LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 49, No.4 - Winter 2003
Editor of this issue: Stasys Goštautas
Copyright © 2003 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
FOR WHOM THE TRANSLATOR WRITES
Vyt Bakaitis. Breathing Free: Poems from the Lithuanian / Gyvas atodusis: lietuvių poezijos vertimai. Vilnius: Lithuanian Writers' Union Publishers, 2002. Hardcover, 524 pages.
Each and every translator, approaching any given piece of work, faces the harrowing decision of what to sacrifice: Rhyme or alliteration over shades of meaning? Syntax over rhythm? In a word with multiple meanings, which meaning? Inevitably translation is an act of interpretation on the part of the translator, and every translator brings a different perspective, a different set of life experiences and a different set of priorities to the task.
At first glance, a reader would assume that this extremely ambitious work, covering Lithuanian poetry from Donelaitis to the present day, is an attempt to win a wider audience for a genre that Lithuanian writers excel in. Vyt Bakaitis, in his introduction to the book comments that "essentially with a work of translation we are no longer at the level or free inspiration but of considered interpretation, or commentary, however inventive." Given the pressing need for English translations of Lithuanian verse, it is unfortunate that Bakaitis at times appears to emphasize inventive commentary over considered interpretation. The result is a collection of poems in which Bakaitis's voice takes precedence over the voices of the poets he is translating. Bakaitis must be commended for the format of the book, with the original Lithuanian on the left, the English translation on the right; however, those who wish to improve their language skills by using such a book must beware.
With few exceptions, Bakaitis makes no attempts to emulate structured verse form, using free verse throughout. It could be argued that to the modern ear, rhymed English sounds hopelessly stilted, but Bakaitis in many cases does not so much as emulate repetition. A repeated line gets a new interpretation, leaving the reader to wonder if this was done because the translator was so unsure of his first attempt that he thought it best to include another, or whether he considered the repetition boring and thought to improve upon the original. Neither alternative is appealing. The same word used twice in a poem is also occasionally translated differently the second time. Most contemporary translators agree that any translation of an older work should strive to present it in modern language, but Bakaitis frequently misses the tone or register of the original, using street slang where the original used artificial slang or buzz words, for example. Furthermore, the work is marred by occasional outright errors in translation.
An example of a poem that displays many of these problems is Balys Sruoga's "Miestas" (The City), which Bakaitis translates as "Inner City." To American readers, "Inner city" designates the slum areas that frequently surround the central core of older cities. As the reader will observe in the following extract, this is not what Sruoga had in mind. A stanza is given with a literal translation (English prepositions and articles inserted in parenthesis):
Dūmuos paskendus, ūžia kavinė,
(In) smoke drowned, roars (the) cafe,
Even a reader unfamiliar with Lithuanian can certainly see the tight structure of this stanza, the frequency of repeated lines and words, the alliteration and the very minimalist expression. Here's what Bakaitis came up with:
One vast roaring smokescreen for a mob to soak in,
It is immediately obvious that this is more inventiveness than translation, far more Bakaitis than Sruoga. Elements that do not exist in the original (a smokescreen, fumes that snuff, a mob) appear; or elements from the original get transposednaked bosoms become naked legwear and somehow scented bodies turn into a stray whiff of dollars. The tight structure and minimalist expression, the mere hints of a picture that gives Sruoga's work its notorious mocking irony, are literally spelled out. The result is rather banal.
Of note is Bakaitis' translation of buržujus (bourgeois), a word loaded with cultural meaning. Sruoga wrote this poem in the interval between the wars, when independent Lithuania was going through a period of rapid development, including the rise of a new middle class centered in the cities. Then, as now, the word carries an overtone of contempt. Bakaitis tries out two different phrases, and although both "poor slob" and "poor guzzler" certainly express the contempt, they are both considerably more heavy-handed, and certainly to be a bourgeois does not mean to be an unattractive, ungainly person or a drunkard, the primary meanings of these words. One wonders why "bourgeois" wouldn't do.
Although one can appreciate that Bakaitis made an effort to use alliteration, the word "sucks" these days is overburdened with its unsavory colloquial meaning. Yes, Sruoga uses a great deal of slang in this poem, but it is a particularly urban, pretentious slang using Latin or foreign root words, not gutter slang.
The reader would perhaps be more impressed with Bakaitis's inventiveness if it were not for the occasional outright error. In Gintaras Patackas's poem "Teismo diena" ("Judgment Day") Bakaitis misreads debilas (half-wit) as debetas (debit), so that vaikų debilų akimis, literally "children with half-wit eyes," comes out absurdly as "children who bear debits in their eyes." In other cases he misses that a word is being used in its secondary meaning. An example is Benediktas Januševičius's "Jeigu," ("If So"). The fifth part begins with "kaimynystėj visi obuoliai supūdavo / nė nespėję prinokti / gal kas nužiūrejo? spėliodavom." Bakaitis translated this as "in our neighborhood all the apples rotted / before they came to be ripe / "maybe someone has noticed?" we'd venture to hope." Although nužiūrėti does mean to look something over, its secondary meaning is to give someone (or something) the evil eyequite obviously what the poet had in mind.
Bakaitis here compounds the errorperhaps trying to make sense out of the lineby translating spėlioti (literally to guess, to make a conjecture) as "to venture to hope," adding a dimension that did not exist in the original. This is something he does with some frequency by injecting words of emphasis or using colloquial English catchphrases that are not necessarily accurate in terms of meaning nor in terms of the language of the original. Another example would be "hit the dirt," a slang phrase most frequently heard in World War II Hollywood movies meaning to fling oneself to the ground to protect oneself from a bomb blast or gunfire. Bakaitis uses it to translate žemėn suklupau in Algimantas Mackus' "Keista mirtis." According to Dabartinės lietuvių kalbos žodynas*, the word suklupti has four meanings: 1) to fall to one's knees; 2) to kneel as a group, as for prayers; 3) to make a mistake, to err; and 4) to break under pressure, to give in, as in to lose one's honor. 2emen means "to, towards the earth." Bakaitis's translation is clever but most certainly inappropriate for the context of this poem.
This is not to say that Bakaitis' work is entirely without merit. With some of
the more modern poets he fares considerably better. An example is Eugenijus
Alisanka's work. The structure of Ališanka's poems is curiously reminiscent of
the prose of the English essayist Samuel Johnson, where phrase is piled upon
phrase until the loaded coil finally springs. In these translations Bakaitis
stays much closer to the original, perhaps because the syntax is divided into
such clear pieces. Similarly, Bakaitis fares better with a poet like Onė Baliukonė, whose syntax is simple and straightforward.
Tomas Venclova, in his introduction to Tankėjanti šviesa (Thickening Light) admits to the translator's temptation to pasisavinti (make one's own) another author's work. Bakaitis has in many cases given in to this temptation. He himself admits in his introduction that "my enthusiasm for a poem may have run away with me." Perhaps if he were a better poet the results would not be so distressing. Perhaps if he had not undertaken such an ambitious project and had instead concentrated on authors whose style suited his methods, the results would have been happier.
The book includes an introduction in Lithuanian and a longer English introduction with a brief outline of the history of Lithuania. It also includes useful biographical notes and Bakaitis's comments on each of the poets in English, a bibliography and a biography of Vyt Bakaitis in Lithuanian and English.
* Lietuvių Kalbos Institutas, Dabartinės lietuvių kalbos žodynas, 3rd edition. Mokslo ir Enciklopedijų Leidykla, Vilnius: 1993