In January, I came across a tweet from poet NM Esc, also known as Neon Mashurov, reading, “I think translating activates the same part of my brain as doing jigsaw puzzles, which, for anyone who has never seen the absolutely obsessive way I tackle jigsaw puzzles, means I might have a new favorite project genre.” As a monolingual writer, I lack the tools necessary to fully immerse myself in the jigsaw experience of transforming, from scratch, one language into another. As someone who has assisted a former classmate with the process of editing poetry translations, however, I see exactly why a jigsaw puzzle would be an obvious point of non-linguistic comparison.
Each word in a translated poem should accurately evoke the meaning of the original; that much is obvious. Less obviously, depending on the poem and its style and artistic or ideological goals, a translated word might also need to evoke the original’s shape, its sound, its rhythm, its rhyme. It might need to carry a whole world of connotations on its back. There is rarely just one option for the right word in a translation, so the translating poet must shift through a mess of word-pieces, seeking whichever will lock into place exactly with the others, fitting comfortably and bringing the desired larger image to life.
There are limitations to this metaphor. Mainly, because as Willis Barnstone explained in the 2001 piece, “An ABC of Translating Poetry,” “A translation is an x-ray, not a xerox.” The poetry translator’s goal is not to perfectly recreate the image on a box. Rather, it is as though the translator is looking at the image on a box and then imagining what lies just beneath. The skin is stripped away and a skeleton is constructed for the image, from deduction and imagination, in a kind of cryptozoological (cryptopaleontological?) act of artistry. We see not what readers of the original language see, but we see what made the original language work. What made it stand up and move. This might not be the work of a jigsaw-solver, but it certainly presents a puzzle.
Barnstone’s work also tells us, “A good translation is a good joke. Reader, you are fooled.” A successful pun considers, transforms, and makes art from a word’s multiple meanings and dimensions, and a successful translation does the same. Translating poetry is fundamentally an act of wordplay. One must play with the words as if with Lincoln Logs or Play-Doh—or jigsaw pieces! In an earlier post on poetry, I featured the above comic strip, in which Nancy takes a creative, boundary-breaking approach to solving the jigsaw puzzle of her surroundings, and perhaps that is the most accurate metaphor for translation.
In a 2018 conversation with NPR, translator and poet Aaron Coleman posits, “The language lapses that inhibit an ideal interpretation can ultimately be ‘a creative, productive failure.’” Coleman goes on to say, “Maybe it can open up a new way for us to see what can happen in English and what can happen in Spanish, for me, or whatever the original language is.” Nancy, in switching around the puzzle pieces, has engaged in creative, productive failure, opening up a new way for us to see what can happen in the language of the puzzle. I love this perspective on translation, as someone who would not typically be considered to have the language skills necessary to translate from one language to another.
If you too are hesitant to try poetry translation because of the limits of your language, I’d like to invite you to go ahead and try anyway, even if you have to lean on Google Translate every step of the way. Even if you resort to marking some sections entirely untranslatable. In the words of The Magic School Bus’ Ms. Frizzle, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy,” this National Poetry Month! Find some creative, productive failures that open up new ways for you to look at language. Maybe your finished product will be the verbal equivalent of Winston’s jumble of a jigsaw puzzle at the top of this post; that doesn’t mean you can’t call it a masterpiece.
Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! Be sure to sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on everything PuzzleNation!