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.
On the Translation of Maya Angelou’s Poem “Still I Rise”
First of all, my primary focus while translating Maya Angelou’s 1978 poem “Still I Rise” for the purpose of celebrating World Poetry Day on March 21st at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, was on delivering a poem in the Target Language (TL), which would have a similar impact – following Eugene Nida “the principle of equivalent effect” (1964) – on the reader of the TL as that of the Source Text (ST) on the reader of the Source Language (SL). In other words, I focused on achieving similar pragmatic effect or attaining, within reason, that which Eugene Nida describes as equivalent effect (159), as well as respecting the four basic requirements of a translation: 1. making sense, 2. conveying the spirit and manner of the original, 3. having a natural and easy form of expression, 4. producing a similar response (Munday 42). This means that I had to consider carefully both content and form, during the process of translation and in the final product. I aimed at translating not only the words, but the overall meaning of the poem, as well as at transmitting a sense of naturalness and authenticity that is so palpable in the ST, given that it is a contemporary poem.
Undoubtedly, the content of this poem, its meaning and central theme, namely, the struggle against racial prejudice and discrimination, as well as finding the inner strength to overcome adversity instead of succumbing to the hardships caused by racial oppression, which has affected most aspects of many African American lives in the U.S., is such a powerful statement in itself that prioritizing content during the first step of the translation seemed almost unavoidable. However, respecting the poem only on a semantic level is not enough, and I knew that I also had to choose every word carefully in order to reproduce the metaphors and the nature-associated imagery, as well as to reflect the narrator’s determination to rise above unfavorable circumstances. In addition, I realized that I had to convey the anger, but also the hopefulness that set the tone of the poem. This is why I have tried to stay as close to the original as possible, without however sacrificing “naturalness of expression” (Munday 42).
On the other hand, aside from the powerful content of the poem, its form, the fact of being written in verse, is also very important in the process of attempting to create equivalent effect, thus I followed, according to James Holmes, a mimetic strategy (qtd. in Misiou “Poetry Translation” slide 14). So, I decided to respect not only the meaning of the poem, but also the structural form of the ST, the verse, in order to deliver a satisfactory enough result which would also be close to the original. Choosing to retain the verse of the ST instead of converting the verse into prose, as Stanley Burnshaw suggests (qtd. in Misiou “Poetry Translation” slide 16), was important for me and I found it feasible without sacrificing meaning. What is more, I think that it was absolutely necessary to keep the verse in order to stay as close as possible to the ST not only on a semantic level, but also on a stylistic level.
More specifically, on a stylistic level, the poem includes certain aesthetic elements such as rhyme, inner rhythm, and repetition that greatly contribute to creating a compelling effect that gives to the poem a quality almost akin to that of a prayer. Therefore, I also tried to recreate those stylistic elements. In particular the repetition of the phrase ‘I rise’ gives an almost mantra-like quality to the poem, equivalent to the repetition of a sacred phrase during meditation, whose purpose is to bring about a higher state of consciousness, which seems to imply that content and form intersect. Therefore, choosing an equally euphonic verb in the TL was vital, but also challenging given that I had to choose between the verbs: ανεβαίνω, σηκώνομαι, υψώνομαι, εγείρομαι, ανέρχομαι. I ultimately chose ανεβαίνω, just because it sounded better. After reading the poem aloud many times both in English and in my Greek translation, I felt that the combination of the vowel sounds of ανεβαίνω and, the repetition of the sound ‘n’ and only one more consonant ‘β’ made it a better match. Moreover, the vowel sound ‘a’ in the first syllable of ανεβαίνω brings it closer to the sound of the diphthong ‘ai’ of the I rise and it overall seemed like a better choice in comparison to the rest of the alternative verbs, which contained less aesthetically pleasing sounds. This means that I also had to take into account the phonemic aspect of the poem, especially when it comes to its central phrase that is also part of the poem’s title and which is repeated ten times throughout the poem and signals the poem’s subject: rising above.
When it comes to the strategies and approaches I adopted in order to overcome certain translation problems, I will refer specifically to rhyme and meter, simile, poetic diction and register.
In “Still I Rise,” Maya Angelou uses a rhyme scheme in the seven four-line stanzas in which the second line of the stanza rhymes with the forth, but the first does not rhyme with the third. Personally, I did not want to sacrifice the meaning, the syntax or the overall naturalness of the TT (Target Text) in favor of reproducing the rhyme scheme or the metrical beat of the ST. However, the conversational quality of the ST (a construction in which the narrative voice of the poem asks questions and then gives answers) seemed to be transferred with a natural flow in the TL, and it felt like it rendered the semblance of some sort of metric rhythm or a balance between the lines that I did not want to disturb. I only reproduced a kind of rhyming scheme in the fifth stanza and in the seventh stanza. Nonetheless, I only did this in those two occasions, because the result was uncontrived, it flowed harmoniously with the rest of the poem, it did not interfere with the meaning or the syntax, and it contributed in conveying the spirit and manner of the ST without losing any of the naturalness of the TL in the TT.
A simile is a particular form of metaphor and it is evident that Maya Angelou makes an extended use of similes throughout the poem by using the word ‘like’ in order to draw comparisons that emphasize her point. The word ‘like’ is present in every stanza except for the last two stanzas. I did not face a problem with translating any of the similes except for the word ‘backyard’ that forms part of the simile in the fifth stanza. It seemed to me that when it came to translating the word ‘backyard’ I had to deal with a conflation of rhyme, simile, and poetic diction. I chose to adapt the word ‘backyard’ by using the word ‘γωνιά’ instead of ‘πίσω αυλή’ or ‘πίσω κήπο,’ which are its literal translations, both of which sound too mundane and not elevated enough in Greek to be part of this particular poem. I did this mostly for the sake of poetic diction, in order to attain, as André Lefevere indicates, a matching level of intensity in the TL (qtd. in Misiou “Literary Translation Strategies” 14). I also chose the word ‘γωνιά’ for the sake of rhyming given that it rhymed with the previous word ‘βαριά,’ and it seemed to me, as I mentioned before, that in this particular case the rhyme facilitated the flow of the poem and it transmitted a sense of naturalness.
When it comes to register or poetic diction, Maya Angelou employs an intricate amalgamation of both elevated and colloquial language. I respected and proceeded in accordance with this playful interplay between distinct levels of register, but in one occasion I opted in favor of an elevated equivalent word in the TL instead of its vernacular counterpart. More specifically, I chose to translate ‘black ocean’ as ‘μελανός ωκεανός’ instead of ‘μαύρος ωκεανός’ because in Greek it is customary to use the elevated form ‘μελανός’ within the context of a poem, so I felt that I had to take into consideration this literary convention and preference for elevated diction in the poetry of the TL.
As a final point, one of the main reasons that made me choose to translate this specific poem is that I absolutely love the spirit of determination and inner strength it transmits, as well as the way the narrator will not allow herself to be defeated or humbled by the injustices of a racist and sexist society. I also love the interplay between contrasting powerful emotions, given that the poem conveys strength and vulnerability, pride and pain, anger and hope, sadness and finally joy.
Furthermore, another reason for choosing this poem lies in the fact that during my undergraduate studies I took two courses that delved into the African American experience, which allowed me to gain a greater insight into the African American history, an understanding of the predicament of African American citizens, and an awareness of the antiracist struggle, which still goes on to this day. This previous knowledge helped me to be aware of the socio-political context of the poem, which was written in 1978, almost a decade after the heyday of The American Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968), a historical milestone during which a number of previously violated constitutional and legal rights were established. Within this historical context the American Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. delivered in 1963 one of his most celebrated and moving public speeches: “I Have a Dream.” I think that this particular speech serves as a source of inspiration regarding the vision for a better future for the African American community. King’s influence seems to be echoed in the hopefulness of “Still I Rise,” especially in the final stanza that contains the line “I am the dream and the hope of the slave.” (40) which reminds me of the lines “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood” (King Jr. 4). However, Angelou’s poem makes an even bolder statement and takes the struggle of the oppressed a step further by not seeking the oppressors’ approval anymore. This spirit of insubordination and pride is what makes the poem stand out and feel more truthful on an emotional level. Angelou exposes the pain and frustration that comes along with having one’s own lived experience distorted, misrepresented, denied or erased, tactics that further contribute to the dehumanization of the oppressed group.
Ultimately, I chose to translate “Still I Rise” because I deeply empathize with the struggle for survival of oppressed and marginalized individuals, groups and communities that demand to be heard, seen, recognized and respected, especially after having been treated systemically only with disregard and contempt. Angelou seems to explore the theme of the return of the oppressed in this poem, which is essentially a lyrical response to the oppression of the undervalued individual who returns stronger and claims the respect of those who have systematically underestimated and disrespected them.
Angelou, Maya. “Still I Rise.” And Still I Rise: A Book of Poems. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46446/still-i-rise Accessed 15 Feb. 2019.
King Jr., Martin Luther. “I Have a Dream.” 1963, pp. 1-6. https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf. Accessed 24 April 2019. Speech.
Misiou, Vasiliki. “Literary Translation Strategies.” TIS 311 Literary Translation, 11Oct. 2018, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Microsoft PowerPoint presentation.
Misiou, Vasiliki. “Poetry Translation.” TIS 311 Literary Translation, 29 Nov. 2018, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Microsoft PowerPoint presentation.
Munday, Jeremy. Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications. Routledge, 2001.
Nida, Eugene. Towards a Science of Translating. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1964.
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