Thursday, October 20, 2011

Drunken Boat II

(Best Garrison Keillor Voice)

It's the birthday of Gaullic assfucker Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud. Born somewhere in rural France, nobody really gave or gives a shit where (least of all him), he lived a life of putrid fakery until he began writing poems, at which point he realized that keeping this up would force people to forgive him everything. So he did, and they did, and the rest is history. Read his poems if you want to find out at exactly what it means to be an adolescent, because really, no one was more of one than him (hence his enduring appeal with adolescents, serial killers, and rock and roll singers). Imitate him if you want to die of leg cancer in your mother's barn.

Back when he was still writing things that looked like poems, he wrote a mini-epic called Le Bateau Ivre, which is always translated as The Drunken Boat, but which I like to call The Ship, Shitfaced. It starts like this. 

The Ship, Shitfaced

I was going down
river when suddenly I realized that everyone was dead! Redskins 
had stapled their pale faces to my boards, which were red too now. 

Then the suitors showed up: wogs with cotton 
and the butter-boxes. They 
wanted me, but I told them to fuck off: 
I had a man already. His name was River 

and he was a drunk. 
He called me kid-stuff because of the way my ass hugged
his peninsula. He lashed me so hard I screamed.

We danced all night. Ten nights straight. By 
the time we made it to sea I knew 
I wasn't his first, but you better believe 
I didn't look back for a lighthouse. 

He tasted like apples. Kid-stuff! he cried. 
It didn't matter, 
he made me clean, 
no more wine and puke. Just green green apples. 

From then on I took a bath
every morning. I was milk and stars.
Sailors the color of old fish passed
us with electric blue smiles on their faces. I waved.

Then things went red. 

...And so on and so on, for 24 unbelievable stanzas. One of modern poetry's greatest monuments. After it, nothing was the same. Of the extant translations, I've found some accurate (Fowlie), beautiful (Schmidt), or confusing (Eshlemann). Probably my favorite is by early Nabokov, who turned it into Пяный Корфбль. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Two Thoughts

1) The much-reported impossibility of translating the great 19th-century Russian poets (Pushkin, Lermontov, a bunch of wonderful writers who my under-read ass doesn't know) makes sense when you think of those poets as translators, and their untranslatable poems therefore as translations. Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, which is my favorite book, presents a particularly striking example of this: translated into English (no matter how adeptly) it sounds unsurprising, like something we've read before. Il est plat, votre poet, as Flaubert told Turgenev. Which is perfectly understandable, since that's what EO is: a translation of Don Juan, not just into the language, but into the mood, place, spirit and character of Russia. In this way, it's closest analogue in English is probably something like the Rubiyat or Pound's Cathay or Logue's War Music: an original poem that gets its poetry from the fierce and loving annex of a foreign sensibility. Pushkin as master translator (better: genius as translator. Shakespeare, who dealt in Ovid, another perfect example. Or Chaucer, who is to my mind the closest English-language comparison to Pushkin).

2) For a long time, I thought it would be interesting to write about the problem of film adaptations (Lord of the Rings or Spider Man, or the forthcoming Lord of the Spider Ring Lantern Vampires), which seem to me to succeed or fail insofar as they have the balls and vision to depart creatively from their source material. But then I realized that movies, like plays, are themselves already adaptations of a pre-existing text. Interesting, no? So, if we agree that the problems of adaptation and the problems of translation can throw at least a little light on one another, we should therefore also admit that movies are particularly useful things for a translator to study. The need for more books or records that show us this process happening. Documentaries? X on X-type collections of interviews?