Translator-traitor is a phrase the Italians have for describing the translation of poetry. It’s an interesting subject to think about in respect of knowledge work and writing which so often demands translation from one world and sensibility to an entirely different one.

The italian poet, Eugenio Montale played with this in ‘Poesia Travestita’, a kind of poetry round game he played in 1978. He found somebody to translate a poem ‘Nuove Stanze’ into arabic, and then it goes like this:
arabic to french, french to polish, polish to russian, russian to czech, czech to bulgarian, bulgarian to dutch, dutch to german, german to spanish, and finally spanish back to the original italian, by which time the poem had become unrecognisable.

A friend once told me that it’s almost impossible to translate poetry without at least two people engaged and 3 sets of skills: 2 mother tongues and at least one, preferably two poets. So the translation of the poem cannot exist in any one person but in the space created between the people and their skills. as a metaphor for the best kind of knowledge work, I think that’s a pretty good one.

In August 2000, in the Knowledge at Wharton online magazine there was an interview with John Barr, an investment banker turned poet, called ‘Poems are Long Journeys in Risk’
. In it, he talked of potential power of putting the worlds of business and poetry very close together:

‘Let me tell you a story to illustrate the power of letting the two sides—business and poetry—get as close together as possible rather than far apart in a separate briefcase. There’s a story about the early days of atomic energy, before scientists understood it really well. One American scientist had a game that he played with two halves of uranium. The concept of critical mass is that if you let those two halves come together, it would result in a nuclear explosion. If the two are kept separate, it won’t cause an explosion because each half has less than critical mass. Well, this scientist would put these two halves on a table with a geiger counter, and bring them closer and closer together. The geiger counter would soar, and then he would take the two halves away from each other. This is a true story.

One day he made a mistake and the two halves got too close together. There was a nuclear flash, and ultimately everyone in the laboratory died from the radiation exposure. But because they were scientists, all of them noted how many feet away they were from the critical mass. Their data was used as raw material in measuring the effect of nuclear blasts.

The scientist called what he was doing “tickling the dragon’s tail.” My metaphor in all this is that if the poet-businessman decides to ticke the dragon’s tail—and bring the two hemispheres of business and poetry together—he should let them get close but not too close. If it’s done right, it can be a great source of energy.’

And these five tipson translating poetry are as good for knowledge work as any other guidance I’ve come across if, for the word poem, you substitute the words ‘knowledge thing’ – a bit graceless I know, but it serves the purpose for now. The first sentences here come from the original tips. The companion sentences are mine.

1. Stay Close to the Poem. Get thoroughly intimate with the thing.

2. Know the poet. Understand it’s context and origins inside out. Get familiar with everything you can about the thing.

3. Go for Grace. Convey the essence of the thing with pith and elegance.

4. Be Wary. Don’t take other’s people’s ways of looking at the thing as your own. Own your own way of relating to and conveying the thing and ignore the noise.

5. Take a Deep Breath. Sit with it. Go away. Come back and look at it again.

It reminds me of something I read by Peter Hall, about slowing down and stepping into Shakespeare when you are directing it. When he directs a Shakespeare play, his first act is to sit down and write it out by hand.


3 responses to “‘Traduttore-traditore’

  1. Another excellent discussion of the topic is Douglas Hofstadter’s 1997 book Le Ton Beau de Marot, in which he and several colleagues translate a 16th century French poem into English. As part of the “challenge”, Hofstadter establishes some guidelines which the translators must follow (establishes a bit of context), but the results are still incredibly diverse.

    In addition to an analysis of each of the translations, Hofstadter’s analysis of the translation process – how the brain works – is quite interesting and revealing.

  2. Pingback: Knowledge in translation · No Straight Lines

  3. The threads that are spun from a small sticky start. Both these posts have lead me to new places and back to my own post in the most thought-provoking way which reminds me of a knowledge conference I was at in the Hague a few years back when we were running some story workshops (another story line which is, as my dear friend Clive would say, orthogonal to this one). We had a video recorder and some fun cooking up the next wave of management thing, coined by Mark Field as ‘synthalpy’ – the positive energy released when 2 worlds collide. We collected serious interviews with people about this new management approach and its implications. I think they must all have disappeared when we lost the office (not carelessly, on purpose). But synthalpy has stuck with me and I often notice in in the generosity and openness which is at the heart of us knowledge enquirers.

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