Paul Blackburn



(replies to a New York Quarterly questionnaire)


1. In your view, what is a translator?

A man who brings it all back home.
In short, a madman.

2. What special qualifications must a translator have?

He must be willing (& able) to let another man's life enter his own deeply enough to become some permanent part of his original author. He should be patient, persistent, slightly schizoid, a hard critic, a brilliant editor, and have an independent income...

3. Is there any rule regarding the choice of subject matter for a translator? Should the translator stay away from any given original? Is it important that the translator be temperamentally close to the original, or the author of the original?

Stay away from third-rate work and outright shit. There's nothing to be gained but money and not much of that. If you don't love what you read in the original, or admire some major part of it, forget it. We are all hundreds, maybe thousands of people, potentially or in fact. Affinities help. Theoretically possible for a man who hates himself, say, to make a fine translation of someone whose work he hates. Do not think I have ever seen such a translation. Incompetence or beaky egotism are something else.

4. Should a translator ever "improve" on the original? If so, under what circumstances?

First of all, it's hardly ever possible. One is lucky to be able to make an equivalent value. Most "improvements" prove to be distortions of one variety or another. If the distortion permits a more perfect Englished version consistent with the diction and style of the translation, then perhaps, yes. Here we get into matters of taste. Geniuses ought not to translate, unless they be truly mad.

5. To what extent may a translator introduce variations which his own language permits, but the original language does not?

To a reasonable extent, if the distortion of meaning be not too great. Equivalencies are different in different tongues and different generations. Who's expected to read the final job?

6. How far should a translator attempt to "modernize" an antiquarian piece?

Try first to find a diction, a modern diction which will translate as many values as possible of the original. I've seen Latin poetry translated into hip language that works very well for given pieces. Carried too far, of course, over a whole body of work, it'd be a stunt. Some stunts, however, are brilliantly executed. It evens out.

7. What is the best way for a translator to approach the problem of multiple associations of word choice? Multiple meanings? (polysemia)

If the double-meaning or an equivalent is impossible in English, he chooses whichever single meaning seems most genial to his English text, or strongest to his understanding. Overtones are constantly being lost. Let him approach polysemia crosseyed, coin in hand.

8. Must unit and line length be preserved under all circumstances.?

No. You're talking about poetry here. If the original is interesting for its meaning, translate the meaning. If the meaning is irrelevant by comparison with the musical values of the piece, translate, as best possible, what Pound calls "the cantabile values" But choose, so you know WHAT it is you're doing.

9. What is the difference between free and strict, literal translation? between free translation and outright adaptation?

Very often readability. Strict translation usually makes for stiff English, or forced and un-english rhythms. Outright adaptation is perfectly valid if it makes a good, modern poem. Occasionally, an adaptation will translate the spirit of the original to better use than any other method: at other times, it will falsify the original beyond measure. Much depends upon the translator (also upon the reader).

10. What frauds have been foisted on the public recently? (And not so recently?)

Yo no sé.

11. Do you experience psychological impediments in translation? (Blocks, slips, unconscious mistakes?)

Starting a project is always difficult; it means rearranging one's whole time to make some continuity (of time and thought) fit. Done slowly enuf, moving into the author's head should present no problems, if one is ready for it. The process might make a few problems in one's life, however. That's part of the dues.

12. Why do you translate at all? How does it relate to your work? What long and short range effects does it have? What defects?

Complicated. I'm interested in the original for whatever reason. I'm interested in the language and the processes of language. Pace and time. Take that earlier answer: yo no . It's different in pace and overtone from no se or I dunno, or weiss nicht, or sais rien, or non so.
Next question: usually my work will relate to it. It fills time when my own head is not working at poems regularly. There's an interaction. The long range effect is some kind of enrichment of human understanding. Short range? Everything from giggles to rage to a sense of words whose weight and meaning have changed, are changing. The sea of language. Defects? Sometimes I can no longer think English. Not sure that's a defect, tho it must be remedied before the job is delivered. Alternately: it gives me something else to do, so I don't have to write poems. But that's true also of my 17-month-old son who has a half-translatable language of his own, but IS no language, nor work of artlessness....
Suppose I liked horses better, or fencing, or were entomophogous?

13. At the end of his interview in NYQ issue # 2, Paul Blackburn commented:

I do enjoy translating, getting into other people's heads.

Thass right . . .

       This is one motivation for translation. Are there others?

There must be ...

       Thank you for your time.

Quite all right. Thank you.         

Marina Roscher
for NYQ