Literary translation (specially the translation of poetry) has proven to be more than merely transcribing words from one language to another: translation must be understood as a mediation between the original and its target language and culture, taking into consideration all the gaps and linguistic constraints between the two languages involved. Even “translation” within the same language (such as switching T.S. Eliot’s English to layman’s English) requires a level of mediation between what has been written and what will be written as its translation. Just as Paul Valery states in The Art of Poetry, “Writing anything at all…is a work of translation…” (299) since (paraphrasing what Dr. Turner shared) writing itself means translating the thoughts of the author into an original text.
Translators, hence, become authors (to a degree) of their translations, for an integral part of the process involves interpreting the original according to its context (both historical and linguistic) and its attunement to circumstances of its translation; in other words, making the translated material match the standards of the times to which it’s being translated while also remaining faithful to the original. Problems then arise in the translation process when the historical or the linguistic differences between original and translation are too wide, which can prompt many “correct” interpretations of the same original. Eliot Weinberger’s Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei best exemplifies such a case by tracing all the ways the same original (an ancient Chinese poem) has been interpreted throughout history by different translators, ranging from literal translations to interpretations comparable to “a haze of opium reflected in a hundred thimbles of wine.” (11).
Regardless of problems (or challenges) posed by it, interpretation is simply one of the several methodical approaches of the translation process according to André Lefevere (as quoted by Susan Bassnett in Translation Studies)—one in which the “substance” of the original is “imitated” by the translator, putting it into a different form or poem (84). After that approach to translation, which has the most creative liberties, the other alternatives tend to lean towards orthodoxy: preserving or purely copying the sounds (phonemic translation); translating word for word regardless of syntax (literal translation); reproducing the meter (metrical translation); turning the original into readable prose (poetry-to-prose translation); preserving the rhyming (rhymed translation); and a blank-verse translation, which often achieves “greater accuracy and higher degree of literalness” (84). Ultimately, those methods represent nothing but options that translators have, and which they can mix, in order to figure out their own approach (their own “cloud” idea for a unified translation) for each work they translate.
For the translation of Antonio Machado’s poems “Caminante No Hay Camino” (“Trotter There Is No Trail”), “Caminos” (“Roads”), “Coplas Mundanas” (“Mundane Couplets”), “El Viajero” (“The Traveler”), and “Por Tierras de España” (“Through Spanish Lands”), the unifying “cloud” idea was a mixture between the literal and the rhymed translation approaches with a degree of interpretation. Specifically, the main concern when translating the poems was making sure that what Machado “wanted to say” (Rabassa, 2) with his metaphors and words in Spanish carried onto the English, while also preserving as many of the rhyming and alliteration as possible in order to keep the translations as lyrical as the originals.
The lines “trotter, there is no trail, / trail gets made on the trek,” which repeat constantly throughout the poem and give it its title, epitomize the unifying idea behind the translation process for these works: a “metaphorical” (in the sense of image by image) translation with lyricism. In the original (“caminante, no hay camino, / se hace camino al andar”), caminante would literally translate as walker; that English literal equivalent, however, does not carry much of the cultural connotation of caminante, which in most cases in Spanish refers to someone who “is going through life.” Similarly, andar, when nominalized that vaguely, usually serves as a metaphor for life in Spanish in the sense of a long, arduous trip–thus justifying the choice of using trek in the translation. In order to keep up with the almost-culturally-ingrained metaphors of the Spanish, trail was picked as translation for camino (despite having the literal options of path or road) because of its cultural baggage in English related to the term trailblazer (“somebody who takes lead”). By combining the usage of English words that get closer to the metaphorical interpretation of the Spanish rather than only exact denotations, the translation attempts to give a more accurate parallel between how the original poem reads to a Spanish-speaking reader and how the translation achieves its impression on an English reader.
Furthermore, the selection of English words have an alliteration comparable to that in the original. Trotter, trail, and trek match phonetically as much (or even more, if one counts the actual number of sound repetitions) as caminante and camino do in the Spanish. That accomplishment of the translation shows that the preservation of the original’s lyricism was another concern during the translation process.
Examples of metaphorical translation with lyricism abound throughout the other poems, too: in “Roads,” the fourth stanza preserves the “-ing” endings and the “p” sounds of the last line of “Pious eve, purplish and violet;” in “Mundane Couplets,” the sixth stanza reads “as fresh as the poured rain / in April’s plains!” (emulating the rhyme that exists in the original between juvenil and abril), while the last line of the seventh stanza, “which knows to weep without woe,” plays with the alliteration of the “w” sounds; in “The Traveler,” the last stanza “On the wall shines the grim portrait / still. We drift. / In the sadness of home hits / the tick-tock of the clock. We all hush” has a play with the “t”, “h”, and “ck” sounds. Every time a rhyme or alliteration appears in the translation, it matches or emulates one in the original—all while respecting the metaphorical meaning of the words in the first place.
Not all details mentioned were flushed out in a first try, though. The first draft of the translation shows three main issues that had to be tweaked in order to attain a balance between the English “charity” and the Spanish “alterity” of the translation: punctuation, omitted articles, and word order.
First, punctuation had to be adapted to English standards because Machado’s original contains too many marks (namely, ellipsis) of which the usages between the Spanish and English differ greatly. Whereas Spanish uses ellipsis every time a sentence is meant to feel unfinished without losing any “power” of ellipsis itself (as exemplified in “Caminante No Hay Camino”), English isn’t as fond of ellipsis’s usage, which tends to look odd unless it appears sparingly. Hence, the translation of Machado’s work required replacing many of the ellipses present with periods or dashes to indicate the correct pacing and spacing in English, as well as to preserve the “power” of the ellipses left in (e.g. the closing line of “Trotter There’s No Trail”).
Secondly, indefinite articles had to be added to the translation in places where the original simple omits them, because English requires those articles to exist—even if only to sound or read better and not necessarily to be more correct. For instance, the opening line of “Mundane Couplets” gained an a at its beginning to be clearer, thus reading “A poet yesterday, today sad and poor.”
Thirdly, and on a similar syntactical note, several lines had to be rearranged, for their construction in the first draft tended to be too awkward even if they were grammatically correct. Such adaptations (or reconstructions) of word order and syntactical revision had to be done most notably in the poems “The Traveler” and “Through Spanish Lands”—which also happen to be the poems with the weirdest prose in Spanish to begin with.
In the end, adapting both punctuation and constructions to more “standard” English usages instead of being too creative or convoluted with the language (choosing to take a Fagles approach rather than a Lattimore one, one could say) proved to render the translation an easier read for anyone unfamiliar with the originals. Once a balance of alterity and charity was reached (so that readers wouldn’t get distracted but attracted by the details), the translations of Machado’s poems could finally serve as a mediation between what the original meant to say and what the English translation could say with its borrowed metaphors and lyricism.
Bassnett, Susan. Translation Studies. 1980.
Fagles, Robert. Homer’s The Odyssey. 1996.
Lattimore, Richmond. The Odyssey of Homer. 1965. Harper Perennial.
Rabassa, Gregory. “No Two Snowflakes Are Alike: Translation as Metaphor.” n.d.
Valery, Paul. “Variations on the Eclogues.” Valery, Paul. The Art of Poetry. n.d.
Weinberger, Eliot. Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. n.d.
Machado, Antonio. Poesías Completas. n.d.
December 2009, Dallas, TX.