The Translator’s Dilemma

In Eliot Weinberger’s work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, he examines varied attempts at translating a century-old Chinese poem, of which no original copy has existed for hundreds of years. No matter how different the translations are, none of them seem to capture exactly what Weinberger believes Wang Wei’s poem to be. What Weinberger eventually points out is a translator cannot stay true to both the grammar and meaning of the poem without sacrificing its poetry. Each translator has compromised something—be it images paralleling Wei’s empty mountains and bright patches of forest or the syntax used to depict these. This compromise reveals the personal choices that, intentionally or not, influence all translations. Ironically, Weinberger criticizes the 19+ translations only to then point out that the point of translating poetry isn’t grammatical accuracy. He writes,

“The point is that translation is more than a leap from dictionary to dictionary; it is a reimagining of the poem. As such, every reading of the poem, regardless of language, is an act of translation: translation into the reader’s intellectual and emotional life” (Weinberger 46).

In this passage Weinberger suggests something interesting, that a translation reveals the translator’s inner world. If a text can be translated perfectly between languages then its ideas and images do not require very much imagination, which indicates it is likely not a poem. Poems require an internal saturation for its ideas to take hold in the reader. The reader must imagine something in response to the poem to understand it. If a text requires imagination, as poems do, then it’s naturally interpreted differently by each reader, even by readers who can understand the poem’s original language. Language is one barrier among many that create unique responses in readers (and translators). But rather than viewing this as an impossible border between cultures, it is the collective reading of poetry across cultures that indicates the borders are really bridges.

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Photo by Tim Bogdanov on Unsplash

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