Saturday, March 18, 2006

Translating gendered language

Philip Balma's article "Passing through Language(s)" in the latest issue of Translation Review was an excellent view into the process of translation. Balma takes the reader through the poem "Solo solo solo" [Only only only] by Edith Bruck. (By the way, it's a beautiful poem, and you can order copies of Translation Review through the ALTA web site or when you become a member of ALTA.)

I especially enjoyed Balma's explanation of the gender-related subtleties of the poem. The narrative voice, in Italian, has strongly gendered implications, a definitely female vision of the speaking self. This gendered vision was difficult to translate. He points out places where the speaker addresses herself directly, and also that the title, while it has intentional ambiguity, does not mean "alone alone alone" or "lonely lonely lonely" because the adjective would be masculine and singular.

He says, "Upon completing a rough draft of this translation of "Solo solo solo" I was faced with the fact that I had not been able to transfer any textual evidence of the speaker as a woman. In truth, I don't expect I will ever find a way to convey this notion effectively without compromising the integrity of the translation." This is a very difficult issue. Balma adds, "The only other choice I made in hopes of clarifying the femininity of the speaker was perhaps too subtle to achieve its purpose." From the lines "un colore/come un altro/non la stella/da cucire sul cappotto" Balma arrived at "a color/like any other/not the star/to sew on my coat" by choosing the more active form of "to sew" over "to be sewn", with the assumption that the (woman's) voice spoke of who would be likely to do the sewing.

In my own translation I swing very slightly to the side of inserting extra signifiers into the poem in exactly this type of situation, where gender is an important factor in the poem, and leaving it out fails to convey crucial information to the reader. I don't think this makes the poem a Lowellian "Imitation" any more than leaving gender out does - if it is done well.

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