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.
The Translation Ode: A Conversation Between Lana Del Rey and Sylvia Plath
My contribution to this poetry translation project involves the translation of two literary texts from English into Greek, which is my mother tongue. The two poems I have translated are “Daddy” by American poet Sylvia Plath and “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me – but i have it” by contemporary American singer/songwriter Lana Del Rey. Prior to commenting on the translation strategies I have employed and the poetry elements I have chosen to place more emphasis on throughout my translation task, I would like to report on the original poems, their authors, and the reasons why I have selected these two literary works.
Sylvia Plath, born in 1932 and died in 1963 by committing suicide, has managed to create around her poetry a legacy that projects a sense of alienation from the self as well as from the world around the self. This is best achieved throughout her poetry via psychologically disturbing imagery that reflects while fictionalizing personal experiences. However, in her essay “Context,” which appears in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose, and Diary Excerpts (1979), Plath supports that the personal experiences in her craft function as “deflections [that address] the real issues of our time” (64). Therefore, her art does not intend to simply mirror her inner world but further extend the inner turmoil to comment on universal issues through deflections. This artistic technique is well-depicted in her poem “Daddy” appearing in her posthumous poetry collection Ariel (1965). The poem draws upon Plath’s personal psychological trauma that derives from losing her father, Otto Plath, in a very young age and further manifests female trauma by projecting it on other male figures such as her former husband, Ted Hughes, and World War II Nazi party leader, Adolf Hitler. Even though the poem starts from the alienation from the self due to her father’s early death, this alienation transforms to alienation from the world as the persona finds herself powerless in a world dominated with violence; in her marriage, she experiences domestic violence, but on a universal level she lives in an era that is terrorized by World War II. Hence, the inner trauma that derives from personal experiences is expanded when combined with violence on a domestic and global scale to criticize male desire for dominance.
Moreover, Lana Del Rey, born in 1985 under real name Elizabeth Woolridge Grant, borrows the sense of alienation and female anxiety that is found in Plath’s middle twentieth century poem and incorporates them in her lyrical song “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me – but i have it,” which was released on January 9th, 2019. Prior to its release, the song was teased on October 25th, 2019, when Lana Del Rey uploaded a snippet of the song on her Instagram account with the caption “Sylvia Plath.” Apparently, the song pays tribute to the former poetess as Lana Del Rey numerously references Plath in her song. Through the Plath references, Lana Del Rey allows the issues of alienation and female anxiety to transcend years and generations to be transposed in the current era, where alienation is widely reigning through the dominance of social media. Not only that, but Lana Del Rey may even intend to criticize social dating applications that further enhance anonymity and emotional detachment. These social issues reflect Lana Del Rey’s usual writing tropes including “femme-fatale melodrama [and] sadness as a form of rebellion,” which also coincide with Plath’s writing, where Plath, even though presented dynamic, hints at her psychological agitation (Tang, “How Ariana Grande, Robyn, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Lana Del Rey Are Changing Pop Music”). With Lana Del Rey’s first poetry collection Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass being about to be published in 2019 and some of the collection’s poems already having been published, Lana Del Rey’s lyrical song “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me – but i have it” brings Del Rey’s poetic songwriting to the forefront as it is praised by world-renowned music magazine Pitchfork in the following passage:
[N]early after eight years [since her debut album “Born to die” in 2012] […] suddenly her wit seemed sharper, her imagery more lush; […] pondering the apocalypse and what this thing called life really means. Looking back to look forward, she seemed like a poet for these times. (Moreland, “Lana Del Rey’s Recent ‘Fan Tracks’ Reflect Some of Her Strongest Songwriting Yet,” italics mine)
In addition, having sketched the background of the two poems I can now move forward to the reasons that have driven me to translate these two poems. The two poems, even though penned in two different centuries, describe common issues reflected in female psyches and expressed by female figures. Especially, with Lana Del Rey’s references to Sylvia Plath, the communication of ideas between the two poems acquires a much more elaborate and stronger foundation. With both poems commenting on female anxiety and alienation, they establish the two issues’ presence in the twentieth as well as in the twenty-first centuries and bridge a temporal continuum. Therefore, translating these poems and making them available in the Greek language and subsequently in the Greek culture and audience, these social issues can find resonance in Greek culture as well.
Furthermore, I would like to report on the translation process by focusing on poetry translation in general and the strategies as well as approaches I have embraced in particular. It is firmly supported that poetry depicts 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 1). For this reason, poetry translation has been widely considered an “art of compromise [that] whatever success will always be a question of degree [since] the translation will always incur loss in relation to the original” (qtd. in Connolly 20). Subsequently, scholars and practitioners are left pondering on the translation task’s (im)possibility (Nabokov, 1955; Jakobson, 1959; Connolly, 1997). Despite the losses that are bound to occur through the transferring of the source text particularities to the target text, we need to consider what counts as compensation.
In my translation process in order to compensate for these losses I have endeavored to render the source text poems’ pragmatic, semantic, and stylistic levels as similarly as possible to the target text poems. That is, I have attempted to attain Eugene Nida’s dynamic equivalence, which entails that the desirable effect of translation is to inspire in the target text audience the same effect that was produced by the source text to the source text audience (Newmark 48). One of the strategies obtained to achieve this effect is Lawrence Venuti’s foreignization, which promotes the retention of the cultural other of the source text to the target text (Ajtony 93). Foreignization has been especially handy on the pragmatic dimensionI of Lana Del Rey’s song/poem. For example, in “Maybe I’d get less stressed/ If I was tested less like all of these debutantes” (3-4), stressed and tested were rendered in a foreignized manner as στρεσσαριζόμουν and τεσταριζόμουν by employing borrowed English verbs in which Greek verb-formation affix –ίζω is in use. In this way the foreignized translation, which resembles the source text verbs’ form, does not only transfer form and content, but also brings forward the source text context and sense. More, on a semantic dimensionII being faithful to the original author is one of my fundamental tenets during the translation process; that is, I do not intend to impose my own interpretation of the poem that differs from the intentions of the source-text author or I do not will to impose new meanings that are not reflective of the original’s meanings. To join this effect in my translation, I did not only use Greek words that were as close as possible to the meanings of the original text, but also I used footnotes in order to make any intricate and hidden meanings such as symbols available to the audience. For instance, in both poems I have used footnotes to explain cultural symbols that the target text readership would be rather unfamiliar with. A typical example in “Daddy” has to do with references to German cultural symbols such as “Luftwaffe” (42) and “Panzer” (45), which I have maintained intact in German form, but I have explained in footnotes using the Greek language what the words denote. Last, regarding the stylistic levelIII of both poems, I have employed the same writing patterns that were found in the original texts; that is, I have reproduced as much as possible rhyme, similar line lengths, similar line breaking as well as the exact stanza patterns. Specifically about Del Rey’s intricate song/poem form, I have employed the pattern found in the original, which is also quite common in Greek songs as well, that of verse-chorus, verse-chorus, bridge, chorus.
To conclude, poetry translation is a very complex undertaking, which requires very delicate moves in order to not fail the original. There is no perfect translation. However, poetry translation is possible when the translator consciously considers as many as possible levels through which her/his translation will have to be processed before being finalized. The more levels one attempts to replicate, the more faithful one’s translation is about to be.
Ajtony, Zsuzsanna. “Taming the Stranger: Domestication vs Foreignization in Literary Translation.” Sciendo, vol. 9, no. 2, 2018, content.sciendo.com/view/journals/ausp/9/2/article-p93.xml. Accessed 13 January 2019.
Connolly, David. The (Im)Possibility of Poetry Translation. 1997. University of East Anglia, Ph.D. Dissertation.
Moreland, Quinn. “Lana Del Rey’s Recent ‘Fan Tracks’ Reflect Some of Her Strongest Songwriting Yet.” Pitchfork. Jan. 2019, pitchfork.com/thepitch/lana-del-reys-recent-fan-tracks-reflect-some-of-her-strongest-songwriting-yet/. Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.
Newmark, Peter. A Textbook of Translation. Longman, 1998.
Plath, Sylvia. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose, and Diary Excerpts. edited by Ted Hughes. Harper & Row, 1979.
Tang, Estelle. “How Ariana Grande, Robyn, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Lana Del Rey Are Changing Pop Music.” Elle US. Dec. 2018, www.elle.com/culture/music/a25357389/best-female-pop-singers-2. Accessed 12 Feb. 2019.
I The pragmatic level is not merely concerned with conveying literally the linguistic form and meaning of an utterance to communicate the source text’s content, but it moves beyond that by considering how the sense of the source text utterance can be captured in the target culture context to achieve an equivalent sentimental effect (Connolly 16).
II The semantic level refers to the specific meanings and messages intended to be transferred by the original writer with regards to the real world (Connolly 7)
III The stylistic dimension deals with the devices, that is the manner through which the poem is transferred in terms of its appearance on page (Connolly 6).
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