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Translator’s Note: Voicing a Voice

Forty-nine questions about power, originality, performance, and what we mean when we talk about the translator’s voice in the translated text.

  1. What is the translator’s voice?
  2. What happens to voice when I am a woman translating a poem written by a man?
  3. Does his voice become less authentic, or does mine?
  4. And what about when the poem is written by a man in a language in which the conjugation of the verb informs you which gender is speaking without having to state it, and the poem is all in first person?
  5. Does the gender in my voice place his subjectivity under stress?
  6. When I get annoyed that this poet keeps using the same vague word over and over that could mean anything from footprints to marks to traces to tracks to vestige to remains, is my frustration a sign of the difference in our voices?
  7. When I choose to translate that one vague word differently in each of the thirteen instances it appears in his collection, is this an example of claiming my voice?
  8. How do I embody my voice when translating?
  9. Which language do I subvocalize, my mouth responding as if preparing to read aloud when silently reading the original poem?
  10. Does my tongue twitch with the words on the page or the English of the translation that begins straightaway to form in my head?
  11. When I give a public reading with the poet, who reads first?
  12. Would you rather take in the poet’s voice first as simply sonic texture, or do you like first to know a little of the meaning of the sounds before you hear them?
  13. How central is the meter of my voicing of a voice? (And in parenthesis, is it apparent I have asked this question in iambic lilt?)
  14. How do I feel, exactly, about the fact that the poet’s wife once said after one of our readings: I can tell your translations are good—the poems sound the same when you say them in English?
  15. Do I want them to sound the same?
  16. And is it Elizabeth Bishop’s voice or mine when I hear myself silently exclaim: How “unlikely” . . . ?
  17. Likewise, whose voice am I translating in a series of poems that begin with Pink Floyd’s lyric “I wish you were here” translated into the original poem and I translate it back and I get the English “wrong”?
  18. What does voice have to do with being correct (i.e., being faithful, as so many have said and still like to say)?
  19. Does finding my voice as a translator inevitably mean being unfaithful?
  20. What about if I translate “twenty-two” as “ten” because I need to fit the words into iambic pentameter, but the living poet says it’s OK?
  21. What if I am the only one who hears his verbal permission?
  22. And if the poet is dead?
  23. Who owns voice?
  24. Whose voice am I using when I find myself writing sonnets after translating a whole book of them?
  25. Does the other poet’s voice give me permission?
  26. Does the other poet’s voice give me authority and power?
  27. If a book I’ve translated wins an award, who gets the money, who walks first to the podium?
  28. And why do we assume the translator must stand there, silent, awkward, slightly behind, waiting to lean in only after the poet has spoken, and only then to repeat what he’s just said?
  29. Is voice but bodily production, a welling up of feeling as I stand there, mute and self-conscious and somehow ashamed, preparing to say what it is that I have to say?
  30. Is voice always something responsive, meaning derived, meaning not just produced but reproduced?
  31. Could it be that the midwifery metaphor applies not just to translation but to voice?
  32. Is voice the way we midwife ourselves into the world, claim a space, stop feeling shame?
  33. Do I leave a trace of my DNA in anything I voice?
  34. Will I ever get over the sense that my voice passes down some sort of flaw or sickness when it comes to translation, a kind of mutation?
  35. Is translation about survival of the fittest voice?
  36. Is translation parasitic, sucking the poem’s blood?
  37. How long will I feel mortified about the time I accidentally claimed the stage—drinking in the spotlight—by walking out in front of the poet, and now I keep thinking back to those steps, how they must have seemed opportunistic and overly confident?
  38. Do we like the translator’s voice better if it’s humble?
  39. Or is the question about who goes first more about who gets to give the introduction?
  40. Is it possible to write an introduction to a work in translation without a voice filled in part with awe for the original, in part with persuasive rhetoric to convince an American audience to care about the foreign?
  41. And when an editor rejected my translation because it lacked, in his words, “overwhelming urgency,” was he thinking of voice as the lyric’s allusion that a single, coherent subjectivity is speaking?
  42. Must the subjectivity of that voice—containing mine or not—speak to an American agenda?
  43. And what if the lyric actively destabilizes voice (e.g., He Do the Police in Different Voices)?
  44. Am I asserting my own voice when I choose to translate the work of a woman writer in order to promote more gender parity in US publishing?
  45. And if this woman writer keeps using a different vague word in her poems that I choose to render alternately as spot and space and place and room and seat, is my voice taking a seat at the table?
  46. Why does my voice get hung up on these simple, vague words when I translate?
  47. Is it because they aren’t my own vague words, those natural to my voice, that I say all the time over the dinner table?
  48. Do we all have such words, like the kind I don’t realize I use all the time till my daughter starts saying them back to me, and I suddenly hear my own voice in her mouth?
  49. Is all voicing, then, in this way, translation?
Photo of Mira Rosenthal
Mira Rosenthal, a past fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and Stanford University’s Stegner Program, publishes poetry and translations regularly in such journals as Ploughshares, Threepenny Review, Poetry, Harvard Review, New England Review, A Public Space, and Oxford American. Her first book of poems, The Local World, received the Wick Poetry Prize. Her honors include the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies. She teaches in Cal Poly’s creative writing program.