Tim Parks, NYRblog:
Why do those “usual reliable translators” often give us work that we feel is wooden or lackluster, thus inviting the poets to get involved? Teaching translation, I frequently deal with students who write well in their mother tongue, but whose translations into that tongue lack fluency. This brings us to a paradox at the heart of translation: the text we take as inspiration is also the greatest obstacle to expression. Our own language prompts us in one direction, but the text we are trying to respect says something else, or says the same thing in a way that feels very different. We have come to what Paul Celan meant when, despairing of translating Baudelaire, he remarked that “poetry is the fatal uniqueness of language.” All the same, what often frees the student to offer better translations is a deeper knowledge of the language he is working from: a better grasp of the original allows the translator to detach from formal structures and find a new expression for the tone he is learning to feel: in this case, however, every departure from strict transposition is inspired by an intimate and direct experience of the original.
All this to arrive at the obvious conclusion that while expression and creativity in one’s own language is crucial, a long experience in the language we are working from can only improve the translations we make. But having hit that rather easy nail on the head, we can now ask the really interesting question: why are such intelligent writers as Eliot, Lowell, Pasternak, Robertson, and McKendrick unwilling to consider the question more carefully. Is it because, to return to Tranströmer, “We must believe in poetry translation, if we want to believe in World Literature.” There is no point, that is, in examining what we do too closely if we’ve already decided what we want our conclusion to be.