Translation as violence?

“Translation rewrites a foreign text in terms that are intelligible and interesting to readers in the receiving culture. Doing so is akin to committing an act of ethnocentric violence by uprooting the text from the language and culture that gave it life. Translating into current, standard English at once conceals that violence and homogenizes foreign cultures.” –Lawrence Venuti, translator of Ernest Farres’ Edward Hopper: Poems (via language hat)


Oh, my. Violence.  With poetry.

“Browsing in a bookstore in Barcelona, I came across an intriguing project — who was this unknown poet tackling an American icon? Why Edward Hopper? Why in Catalan, a minor language?” said Venuti.

“Here the focus would be not just on the text, but the artwork; not only on the literary traditions of the receiving culture, but on the critical reception of the artist. The Catalan poetry held the promise of defamiliarizing a mythic American painter,” said Venuti.

Well, I had never heard of Hopper, but his diner painting is familiar. I’m not sure any translation could defamiliarize me with a painter I’ve never heard of, but Venuti has gone to the trouble of making a “lexicon” of Hopper’s language based on letters written by him and his wife for the purposes of translating the poems into what he says is typical language of Hopper’s time.

So is this all a bunch of hype , a dog and pony show to prod sales, or is Venuti “at the forefront of what might be called a translation renaissance”, as his university’s website says?

As an experiment, I’m going to try my hand at a little translation and then compare my results with Venuti’s to see who gets the more revolutionary result.  The originals in Catalan are pretty hard to find, but one has been selected to be visible in Amazon, the first link in the above quotation , so that’s the one I’m using.

Self Portrait, 1925-30

On escric tot aquest assortiment de versos

hi ha de fet l’Edward Hopper que els engendra

i que, bo i transcendent l’espai-temps, ve a donar-me

les consignes.

El seu autoretrat

és, com li agradaria al fantasista Borges,

un mirall que reprodueix no tant

el rostre del pintor com el reflex estàtic

de la meva imatge.  Podem ben creure-ho:

Hopper i jo formem una sola persona.

El seu posat tranquil i seriós,

les corbes de la cara o els tips d’embadalir-se

que s’han fet els seus ulls sense cap dubte

m’incumbeixen.  Si Goethe es reencarnà en Kafka,

Hopper en una transmigració

plena d’encert ho féu en mi i així, prenent

el cos d’un poeta, aconseguirà

que el seu llegat artístic es prolongui en el temps

(al final només resta la paraula,

la poesia).

L’home del quadre ja no és

aquell pintor prim com un tel de ceba

que va venir de jove a Europa trencar el glaç,

sinó el pintor casat, de vida estable,

que mostrarà el seu món personal reflectint

profusament ciutats, paisatges, dones.

(“No faig,” va dir, “sinó pintar-me a me mateix.”)

Erra qui veu representacions

d’América del Nord on de debo bateguen

els tràfecs de la solitud humana,

on intuïm les pors, obsessions, neguits.

dilemes o estats d’ànim de l’artista

i hi apareix la Jo, l’omnipresent esposa.

Com la pintura emmarcada, també

les abundants finestres i portes són miralls.

“No faig sinó pintar-me a mi mateix.”

No expressen els poetes el seu pensament propi?

Condemnat tot a ser una sola cosa,

en un ésser vivent vam fondre’ns ell i jo:

els seus neguits o estats d’ànim són meus

i a la vegada els meus són de tots a la llum

d’una mateixa lluna arreu del món.


Self Portrait, 1925-30 (Nijma translation)

In writing this assortment of verses

there remains the fact that Edward Hopper gives them life
and that, genially transcending space and time, comes to give me
the watchwords.

His self portrait

is, as you would like to imagine Borges,

a mirror that reproduces not so much
the visage of the painter as the static reflection
of my own visage. I can well believe it:

Hopper and I, we are one person.

His pose is quiet and serious,
The curves of his face or the full, satisfied self- fascination
That have made his eyes, without a doubt

absorbed with concern. If Goethe is reincarnated in Kafka,

Hopper is a  reincarnation
rightly done in me, and making me thus, taking
the body of a poet, making sure

that his artistic legacy is prolonged down through time

(at the end only one word will remain,

The man of the stable is no longer

That painter, thin as onion skin,

that came as a youth from Europe to break the ice

but rather the married painter, of stable lifestyle,
who shows his personal world reflected
profuse with cities, landscapes, women.

“I do nothing,” he says, “other than paint what is in me.”

It’s a mistake to see representations
of North America in order to beat
the hubbub of human solitude

where guessing about fears, obsessions, anxieties.

dilemmas or moods of the artist
and Jo appears, the omnipresent wife.
Like a framed painting,

the many windows and doors are mirrors as well.

(“I do nothing more than paint myself.”)
Do poets not express their own thoughts?
Condemned to be only one thing,

a living being we melt together, he and I:

his anxieties and moods are mine,
and at the same time mine are all illuminated
by a same moon all over the world.

So here is the Venuti translation.  He’s added in “make no bones about it”, “all and sundry”,  and “in the same breath”, that weren’t in the original, but other than that, the differences are in verb tenses and such and he’s kept the format of the lines, but not the roughly iambic meter.  If you ask me, his is a pretty straight translation rather than a revolutionary reinterpretation, and one that is not particularly smoother than my own.

But what about the “act of ethnocentric violence by uprooting the text from the language and culture that gave it life”.  (See the LH “She looked real swell” thread for more about that.) After all, the poems have been torn from their cultural base twice, once by writing about an American painter in Catalan, and the second time by translating the poems back into English.  Does locking a door twice make it unlocked?  Or was it ever locked in the first place? As the poet says, “all are illuminated by a same moon all over the world.”


Some interesting tools: Google translate Catalan, of course, also a Catalan-French dictionary (you can click on the French result and do a second search for English), and another Catalan dictionary, also a verb conjugator.

The original poet, Ernest Farrés in Catalan:

~”Morning Sun 1953″, Venutian translation | original Farrés text in Catalan | image

~Essay by Ernest Farrés on the Barcelona poet Jordi Valls (He might edit this website, if so, and if my Catalan google-fu is on target, he’s defined violence, and written something against it.)

There is also a second poem, Stairway, 1949, available in the Amazon book preview.


Here are more links to Lawrence Venuti translations/adaptations of Ernest Farrés
Sun in an Empty Room, 1963 | image
Summer in the City, 1949 | image
Summer Evening, 1947 | image
Self-Portrait, 1925-1930 | image
Hotel Room, 1931, from a review | image


(That was my first attempt at translation.  It took a lot longer than I expected, but it was sort of fun.)

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