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Saturday, 29 September 2007

What is the language using us for?

My title is from the title of three poems by W.S. Graham. It is a quotation that sprang instantly to mind as I read a review by James Buchan of Ian Fairley's "translation" from Paul Celan's, "Snow Part/Schneepart and Other Poems (1968-1969)". He began his review by asking whether there can be any point to translating poetry.

The question has been raised many times before, by critics and writers, poets and linguists. Others too, have wrestled with the issues involved: cognitive scientists like Naom Chomsky and Fodor for instance. Indeed, the scientific study of language grew up with the development of the cognitive sciences, and has now become one of its central topics - and surely one of the most controversial. The problem of "what the words say" is fascinating in whichever aspect it is studied. It gives food for thought to playwrights, critics, philosophers and others and has spawned the current hot potato of (the impossibility of?) translating verse from one language to another.

There are perhaps three main strands to the problem:
words and their meanings
flow and rhythm
rhyme and assonance
Retain one of these as you translate, and you will lose the other two. There is a saying in Italian which we might render as: "translator - betrayer". Words just don't have literal equivalents in other languages, much less do they do they carry the same raft of alternative meanings and echoes of distant meanings from which we derive the all-important nuances, the vital ambiguities.

There are those - and I am all but persuaded to sign up - who argue that language, having developed for purely domestic and practical purposes, is suited to just those, and is out of its depth in deeper realms. In poetry, for example. If "uncertainty in meaning is incipient poetry" (Can anyone direct me to the source of that quote? I have not been able to track it down), it is also a barrier to understanding

Here are some lines from the first of Graham's three poems:

Certain experiences seem to not
Want to go into language maybe
Because of shame or the reader’s shame.
Let us observe Malcolm Mooney.

Let us get through the suburbs and drive
Out further just for fun to see
What he will do. Reader, it does
Not matter. He is only going to be

Myself and for you slightly you
Wanting to be another. He fell.
He falls (Tenses are everywhere.)
Deep down into a glass jail.

Malcolm Mooney is Graham's fictional explorer. According to Lopez the name derived from a chain of bars owned by Guiness.
Now here are the first ten (and a bit) lines from the second poem:

What is the language using us for?
It uses us all and in its dark
Of dark actions selections differ.

I am not making a fool of myself
For you. What I am making is
A place for language in my life

Which I want to be a real place
Seeing I have to put up with it
Anyhow. What are Communication’s

Mistakes in the magic medium doing
To us?

And finally, the last two verses from the third poem

What is the language using us for?
I don’t know. Have the words ever
Made anything of you, near a kind
Of truth you thought you were? Me
Neither. The words like albatrosses
Are only a doubtful touch towards
My going and you lifting your hand

To speak to illustrate an observed
Catastrophe. What is the weather
Using us for where we are ready
With all our language lines aboard?
The beginning wind slaps the canvas.
Are you ready? Are you ready?

In fact I could have taken my examples from any of Graham's poems. His early ones embody the problem, his later ones address it. Here is Dennis O'Driscoll on Graham:
'Language itself became a central obsession of his later work, especially in the incomparable "Malcolm Mooney's Land" (1970). This book appeared after a fifteen your gap and evinced a desire on the part of the poet to make contact in the most direct way possible with his readers: "Anyhow here we are and never / Before have we two faced each other who face / Each other now across this abstract scene."'
Again: 'Indeed in an uncollected poem, he remarked that he had begun "to speak what I think is / My home tongue," and "to translate/English into English."
Yet his words retained much of their sense of mystery and paradox and the overall effect was of what he had once termed "Intellect sung in a garment of innocence."'

Poetry is not just words or just sound patterns or even just meaning. At its best it is metaphor set to music. Retain the words and neither music nor metaphor will be replicated in the target language. Take rhyme, for example: it arises naturally during the composing of the original poem, since it is part of the same dynamic process that produces both the content, which leads up to it and gives it its rightness, and the rhythm and flow by which the poem breathes. It is, in other words, the content that returns the sonar echoes of nuance, the "pings" given off by the word when, being exactly the right word, it alerts us to its relationships to other words nearby.

some languages are rich in rhyme: Italian, for example, where every other word, it seems, ends in a or i. One consequence of this is the more frequent use of an eleven-syllable line for an iambic pentameter, necessary to accommodate the almost inevitable weak ending. (It happens in English, of course: Shakespeare's "To be or not to be, that is the question" being a very good example.) English, by contrast, has a very poor rhyme pool, so translations from Italian into English where rhyme is important become fraught with difficulty and the line may sound forced. French poets and dramatists like Racine made frequent use of hexameters which are cumbersome in English, the reason being that French is a very evenly stressed language that derives its rhythm from the varying vowel lengths, whereas English has at least one strong accent in every word of more than one syllable. This gives French a flexibility in the longer line that is denied to English

According to Fairley, Celan, a Jew who lost both of his parents in the Michelailovka Labour Camp and was himself a Holocaust survivor, could have written his poetry in any one of six or more languages, but chose to do so in German - the language by which was delivered the authority for his parents' deaths - but, Fairley says, he took on that language, its portmanteau words and logical structure and proceeded to demolish it, its logic, its structure and its meaning. "Only when language is utterly disabled," Fairley writes, "can it articulate, in some abandoned region at the end of space and history, a fugitive echo of reality."

In spite of my intention to write on the inadequacy of language to the purposes of poetry, I seem to have produced an appreciation of W.S. Graham. So that's what the language was using me for!

That being so, I'll let Graham have the final word:

What does it matter if the words
I choose, in the order I choose them in,
Go out into a silence I know
Nothing about, there to be let
In and entertained and charmed
Out of their master's orders? And yet
I would like to see where they go
And how without me they behave.

(Part 1 of "Approaches To How They Behave")


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Andrew said...

Several years after this blog entry, but in answer to your question about the source of "uncertainty of meaning is incipient poetry," it's George Steiner:


Dave King said...

Many thanks for your interest. It matters not a jot that it's a b it way back in time.