Yeats Reborn: 13 June 2015
A poem is translated so that it “can ‘live on’ beyond the linguistic and cultural milieu of its origin and find ever new readerships”[i]
When I started the Yeats Reborn translation project for EFACIS, I had had some experience in translating from English, German and old Dutch into contemporary Dutch. I had already translated some Wordsworth with our colleague and mentor Herman Servotte and in 1999-2000 had worked closely with three professional translators to render 48 poems by Yeats. This led to a beautiful little book, De mooiste van Yeats, (Tielt/Amsterdam: Lannoo/Atlas, 2000) with translations by Koen Stassijns, Ivo Van Strijtem, Ben Cami (+), Paul Claes, Jan Eijkelboom (+), Adriaan Roland Holst (+), Geert Van Istendael and myself. In the introduction I presented Yeats to the Dutch-speaking reader (9-26). I also translated texts by Goethe, Mörike, Eichendorff and Tieck, set to music by Schubert and Schumann, Wolf and Brahms. The next project was the big New Bible Translation (Nieuwe Bijbel Vertaling) into contemporary Dutch (2000-2004), which was interesting because it was ecumenical, involving Protestants and Catholics from both the Netherlands and Flanders. I was a member of the committee which looked at the translation by our Dutch colleagues from a Flemish point of view. (Flemish is related to Dutch like American English to British English.) This involved comparing their version to the Greek text, St Jerome’s Vulgate, Luther’s translation, the King James Bible, the Traduction oecuménique de la Bible, the beautifully archaic Statenbijbel and many later versions. It was striking how the differences in grammar, cultural embedding and sound patterns revealed connotations we had been unaware of. While we were doing this, one person, Pieter Oussoren, also translated the Old and New Testament, also finishing in 2004, and his version (the Naardense Bijbel) is much closer to the Hebrew and Greek texts, which, I think, makes it more poetic. In 2014 he finished a revised version which is even closer to the source text, his credo being that the more literal the translation the more the clash of languages will reveal the poetic effects. In this sense he sees poetry in its original form as poieisis, Greek for creation, or making. Indeed, when the translator adheres to the original images and turns of phrase the reader has to be creative, crossing the bridge between the two languages to see his own familiar country from the other side, which is a rejuvenating exercise.
For the Yeats Reborn project I chose 34 poems from across Yeats’s oeuvre which all dealt in one way or another with being born, dying and being reborn – not only literally but metaphorically too, as we can change thoroughly. From these, 28 poems were selected by the participants. Translations of plays were also welcome, and six translators answered that call, translating five plays. Further, six essays were translated.
All in all 19 countries and 20 languages are involved in the Yeats project, some of them opening up to Yeats for the first time.
People who chose to translate a Yeats text were also invited to write a concise essay (c.800 words) in English about the specific problems they encountered in bridging the gaps between Yeats’s idiom and their own. A jury of about 40 people, usually two for each language, were asked to assess the submissions in three categories: (1) top work, (2) good but not perfect, (3) not acceptable.
There will be several publications: in the book Yeats Reborn (October 2015) we hope to publish the top 100 translations of poems. “The Ballad of Moll Magee”, “The Stolen Child” and “A Coat” proved to be surprisingly popular, but the usual suspects like “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”,“Leda and the Swan”, “Sailing to Byzantium” were also favorites, which makes for interesting comparative material. That the book will contain only poetry is due to aesthetic reasons as well as to consistency, but the main reason is that poetry, being so tightly woven, is the best genre to showcase the problems of translation: languages show their inner parts more in poetry than in any other literary form.
One might say that translating a poem is like doing a musical crossword puzzle, in the sense that you need to find words or fiddle with synonyms of a certain length and sound which have to fit with other words and sounds in the texture. Or, to take an image from Yeats, one can see a poem as a coat: if you have to recut it for another person with a completely different build you may have to move the shoulders and cuffs which is complicated; if the person is markedly taller or smaller you may also have to move the pockets to make the coat more convenient; in some cases (when the coat is old and a bit worn in places) you even have to turn the coat inside out, finding all kinds of zipped-up inside pockets which also need to be unzipped, moved and rezipped.
Translating is a verbal and musical sport; you have to be attentive, receptive, careful and supple; you have to be creative and concise, you have to pick and pollard. You have to listen to the original poem with three ears: one pays attention to the sound patterns in a line, another to the end rhyme and a third to the entire rhythm. You also have to look with three eyes: one sees the literal and the metaphorical images, one the imaginary and historical content to which the poet refers, and the third the whole cultural context. Finally; you have to have sensors all over your body, your soul and your bag of words, to pick up the vibes the poet has condensed in his poem and find a correlative that echoes with the original.
This also goes for the translation of Yeats’s plays and essays, which will be published on the special new Yeats Reborn website of EFACIS. This website is sponsored by Yeats2015 and will contain:
1) Five plays by Yeats: On Baile’s Strand (Castilian); The Dreaming of the Bones (Dutch); The Cat and the Moon (Hungarian and Castilian), The Player Queen (Castilian); Purgatory (Hungarian)
2) Six essays by Yeats: “At Stratford-on-Avon” (Italian); “William Blake and the Imagination” (Romanian); “The Theatre” (Italian); “The Autumn of the Body”(Italian, Romanian) “The Moods” (Romanian), “Discoveries” (Hungarian)
3) Essays in English written by the students about their translation experience (Jury: Jody Allen-Randolph, Matt Campbell, Maud Ellmann, Meg Harper and Declan Kiberd, H. Schwall)
4) c.170 translations of poems, selected by the juries of the different languages
When we look at the students’ essays it looks like not only Yeats was revived, but the translators too, and their mentors who are gratefully linked into the project:
“It was hard work but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I know the end-result is not perfect, but I am proud of it and it gives me a sense of achievement. It was my moment with Yeats across times and languages.”
“Earlier during my studies when I had attended my courses on modern English literature Yeats’ poetry was nothing more than a pile of set text in the curriculum. Now, I can gladly confess that my attitude has changed, since for the last two years I have spent more and more time to better understand the importance of his work not just from his country’s point of view, but from a European point of view as well.” (Jozsef Pap)
“For me translation of poems is a joy and a kind of satisfying activity which makes me think, gives me pleasure – especially if I can make others happy when they read my work and salute the writer at the same time. With thanks to Csilla Bertha, Professor, University of Debrecen, Zsuzsanna Rednik, teacher, Anikó Kovács, poet and Zsolt Paál, teacher and poet. (Robert Rascai)
“My adventure has begun reading Yeats Reborn: the Yeats Anniversary Project, which has taken me back to my University years when Professor Maria Stella, who died prematurely, initiated me into Yeats’ poetry. To her I dedicate this modest attempt as a translator.” (M. Pasquariello)
On the Yeats Reborn website, the plays will be very important too. We heard from our network that the translations of the plays old and new sometimes inspired splendid performances. The one of At The Hawk’’s Well in Budapest is an example in case. The theatre company, inspired by Melinda Szuts, found an excellent director; music was written especially for this play, and costumes were embroidered to fit the atmosphere of this magnificent Noh play. As money restrictions do not allow us to have these groups touring, we now invite everyone to make a film version of their performances of Yeats’s plays and we will post them on the Yeats Reborn website, so that all scholars in all parts of the world can interact and exchange ideas to enrich the performances further.
In short, we invite everyone to participate in the blogs of the Yeats Reborn website, once the texts are all published.
And on this very special Yeats Day, 13 June 2015, we send special thanks
to all those members of the jury who did all that work over the past half year
to the students of both secondary schools and universities, the colleagues, professional translators and renowned writers who took part in this project;
And of course, most thanks to Sien Deltour who did all the coordinating and compiling, and to Carlos Solis Reyes, our webmaster, supported by EFACIS and Yeats2015.
On 4-5 December 2015 EFACIS will close off this Yeats Year with a conference organized by the Leuven Centre for Irish Studies (LCIS) on four aspects of Yeats’s work: (1) the translations will be studied by a group of leading academics in translation studies; (2) his poetry will be analyzed with new methods (3) new ways of staging Yeats in European theatres will be discussed (4) How can digitizing Yeats energize the creativity of the Yeats community?
On this occasion the Yeats Reborn book will be launched and the finished website represented. All welcome!
KU Leuven, Director of the LCIS
[i] Delabastita, Dirk. “Literary translation.” Handbook of Translation Studies: Volume 2. Ed. Yves Gambier and Luc Van Doorslaer. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2011. 69. Print.