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Translating Ausiàs March

by Robert Archer
I have been translating March for most of my adult life, and with a range of different motives. The first translation, done in prose and covering all 128 poems, lies moulding in some notebooks from the early 70s: this version was an aid with which I tried to work my way through March's text in the ENC edition, identify possible textual problems, and then talk them through with the editor, Pere Bohigas, for whose immense generosity and kindly patience with me I shall always be very grateful. This version was little more than a do-it-yourself crib.

The next translation, starting from scratch again, was of about 60 poems I vaguely thought I could edit and translate. In the event I published the Catalan text, in a rather problematic and polemical edition (Dr Bohigas quite rightly told me off for changing the order of the poems from that established by Pagès), but only a small selection of the translations for my first published selection of translations for the Anglo-Catalan Society Occasional Papers. That was a good 15 years ago, and since there have only been a few, I think unsuccessful verse translations by me for an issue of Catalan Writing and, in the last four years, partly while trapped in the floods near Prague, I have revised completely all the prose verions I had. Recently, however, I have found myself in the unexpected situation of having two translations of March: one in prose of 55 poems on the international website (IVITRA) run from Alacant by Vicent Martines, and another of 30 poems, this time in verse, in the new series published jointly by the Fundació Carulla and Tamesis Books.

Each of the two translations responds to quite different aims and has involved for this translator totally different experiences and problems. I'd mostly like to discuss here the verse translations, not only because working on them and actually completing them has been the most rewarding and exciting thing I have ever done in my entire career but also because the exercise itself has forced me to reflect more than I have in the past on what exactly it is I have been doing all these years spent trying to come up with versions of the work of a poet for whom I have a boundless admiration.

Before I talk about the verse translations, a few considerations concerning the prose versions. While I personally found it more exciting to translate into verse, I do not wish to imply in any way that I am dismissive of the value of prose versions. And, of course, in qualitative terms, I have a better chance of pulling off a good prose translation than a poetic one. The prose translation, no matter what its level of literalness, is always the safer bet: there are no syntactic or metrical constraints, and no implicit obligation to try to achieve a sustained poetic diction and tone.

But one has to ask what kind of reading experience is offered to the reader through the prose version of a poetic original? And we are more likely to ask this question perhaps if we've also attempted to do the job in verse, since what we are then trying to do is to offer in the target text a reading experience that is meant to simulate that of reading the original, using the conventions of a different poetic tradition. In the case of my own March prose translations, these are designed to function in a kind of open dialogue with the source text on the opposite page. In the Anglo-Catalan Society selection ( A Key Anthology ), which contains earlier versions of what I've done in prose more recently, I claimed that I had ‘tried to produce prose versions that […] are readable and completely intelligible in themselves, without the aid of explanatory notes or close comparison with the text'. With hindsight I can see little basis for this claim. I assumed then as many people do that the reader of such translations seeks to work his or her way through the March text and has recourse to the translation to seek explanations in the target language, usually the reader's own native language, of what the source text would mean if it were adapted to the linguistic and cultural terms of reference of the target language. We might postulate a reading-process that zig-zags between the two texts, ostensibly in an attempt to elucidate the source text, so that, as it were, the movement of the semantic zig-zag begins and ends there and not in the translation. But that assumption in itself is questionable. Do we really end up reading March's text in an ‘elucidated' and explicated form – do we bring, through the translation, new light to bear upon our reading of March's poem ? – or is it, rather, that a new semantic space is created, one in which there is both a confrontation and a merging of the two sets of cultural references of the source and target texts? Do we, to put it in crude terms, really get the pure gold of March's poem in the end, or do we end up with a rough amalgam forged in a linguistic and cultural space characterized above all by indeterminacy? If that is the case, then we can only assume that, to be properly useful, the prose translation of a verse original needs to operate in a rather different mode: as a kind of apprenticeship in reading the sourcetext, a training ground where the main aim is to return to the source text and disconnect it from the translation process with the tools acquired, and then to read it for itself. And there is no doubt that the prose version can have an exegetic function that the verse translation, with its metrical constraints, can achieve only by sheer luck or sheer poetic talent in the translator. March, of course, frequently needs this kind of exegesis, especially when he lapses into over elliptical expression (often, I think, because of those same metrical constraints that dog the verse translator). And there are some poems, too, or parts of them, in which one gets the sense that March would almost have done better to use prose. The first half of the long poem LXXXVII on the theory of love is a case in point.

In the case of the poetic version, there is a different type of audeince in mind– one made up of readers of poetry who happen not to be competent in medieval Catalan or who have no interest in trying to access the poetic experience in any other language but their own. Does such a public exist? Well, let's hope so.

A major impediment to the production of such translation is that the translator may not be a practising poet. To be a practising poet has its advantages, of course – a developed ‘ear', experience with thinking English sentences metrically – but there are possible disadvantages too. The poet-translator could well have developed his own ‘voice' to such an extent that the translation of another's voice across the cultural gap between the two languages will inevitably mean that the poet's established voice will lead his other half, the translator, and not the other way round.

I decided to so all the transaltions iambic pentameters. This was the obvious metre to use, close to March's own decasyllables and the one that I was most familiar with - what we might call the default metre of English verse. Rhyme, of course, obligatory for most of the genres in which March wrote his decasyllabic stanzas, has not been a requirement for the English pentameter since at least as early as Shakespeare; moreover, March himself, like Shakespeare, for his most meditative poem (the cant espiritual ) had recourse to unrhymed stanzas. There was, besides, an attendant danger, namely that the need to rhyme would inevitably create distortions in meaning, totally avoidable ones for which the effect of rhyme cannot compensate. Some rhyme, nevertheless, as well as patterns of assonance, arose spontaneously as the translations developed, and I have not tried to eliminate these. But there is another to the phonic dimension of translation from March's fifteenth century Valencian to contemporary British English: it is easier to suggest something of those harsh consonantal endings in English than it is for instance in Italian or Spanish, languages in which excellent recent translations exist.

To do the verse versions, I used my own prose translations as a basis. Key words and phrases inevitably make their way from one version to the other, but by and large, the poetic trnslations came out very different indeed. I had to learn how to do such translations from scratch and, hopefully, got better at it as the project developed at a steady pace (they were all done between March and October this year); as a result, when I had finished the last poem, I had to go back and completely re-do the first two or three.

I have referred to these verse texts in English as ‘translations', since that in an obvious sense is what they are. Without March's original they would not exist. But in an importance sense they are also not translations: they are texts that claim to stand on their own two feet (or rather five iambic feet) and declare themselves to be poems. The relationship with the source text is utterly different from that which obtains between source text and prose version. My sense of what happens in the verse translations is that the process inolved is rather like what the cognitive theory of metaphor claims for metaphor, namely, that there is a ‘mapping' of one ‘domain' upon another ‘domain' that leads to one of them – but not both - being modified and adapted in the light of the other. For instance, when March describes himself as love's servent , the ‘domain' of the ‘servant' ‘maps onto' that of the poet. So with verse translations: a poem in English written in 2005 ‘maps onto' one that already exists in medieval Catalan, and indeed creates a kind of metaphor: because of the nature of the concepts and attitudes it refers to, the English poem of 2005 is clearly not moving solely within its own ‘domain', and we relate it to another one which we may either know directly or, at the very least (if we are a reader of poetry but not well up in medieval Catalan literature) we sense to be underlying the poem.

We can't of course replicate in English the experience of reading March in the original. But, arguably, for some readers at least, certainly not for all, the reading of an English version that stands metaphorically for the original is to be preferred to that semantic zig-zag involved in the prose version.

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