What Makes a Good Translation? Theory, Practice, and Translating Requiem

Students

2019
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Project Summary

What makes a good translation? Theory, Practice, and Translating Requiem

The goal of my research this summer was to get started on a new translation of one of the more famous Russian poetic cycles, Requiem, written by the 20th century poet Anna Akhmatova. The Requiem cycle is a poignant account of the personal and national experience of the years 1937--1938, known as the Great Purge, as well as the war years. Good translations of poems from the cycle are few and far between, and the few that aren’t cringe worthy are not of the complete cycle.  

Before embarking on the creative aspect, I engaged in research of several parts: 1) Finding previously existing translations and compiling a literature review. 2) Researching translation theory: Identifying major translation theorists, such as Walter Benjamin and Lawrence Venuti, and reading their work. Translation theorists attempt to describe what makes a good translation. Because the question of what makes a good translation necessitates defining the act of translation, theories of translation tend to have philosophical underpinnings. 3) Extracting practical differences among the philosophies of translation, that is, if to translate means x, the process by which one would go about doing so would be such and such. This process would differ if the definition of translation was y. I am currently creating a chart of the different theories and their practical aspects.

Next, I had to understand the poetic tools employed by both languages. I chose to focus on understanding metrical patterns in both languages, so that I could figure out what was going on structurally in Russian and how that related to their overall meaning and emphases of particular phrases. I read about both English and Russian meter and that helped me feel my way through the poems of the cycle more physically, hearing the rhythms closely.

Learning about metrical analysis opened a new world for me. Apparently, new ways of marking meter without resorting to classic terminology (such as iambic pentameter) have been developed. I found these particularly helpful for learning to mark meter as well as exploring where classical metrical analysis isn’t descriptive enough. Fortunately, there are new ways of showing rhythm that are more nuanced (an example of this will be shown on the poster).

Next, I began several translations of the same poem, keeping in mind different translation theories. These experimental translations are radical and exaggerated: I wanted to push each translation theory to its limits. I also began a translation that is a meld of these theories and is aiming at the golden mean among them.

I learned from this research that humanities research does not translate directly and practically into results: One does not learn theory, apply it -- and poof, a better translation. However, spending time thinking about translation issues, reading what others have to say, and getting more familiar with the technical tools of poetic analysis has helped me experience the original poems on a deeper level and be a more deliberate translator.