"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Response to Elizabeth Bishop and Translation, by Mariana Machová

I met Mariana Machová in 2005. She was a young scholar and translator who made her way to Nova Scotia to get the lay of the land and to hear the sound of the talk, the elements that would still be familiar to Elizabeth Bishop. I forget now just how we connected. She probably sent me an email.

At that point, the artist retreat at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village was starting to establish itself and I invited her to stay there and offered to act as tour guide. Mariana will have to remind me of the time of year (not hot summer nor snowy winter, so spring or fall). [Ed. Note: Mariana has confirmed that her visit was in April.]

I met so many wonderful people during the eleven years I took care of the house, it is difficult to remember the details of each visit, because I tended to “do” the same tour each time, retracing the routes and stopping at the sites Bishop fans want to see.

Mariana came bearing a gift: her first translation into Czech of Bishop’s poems. She also came with an openness and eagerness to learn something of Great Village and Bishop’s childhood. I am sure we drove “The Moose” route. We also spent time in Halifax.

Besides Mariana’s delightful personality, what I remember, specifically, are two small details: a story about an escaped hamster and a discussion about finding a word in Czech for “seal” (the animal), found in “At the Fishhouses,” a challenge in the language of a land-locked country. I listened with fascination to her talk about translating and now realize she was forming ideas that coalesced in the book about which this post is written.

After her visit, Mariana continued to translate Bishop’s work. She kindly sent her collection of translated stories and letters, a substantial volume. In the fall of 2016, her next book was published — in English — Elizabeth Bishop and Translation. Again, she generously sent me a copy.

I told Mariana I would write something about this book for the blog and proceeded to read it with keen interest. It has been a long time since I read serious literary scholarship about Bishop. I have steered clear of it for many years. Knowing Mariana, however, and being interested myself in the idea of translation in general, and in Bishop’s ambiguous fascination with and practice of translation, I was eager to read this detailed study of the subject.

Before I continue, I must apologize because I will not shift gears and turn formal and academic in my response, switching to the convention of using Mariana’s last name, for example, which is the professional way to proceed. I admire what Mariana does in this book and I hope that she will not mind my response’s familiarity. After all, she offers a serious contemplation and discussion of the nature of “the foreign” and “the familiar,” including as it applies to names and naming. My choice is done quite consciously, based on my own principles. I mean no disrespect.
(Mariana at the Elizabeth Bishop House)
The first part of this book is a detailed exploration of Bishop’s practice of translation from her college efforts to her mature projects, from Aristophanes’s The Birds to The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’ and beyond. The second part examines the way Bishop incorporated the principles of “translation poetics” (which Mariana regards as “a creative attitude,” “an aesthetic stance”) into her own creative process.

Here are two statements/observations Mariana makes that for me offer a good sense of what this book contains:

“My aim is to see Bishop’s translation [sic] from a new perspective, not as a marginal activity by which Bishop was occasionally and accidentally distracted from her real work as a poet, but as a recurrent presence in her creative life, which was not by any means dominant, but which was present there all along, sometimes more and sometimes less conspicuously, like a basso continuo beneath the main voice of her own poetry.” (2–3)

“The ‘translator type’ of the poet is conscious of the richness and the potential of language, and is fascinated by the many voices which sound in the language, and at the same time she realizes that this richness is not limited to the variation of sound, that each tongue and voice says different things.” (152)

Around these ideas and observations, Mariana provides deep, detailed readings of a wide-range of texts. This approach is especially welcome with the translations themselves. The Bishop translation I have thought about most is The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’ (I presented a paper about it at a conference in Ouro Prêto, Brazil, in 1999). While I am certainly aware of the others Mariana discusses, I knew little about the originals and the translating process Bishop used. Through her discussions of these works — their chronologies, contexts and challenges — Mariana lays the foundation for the second part of the book, which looks at Bishop’s own poetry through the lens of translation poetics. Mariana makes a solid argument for seeing Bishop as a “translator type” poet. You need to read the book to learn the various elements and practices of translation that Mariana argues Bishop employed in her own creative process; it is a fascinating claim.

It is usually considered naïve** in a reviewer of an academic book to say that she learned a lot from reading it, but I did, especially about the space-time around Bishop’s own translations. For a writer who was not a professional translator and for someone essentially monolingual (she could read and speak languages other than English, but none really well), Bishop translated quite a lot. By simply bringing together all the translations Bishop did, Mariana shows the significance of translation in Bishop’s life. I don’t know of any other book that has so fully focused on this subject, which offers such a concentration.
 (Translation as curtained window.)
I will say, I sighed a bit when I came upon the rather conventional academic practice of dismissing the biographical approach to reading Bishop’s work. It never ceases to amaze me how academics must set up a hierarchy of analyses. Since just about every literary critical study about Bishop I’ve read does so, I can’t fault Mariana too much for engaging in it. And she presses the point far more moderately than many critics. It is a bit ironic, though, that Mariana’s well argued and supported claim about how Bishop did not privilege one voice over another, but had a remarkable capacity for hearing them all, does not translate to her own practice. This gripe is, however, my own hang-up, and the reason why I am not an academic. I just can’t see the point of dismissing one approach and privileging another. Bishop never did, even as she was known to have an ambivalent opinion of literary criticism. She asserted to Anne Stevenson that she was fine with her poems being “interpreted,” though she rarely read such stuff herself.

While Mariana’s own English is good, there were a few places where I paused and wondered if she really meant to use the word she had chosen. For example, she describes “In the Waiting Room” as “notorious.” (“Well known, commonly or generally known, forming a matter of common knowledge, esp. on account of some bad practice, quality, etc., or some other thing not generally approved of or admired.” Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1,952). I wondered what this poem had done to make it so? I wondered about “superficial” (9); “threat” (31); “primeval” (143–44), and a few other words. Though I thank her for “macaronic”(55), a word I had to look up.

I also found that the text could have stood a better copy edit, particularly when it came to those annoying but vital helping words (articles and prepositions), as well as agreement between subject and verb, and a handful of typos. But these kinds of infelicities are so common in published texts these days, they clearly are accepted (if not acceptable), even for prestigious academic presses.

All this said, I found Mariana’s book a fascinating read.

One of the many questions in Bishop’s work that Mariana uncovers in her readings of the poems is: “where is the source of control over representation?” (125) Though a rather dry way of saying it, this is a critical question for all artists, and she is right that it is one Bishop asked over and over, in all sorts of ways.

Another insightful conclusion she arrives at delving deeply into the texts is Bishop’s realization that “what she has achieved is so relative that other people may fail to recognize it …. the translation may be in vain.”(111), epitomized for me in “Crusoe in England.” As a poet myself, I found this idea unsettlingly familiar. All artists inhabit this existential condition and it might be the sub-text to just about every creation (unless one is a raging egomaniac). Doubt is healthy. It keeps one honest, on one’s toes; unless it becomes crippling, of course.

Mariana makes the valuable observation that Bishop often engaged in translation when she was stuck in her own writing. By so doing, Mariana argues, translation became a practice that helped Bishop see and know her native tongue differently. It not only reflected her preoccupations in her own work, but returned unexpected insights and approaches to help with her own poems. This observation made a great deal of sense to me.

This way of looking at Bishop, arguing for the indispensability of translation, is thought-provoking. Bishop’s nature and poetic practice held a remarkable diversity and range. Add to this her fascination with translation, ambiguous as it was, we see more fully just how Bishop’s eclectic interests manifested and evolved.

Thanks, Mariana, for making me think about Bishop’s poetic program from this unusual perspective, to think about it more carefully and to understand it more fully.
(Sandra and Mariana in study of EB House, 2006)

** A reviewer is generally considered to be another expert, someone who has the knowledge to assess the research, writing and authority in a given book; someone who knows such things already. I am not such a reviewer, at least where the subject of translation is concerned.

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