It's Easier if You Don't Use Words


November 15, 1993|By ANDREI CODRESCU

NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans. -- It started out innocently enough. A group of American writers was going to host a distinguished French poet for a week and translate one of his poems. What could be more harmless? A beautiful hotel in New Orleans, poets seated around a table, mineral water and wine. Ah, but poesy has mysterious ways.

Slowly, slowly, the exercise of translating the high romantic verses of our host began to take on the hellish tint of labor in the mines of the underworld.

First, there were the words themselves, the meanings of which, even if it were possible to fathom them, did not cross willingly from one language into another.

Take ''crevisse'' for instance, which could be ''crevasse,'' ''chasm,'' ''fissure'' or ''crack.'' Each translator was partial to a different vision of that ''crevisse.'' My left-hand neighbor, being of a gloomy disposition, was enamored of ''chasm.'' At my right, there was a push for ''fissure.'' Myself, I went for ''crack.''

The poet himself, elegant and still like a marmorean rendition of the Poet himself, hovered bemusedly over the proceedings, LTC proffering now and then some subtle essence of thought. In this case, he pronounced that if we used the work ''crack'' we might be accused of drug propaganda.

Everyone came briefly down from the lyric ether for this, but soon we ascended again. No two words seemed to pass easily over from French into English, a resistance which could be attributed to the fact that in French there are fewer words than in English, thus making each one a trifle more precious.

The poem itself, like the poet, offered no compromises: It soared relentlessly on the back of a bruised female figure which had done the same job for hundreds of French poets before.

After five eight-hour days of this attempt to steer the recalcitrant French muse into the pragmatic confines of American directness, I ran screaming out of the translation chamber convinced that:

1) No one should ever translate anything -- it's easier to learn the original language.

2) The reason I escaped communism was that groups such as these awaited me as soon as I looked old enough to suffer.

Andrei Codrescu is editor of ''Exquisite Corpse.''

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