressed syllables, because you won’t slow down on them as you would in English. That’s why Spanish poetry won’t pay so much attention (if any?) to iambs, trochees, dactyls, and other strangely-named stress patterns. Syllable count is more important.
That said, in Darío’s quatrain, the syllable count is 9 – 8 – 9 – 8.
So how can we translate the Spanish formal aspects into pleasant-sounding English, when we’re dealing with different systems of rhythm?
The Result: A Pennsyltuckian Parody
When I set out on this translation adventure, I made a few decisions:
- Rhyme – I would preserve the masculine/feminine rhymes in the same position, if possible.
- Meter – I would approximate the 9-syllable lines with anapestic trimeter, which amounts to 9-10 syllables per line.
- Content – I would stick to the literal sense whenever possible, but also allow creativity in expressing similar ideas.
So much for the parameters. To get started, I isolated an individual line, translated it how I felt it should be expressed in English, and then built a translation around it to see what would happen.
And oh boy, something happened.
I tried different voices, registers, rhymes, and phrasings, but in the end, I was left with only one version that I liked.
A Pennsyltuckian Parody of Rubén Darío
Oh my youth, now you’re really somethin’,
But you’ve gone and you’ve taken your sack!
When I want a good cry, it ain’t comin’…
When I don’t, there’s no holdin’ it back…
My stars (you’re protesting) how on earth can she justify this mockery?
Well, first of all, Pennsyltuckian is technically my native language, so it fits the assignment. 😉
Second, I don’t see it as a mockery. I did regret the more comic effect of the translation at first, as I assumed the original was serious and poignant. Later, I found out it was actually pretty raunchy. I mean, it’s BEGGING for parody. (Also, we have to ask ourselves: why is colloquial “country” English automatically comic? Couldn’t this be serious, too?)
THIRD — and more seriously, now — this colloquial translation follows a school of theory that argues for “domesticating” a work. That means crafting a translation closer to the audience than the source, using devices, wordings, or even images and attitudes that the author might have used if they had been a member of the target audience. (Think: how would a 20th-century Harlem Renaissance poet translate a 6th-century BC Greek poet?) In this case, I imagined how the same sentiments might be expressed in rural America … perhaps by a folk songwriter.
While I wouldn’t always recommend a domesticated translation, it can be fun, especially when it’s a creative imitation out of respect for the original.
What do you think?
Is a domestication (like the one above) a betrayal of the original, or a tribute?