Friday, January 21, 2011

The Intention of the Author: Part 2

To fill out what I mentioned in Part 1, I'd like to give some theoretical examples that would mimic what happened to Emily Dickinson's poetry. I like syllabic poetry and I have a special fondness for syllabic quatrains. Syllabic quatrains have a regular line; that is to say that all the lines of the quatrains have the same number of syllables.

Suppose I were to take Walt Whitman's poems and reshape them in accordance with my personal likes. I mean suppose I made all of Whitman's lines regular, and, for good measure, tossed in some strong end rhymes.

I think most people would see this as undermining Whitman's intention as an author. At best I think my rewrite could be viewed as 'poems inspired by Whitman', but I think it would be a mistake to think of them as Whitman's poems.

In a previous post I spoke about taking Shakespeare's Sonnets and reworking them in accord with modern free verse norms. In other words, Shakespeare's Sonnets would be transformed into lines of irregular length, end-rhymes would be removed, metaphors translated or eliminated. Again, I think most people would be able to see this as undermining Shakespeare's intention. Again, at best these rewrites might be considered 'poems inspired by Shakespeare's Sonnets', but it would be a mistake to think of them as the actual Sonnets of Shakespeare.

What I'd like to suggest is that the same logic can be applied to translation. I mean that the intention of the author should be primary and to the degree that it is possible, the intention of the author, the poet, should be manifest and visible in the language into which the poems are translated.

What has happened, however, is that the intention of the author is often ignored and what is offered instead are a version of the original that bears no formal relationship to the original. Here is an example of what I mean: traditional Chinese poetry is syllabic, formal, and uses end rhyme. Traditional Chinese poetry is not free verse. Yet the way Chinese poetry has been translated into English leaves the English speaking public with the strong impression that Chinese poetry, even ancient or traditional Chinese poetry, is a type of free verse and that it closely resembles modern free verse norms. I'd like to suggest that this situation could only come about by ignoring the intention of the author and imposing on the poem an esthetic which is alien to the author's intention, thereby denying the reader access to a representation of what the author actually wrote.

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