Translating is a difficult feat for obvious reasons, and when translators are faced with the dichotomy of stylistic aesthetics versus textual fidelity, one “correct” choice is often impossible to come by. This dilemma is only deepened when one speaks about literary translations. Literary translations are a whole different realm, a literary work in their own right, and translated versions of novels, plays and poems often garner as much attention and praise as the original text. This is so because literary translators are faced with the arduous task of turning a into b, without losing a’s meaning or style – both deliberately built up by the original author.
Saussure spoke famously about the differences between the signifier and the signified, and this classification is useful for thinking about literary translations. The translator’s task is to create a new signifier through the use of words (signifiers of their own) from a different language, all while maintaining the original meaning or signified message. This becomes all too difficult when we delve into the world of poetry. How do we translate, for example, the avant-garde? E.E. Cummings’ poem “l(a” is a perfect example of the obstacles faced by literary translators – especially when they’re dealing with poets such as Mallarme or Apollinaire or Cummings himself, poets who transcended the classic notion of the poem as such and turned visual elements into equally important components for their work. How, then, do we translate a poem such as Cummings’ aforementioned one?
It’s easy to see that it’s not so simple anymore: Cummings tells us that a leaf falls, but he shows us that on the page as well through the very movement of the words themselves. The translator will now have to deal with both content and form in ways uncommon and perhaps unknown to most.