Responses to American Poetry
The aim of this online space is to host the research work of university students or young scholars as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.
Translating Poetry: Diane Wakoski’s “Belly Dancer”
Poetry translation has often been described as impossible by many writers and/or literary translators, both in the past and at present. So, when I took up the optional poetry translation project for my literary translation course, it was merely excitement or inexperience that led me to overlook this concept of “impossibility” that so often characterizes poetry translation. The poem I chose to translate is entitled “Belly Dancer,” written by Diane Wakoski and incorporated in her anthology Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987. The poet was born in 1937 in California and after finishing her B.A., she moved to New York in the early 60s where she published her first poetry collection titled Coins and Coffins (1962). As she clearly stated in one of her interviews in 2014, she does not consider herself a Beat Poet neither a Confessional one but rather a Deep Imagist (Martin 2014). She also acknowledges that she became famous because of the Women’s Movement, as much of her poetry focuses on deep, personal, female experiences. However, in the same interview she underlines that she does not only write for women, but it is more accurate to say that she writes as a woman. Finally, it is worth mentioning that Diane Wakoski is the author of over 60 published collections of poetry and prose.
The reasons that prompted my decision to translate this particular poem vary from personal to practical. Initially, as I did not have much knowledge about and practical experience with reading contemporary American poetry, I aimed at finding a poem as close as possible to my personal interests and concerns. The “Belly Dancer” met my prerequisites in being a woman’s piece of work, being frank and open about the topic of female sexuality, a taboo for some societies even today, and having a format and inner rhythm that triggered a movement in me every time I was reading it, “movement” being a central element of the poem, which Diane Wakoski manages to bring into life through her words and not just refer to it in a sterile way. Apart from the personal appeal that I felt towards the poem, another aspect that confirmed my choice is that Diane Wakoski and particularly this poem has not been translated into Greek before. I also felt an inner motivation to discover her writing and unravel it in Greek for the first time. Finally, I appreciated the directness of the poem, its “conversational” tone that allows you to get closer to it and its Belly Dancer and “awaken” your own interpretations and experiences (Turney).
Before delving more into the poem’s characteristics and the translation process I followed, I would first like to briefly discuss the theoretical background behind this challenging type of literary translation, namely poetry translation. Admittedly, poetry constitutes a genre fairly different than all others, in the sense that it contains an inner rhythm, a musicality and that it “represents writing in its most compact, condensed and heightened form in which the language is predominantly connotational rather than denotational and in which content and form are inseparably linked” (Connolly 171). This is binding for some, who think that poetry should be translated in a literal way, opinion widely supported in the past, while for others the translation process involves a re-creation of the original poem. As Peter Newmark (1988) claims, a successfully translated poem is always another poem (165). This notion may sound liberating, but at the same time places a significant amount of responsibility on the translator’s shoulders. The responsibility includes decision making on the approach of the poem, adjustability to the target language and its cultural implications as well as decisions on important parameters such as semantics, style, rhyming or verse. However, it is important to state that according to many translators, especially today, the most important goal set during poetry translation is the arousal of sentiment and an equivalent effect upon the target-language readership as the one intended to be experienced by the readership of the original.
Moving on to the translation methodology I followed for “Belly Dancer,” I tried to follow certain concrete steps in order to have a result as complete as possible and at the same time personally satisfying. Firstly, I invested time in collecting information about Diane Wakoski and tried to gather as much background knowledge on her and her work as I could. Then, I focused on the poem. I read it multiple times and tried to unveil its hidden meanings in order to be able to shape my personal approach and interpretation of the poem. In this way, I was better prepared to combine my personal perspective with everything I had read about Diane Wakoski. The next step involved the actual translation of the poem. When I started translating, I had already decided that I would try to retain the inner rhythm and musicality of the poem by carefully choosing the appropriate Greek words. I also aimed to preserve the same syntax whenever it was possible and, of course, the format of the poem. My primary concern throughout the translation process was to create the same impact and evoke the same or equal feelings on the Greek readers who would be exposed to the translation, as the ones evoked on the readers of the original. Finally, after completing the first draft of my translation, I engaged in revising it and making small or bigger changes, according to how the complete poem sounded to me and other Greek colleagues, whom I asked for advice and suggestions.
When it comes to the poem’s main elements and my areas of focus as a translator, I should state that most of them are connected to Diane Wakoski’s deliberate intention to support the Women’s Liberation Movement through the poem. The Movement emerged in the late 1960s and continued into the 1980s primarily in the industrialized nations of the Western world. This intention becomes evident through the main topic of the poem, namely female sexuality, which is perceived as repressed and “immoral” by the female audience while it is expressed as liberating and natural by the belly dancer. Within the same scope, we should center on the different experience offered by the belly dancer to her audience. The male spectators are convinced that the dance is rightfully addressed to them – “While the men simper and leer –/ glad for the vicarious experience and exercise.” (25-26) – while the female strive to remain stolid, out of abashment and fear that maybe they would awaken “too much desire –/ that their men could never satisfy?” (10-11) There is also the reference to the snake gliding on the floor in the third stanza, which constitutes an allusion to the Fall of man as well as the movement which the women could embrace as their own, like the belly dancer, yet they appear to be frightened by it because of its strangeness and sexual connotations. Other instances of allusion are the belly dancer’s “bare feet” (22), “bells and finger cymbals” (24) in the fourth stanza, which are connected to savagery and the kind of wild sexual instinct attributed to black female slaves by white oppressors and masters, which is an image really far off the acceptable appearance of a proper woman at that time. Another element worth focusing on is the green color of the silk the belly dancer is wearing. It could be associated to envy felt by men because their women would never be dressed like that and also felt by women because it would never be acceptable for them to wear such fabric or dance in this way. So, my priority was to transfer all this background information into the Greek version of the poem. Finally, my attention was also placed on the translation of the adjectives and most importantly the words indicating movement, like “move” (1, 5), “glided” (17) or the notion of “awakening” (10) and its contrast to the “unawakened women” (30) of the last line, all of which express the very essence of the poem.
Overall, what stems from the poem and what I wanted to convey equally in the translation is the belly dance as a form of empowerment for all women and way of self-discovery and not as something shameful and obscene. As for the experience of translating poetry, I would say it proved to be as challenging as it was rewarding. However, it is important to underline that this is only possible if the translator remains faithful to the ideas of the original and respects the writing of the poet. As we have been so often told, during every translation process there is always loss, we just need to try and work hard so that the gain surpasses this loss.
Martin, Seretta. “Interview with Diane Wakoski.” Poetry International Online, 6 May 2014. pionline.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/interview-with-diane-wakoski/. Accessed 10 April 2019.
Connolly, David. “Poetry Translation.” Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, edited by Mona Baker, Routledge, 1998.
Newmark, Peter. Approaches to Translation. Prentice Hall, 1988.
Turney, Robert. “WakoskiDiane.” PoetryFoundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/
diane-wakoski. Accessed 15 Mar. 2019.
Wakoski,Diane. “BellyDancer.” PoetryFoundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/4
6659/belly-dancer. Accessed 15 Mar. 2019.
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