Literary Translation and Philological Research It Involves (Based on the Georgian and Russian translations of a poem by Edgar Poe)

The complex nature of literary translation is demonstrated by the number of academic disciplines closely connected to it (linguistics, text linguistics, semasiology, stylistics, pragmatics, literary studies, philosophy, psychology, history and others), also by the formation of translation theory as a separate branch of translation linguistics.  Considering the requirements to be satisfied by literary translation, it is obvious how serious the responsibility borne by literary translators is. The main requirement to be fulfilled by a translator is transferring the original to the target language in a way that will allow to leave its contents and form unchanged and to reproduce the literary devices employed by the author. The translation has to convey all the categories of information (factual, conceptual, subtextual [Гальперин, 1981:27] and image-bearing [მერაბიშვილი, 2005:196]) contained in the original in an adequate manner. It must also reproduce the author’s style [ფანჯიკიძე, 1988:29] and, finally, the emotional and aesthetic effect produced on the target readers should be the same as the effect of the original on its readers. In case of poetic translation the translator’s task is made even more difficult by having to retain the characteristic features of poetry such as rhymes, rhythm, metre and melody of the original poem.

Moreover, it is worth noting that the correct interpretation of the original, which is a necessary precondition for its correct translation, sometimes requires going beyond the microcontext and resorting to macrocontext (the so called extratext or repertoire). This involves “studying all the works by a particular author, understanding his/her world-view and getting familiar with the history of creation of the original.”  [ფანჯიკიძე, 1988:11]. However, there are cases when this is not sufficient for getting an insight in a literary work and the allusions employed by the authors send the translator to explore the world literature, history and mythology. That is why literary translation is considered as “a combination of creative work and philological research” [ფანჯიკიძე, 1988:3]. To be more precise, since the present article deals with poetic translation, I will add one more quote, namely L. Ginsburg’s words: “In translation poetry merges with philology, an inspired impulse is combined with thorough research” [მერაბიშვილი, 2005:9].

As I have already mentioned, the present work is about literary, namely poetic translation, which was deemed impossible by a number of famous authors and scholars. For example, a well-known Welsh poet R. S. Thomas compared translation to a kiss through a handkerchief [House, 2013:3]; the German linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote that “every translation is an attempt at solving an unsolvable problem;” Cervantes likened translation to a back of a carpet; Bryusov, a Russian translator and critic, thought that “translating poetry from one language to the other is impossible, but it is equally impossible to give up that dream.” [მერაბიშვილი, 2005:13].

Since, despite the above mentioned difficulties, I could not give up the dream of translating poetry myself, I am going to analyze my own translation comparing it to the original and the other translations. The object of my analysis is the three stanza poem To Helen dedicated to Jane Stanard, the poet’s classmate’s mother, which was first published in 1831. As it is known, the poet himself announced later that Mrs. Stanard was his first love, although there is a different version as well, suggesting that the 14-year-old fellow was not really in love with the woman, but was grateful to her as she was the first person who encouraged him to write poetry. 

The poet calls the source of his inspiration Helen and the simile begins from the title of the poem to go on for the whole stanza – five lines. The poet means Helen of Troy, who, according to the Greek mythology, was the most beautiful mortal woman. The first stanza of the poem reads as follows:

Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicéan barks of yore,
That gently, o'er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore [An Anthology… 1972:263].

In this part of the poem Helen’s beauty is compared to a Nicean ship of old times gently sailing across the fragrant sea carrying the way-worn traveler to his homeland. This implies that the feelings of the lyrical hero were similar to those of a tired traveler getting back home. These are the feelings of joy, quietude and safety. 

But who was the person Poe had in mind speaking about the “way-worn wanderer”? This allusion caused controversy among scholars. Some think that the reference was made to Gaius Valerius Catullus (a Latin lyric poet who lived from 84 BC to 54 BC), whose works were familiar to Poe as he was very good at Latin at school. It is known that Catullus spent some time around the area of Nicaea and then sailed home. He probably sailed close to the coast and near islands where flowers and fruit trees were in bloom and their odor reached him, hence the "perfumed" sea. Supporters of this assumption name some of Catullus poems in which he talked about being tired and worn out and wishing to get home.  

According to a more popular version, it must have been the Greek hero Odysseus (or Ulysses) Poe meant by speaking about the wanderer. This version is supported by several arguments:  Odysseus fought in the Trojan War, which took place in the same area as Nicaea; after the war, it took him ten years to get home, which would definitely wear him out; Odysseus like many other heroes was in love with Helen and wanted to marry her. 

However, some scholars suggest that the wonderer was Dionysus, the god of grape-harvest, winemaking and vegetation who was raised up by nymphs on mount Nysa, but eventually returned to his home on Mount Olympus.

It is interesting to see how the allusions encountered in the original were transferred in the Russian and Georgian translations of the first stanza. Let us begin with Russian translations, namely the translation performed by Konstantin Balmont, which is remarkable for its faithfulness to the original as well as well-selected rhymes. Structurally, lines are somewhat extended compared to the original and this makes it difficult to reproduce the delicate melody of the original, but thanks to the rhymes and rhythm, the sublime tone of the original has been maintained. Balmont’s translation of the first stanza of Helen is given below:

О, Елена, твоя красота для меня 
 Как Никейский челнок старых дней,
Что, к родимому краю неся и маня
Истомленного путника мчал все нежней                        
 Над волной благовонных морей[].

The next translation I am going to analyze was performed by Valeri Bryusov, but, sadly, it is not as accurate as the previous one: 

Елена! Красота твоя – 
Никейский челн дней отдаленных,
Что мчал меж зыбей благовонных
Бродяг, блужданьем утомленных,
В родимые края! [По, 1924:2].

According to this translation the Nicéan ship carried a group of tramps tired of wandering, which is incompatible with the contents and the mood of the original poem as well as the image created by it in the reader’s mind. The allusion employed by Poe is lost, since instead of one way-worn hero the reader imagines a whole group of tramps.  The rhythms are not perfect either.   

Let us analyze Tomashevski’s translation:

Мне красота твоя, Елена, - 
Никейских странствий корабли...
Они к отчизне вожделенной
Пловца усталого несли
По волнам до земли [По, 1976:51].

As we can see the allusions have been maintained. The translation is accurate, the rhythms and metre are appropriate as well as the melody, which brings the translation closer to the original. 

As for Roman Dubrovkin’s translation, it reads as follows:

Елена, красота твоя,
Как челн никейский, легкокрыла,
К морям благоуханным я
Плыву в отцовские края! –
Ты древность для меня открыла [По, 1988:105].

In this translation, which sounds really beautiful, the allusion to a traveler has been lost. The long comparison used by the author has been shortened and the traveler has been replaced by the lyrical hero himself – it is the lyrical hero of the poem who returns to his homeland. As an attempt at correcting this discrepancy the translator employed the phrase “Ты древность для меня открыла” implying that the author identifies himself with a hero of ancient times. However, the mentioned phrase cannot compensate for the lost allusion.
One more translation obtained from the internet for analysis is anonymous. Unfortunately, the picture it creates in the minds of its readers is very different from that of the original. Instead of the peaceful voyage of a traveler tired after a long journey, the translator describes a desperate struggle of a yacht for freedom. The yacht sailing in a rough sea is named Dream. This makes us think that the dream of the lyrical hero of the poem is to gain freedom, not to reach home after overcoming difficulties.  

Хелен, твоя живая красота
Подобна яхте в буйном море.
Её движенья простота
Уже несёт меня на волю...
И имя яхте той - мечта [].

As for the Georgian translations of the given poem, I was able to find only one performed by Leila Gamsakhurdia and along with it I offer my own translation for analysis.  

The first stanza of Gamsakhurdia’s translation reads as follows:

მშვენება ელენე შენი
მაგონებს ხომალდს ძველ ნიკეის,
რომლითაც მგზავრმა დიდ ჭირთა თმენით
სურნელოვანი ზღვა გადასერა
და მშობელ ნაპირს მიადგა გემით [პო, 2001:46].

This translation, whose rhymes and metre leave some room for improvement, is faithful to the original. However, I would still like to dwell on one detail: according to the original the ship is gently carrying the tired voyager, while the translation paints the picture of a voyager who is enduring hardships while sailing across the fragrant sea. As I see it, the traveler has already overcome the hardships and is now peacefully and safely sailing across the sea, which is calm and fragrant and not rough or dangerous.   

Below is given my own translation, which has not been published yet:

ჰელენ, ეგ ხიბლი სიმშვიდით მავსებს,
ვით მგზავრს დაღალულს, დიდი ხნის წინათ,
ცურვა სურნელით გაჟღენთილ ზღვაზე
ნიკეურ გემით, რომ აპოვნინა
კვლავ თვისი ბინა.

I tried to find the suitable rhymes and metre and create the melody similar to the original without changing or ignoring different kinds of information conveyed by Edgar Poe’s poem. I did not use the exact Georgian equivalents (“მშობლიური მხარე” or “სამშობლო”) of the phrase “his own native shore” as I could not find their matching rhymes that would convey the same meaning as the original. However, I compensated for that by the phrase „აპოვნინა კვლავ თვისი ბინა“ (let him find his home/own house again).

Let us move on to the next stanza:    

On desperate seas long wont to roam, 
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face, 
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home 
To the glory that was Greece,       
 And the grandeur that was Rome [An Anthology…1972:263

According to this stanza, thanks to Helen’s “hyacinth hair” (possibly reddish-orange and resembling the bunchy shape of the hyacinth), her “classic face,” and “Naiad airs” (In Greek mythology nymphs of rivers, streams, lakes etc.), the lyrical hero of the poem, who is used to sailing in rough seas, feels the glory of the classical antiquity – the ancient Greece and Rome. It should be noted that Hyacinth is also a charming representative of Greek mythology. As for the phrase “have brought me home”, in my opinion, it is used not literally but figuratively and means “to get familiar with”. 
As in case of the first stanza, the first translation analyzed will be the one performed by Balmont: 

По жестоким морям я блуждал, нелюдим,
   Но классический лик твой, с загадкою грез,
   С красотой гиацинтовых нежных волос,
Весь твой облик Наяды - всю грусть, точно дым,
   Разогнал - и меня уманила Наяда
   К чарованью, что звалось - Эллада,
И к величью, что звалося – Рим [].

The structure is extended; particularly the five-line stanza is represented by seven lines. Words and phrases are also added for the sake of rhymes, but those extra words are chosen in such a way to assure that they do not distort the poem’s meaning.  This leads us to think that the translation is faithful to the original. 

Let us see the same stanza translated by Bryosov:

В морях Скорбей я был томим,
Но гиацинтовые пряди
Над бледным обликом твоим
Твой голос, свойственный Наяде,
Меня вернули к снам родным:
К прекрасной навсегда Элладе
И к твоему величью, Рим! [По, 1924:2].

Here we have seven lines like in the previous translation. The “classical face” has been transferred as paleness, which also stresses the subtlety and delicacy of the woman’s features. However, for some reason, the translation reads that Helen’s voice (instead of airs) reminds the lyrical hero of Naiad. Moreover, “brought me home” has been translated literally – вернули к снам родным (returned me to my own dreams. “Родной” means “native,” “home,”, “own”). 

It is interesting to analyze Tomashevski’s translation:

Я плыл сквозь шторм, мечтой  томимый:
Наяды взор, античный лик...
   Влекомый им неодолимо,
Я славу Греции постиг
   И грозное величье Рима [По, 1976:51].

The message conveyed by the original has been maintained, but the image of the “hyacinth hair” is lost, or, more exactly, substituted by a different phrase. The idiomatic expression “brought me home” has been translated adequately using the Russian word “постиг” (to comprehend, perceive, grasp). 

This is how Dubrovkin translated the given stanza:

Твои античные черты
С игривой прелестью наяды
Для нас классически чисты:
К величью Рима и Эллады
Скитальца возвращаешь ты [По, 1988:106].

Again, the “hyacinth hair” has not been mentioned. Otherwise, the translation saying that Helen’s classical features take the traveler back to the glory of Rome and Greece, is quite adequate. 

As for the anonymous translation, allusions have been ignored in the second stanza as well. The glory of Greece and grandeur of Rome has been represented by the phrase “К земле святого покаянья” (to the land of sacred worship). Moreover, the lyrical hero has not felt the glory of the antique world yet, and still continues his way towards the holy land. 

И вдруг... шторм в море утихает.
Твоё лицо, твои власы, твоё дыханье...
Твой образ море восхищает.
И продолжает путь свой странник
К земле святого покаянья [].

In contrast to the above translation, the allusions of the original have been maintained in Gamsakhurdia’s translation. It reads that the lyrical hero has travelled a lot in dangerous seas and the woman represents the past glory of Greece and Rome. However, the link between these two statements – that the woman’s beauty allowed the tired poet to feel the grandeur of the antique world - is not clear enough. 

ბევრი მივლია შფოთიან ზღვებით;
ნატიფი სახით, სუმბულის თმებით
და სინარნარით ნაიადების,
შენ ხარ ხატება ანტიკურ რომის
და საბერძნეთის წარსულ  დიდების [პო, 2001:46].

Last comes my own translation: 

მღელვარე ზღვაში უსასოდ შთენილს
თმით ჰიაცინტის, მწყაზარი სახით
და ნაიადას იერით თქვენით
დიდებულება მე  დამანახეთ
რომის, ათენის.

I tried to create the Georgian version of the given stanza without losses.  For the sake of rhymes I resorted to metonymy – replaced Greece with Athens. 

Let us move on to the final stanza:

Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand, 
The agate lamp within thy hand! 
Ah, Psyche, from the regions which 
Are Holy-Land! [An Anthology… 1972:263]

This time the poet compares the source of his inspiration to Psyche. In the Greek mythology Psyche personified the soul (represented as a maiden with the wings of a butterfly) whose extraordinary beauty made Aphrodite (Roman Venus), the goddess of love, jealous and she asked her son Eros (Roman Cupid) to revenge the maid. However, fascinated by Psyche’s beauty Eros fell in love with her himself. It is noteworthy that the allusion to psyche is very important and it should be maintained in translation as it refers to the young Poe’s infatuation with an older woman and represents the subtext of the whole poem. As for the Holy Land, considering the context, it must imply the antique world. Let us analyze the translations:

Balmont’s translation was performed in the same manner – with additions, but thanks to the translator’s masterly efforts that did not damage any of the information categories conveyed by the original:  

Вот, я вижу, я вижу тебя вдалеке,
Ты как статуя в нише окна предо мной, 
Ты с лампадой агатовой в нежной руке,
О, Психея, из стран, что целебны тоске
И зовутся Святою Землей! []

Let us see Bryusov’s translation:

В окне, что светит в мрак ночной,
Как статуя, ты предо мной
Вздымаешь лампу из агата.
Психея! Край твой был когда-то
Обетованною страной! [По, 1924:2].

It is really good except the last line, where the translator, apparently misled by the mention of Holy Land, associates Psyche with the Promised Land. In my opinion, association of the pagan Greek goddess with the Promised Land is not correct. This could be caused by the fact that the Holy Land has been used to refer to the Promised Land or the Biblical Canaan, but the context and connotation of the poem has to be considered as well.

Tomashevski’s translation reads as follows:

Ты, в нище у окна белея,
Сжимаешь, статуя над мглой,
   Агатовый светильник свой.
Там родина твоя, Психея,
   Там край святой! [По, 1976:51].

The translation is adequate, remarkable for its melody and rhymes. The two final lines – Там родина твоя, Психея, /Там край святой! (There your homeland is, Psyche, the holy land is there!) – echo the end of the previous stanza referring to the glory of ancient Greece and Rome. 
The next translation analyzed is the one performed by Dubrovski:

Тебя я вижу в блеске окон
С лампадой в мраморной руке,
И гиацинтовый твой локон
   Созвучен певческой тоске
   О райском далеке [По, 1988:106].

As we can see, the translator made an effort here to compensate for the lost image of hyacinth hair (гиацинтовый твой локон). In addition, he managed to maintain the comparison to a statue in a masterful manner through the laconic phrase “С лампадой в мраморной руке” (holding a lamp in a marble hand). However, having compensated the image of the hyacinth hair the translator changed the contents of the original, saying that it was Helen’s hyacinth hair that evoked the poet’s wistfulness about the distant paradise. Obviously, this discrepancy was caused by the need to find rhymes and the message conveyed by the original was not seriously distorted, bit still it is not correct to lay such emphasis on the woman’s lock as the only thing that reminded the poet of the holy land.   

The final stanza of the anonymous translation is even freer than the previous two. In fact, it has hardly anything in common with the original. According to this translation the lyrical hero begs the goddess, who is like a lighthouse shining far away, to give another morning to the world, which is a complete mess: 
И вечером во блеске окон с перламутром,
Стоишь с агатовым светильником в руке -
Ты как маяк, светящий вдалеке.
Молю богиня, подари вселенной утро,
Ведь мир погряз в ужасном бардаке [].

I think that it is not worth continuing the analysis of that translation. So, let us move on to the Georgian translations:

სარკმელი შენი - ბრწყინვალე ნიში,
სადაც შენ დგახარ ვით ქანდაკება,
ხელში გიპყრია ლამპარი გიშრის!
ტურფა ფსიქეა, ზღვისპირეთიდან,
წმინდა ქვეყნიდან! [პო, 2001:46]

This is Leila Gamsakhurdia’s translation, which is really remarkable for its faithfulness to the original and lofty style, but the choice of the final pair of rhyming words is not really perfect and the ABBAB rhyme scheme of the original has not been maintained here, which is true for the whole translation.   

Finally, below is given my own translation:

ო, ისე დგახართ მაგ ფანჯრის ნიშთან,
ვით ფსიქე ტურფა, ქვისაგან თლილი,
აქატის ლამპრით, შუქით მოსილი,
წმინდა მხარიდან - სად მითი იშვა -
აქ მოვლენილი!

I did not use the Georgian equivalent of the word “statue”, but compensated for it with the phrase “ქვისაგან თლილი” (carved from stone), which will hopefully make it clear to the reader that the poet compares Helen to a statue of Psyche holding a lamp. I also added the epithet  “ტურფა” (beautiful), as from mythology it is known that Psyche was immensely beautiful and it was her beauty that inflicted so many troubles upon her. Since Holy-Land is associated with the Biblical Promised Land I added the words “სად მითი იშვა” (where the myth was born) to make it clearer that the holy land refers to the antique world.

In conclusion, I would like to sum up the results of the comparative analysis given in the article.  The present work deals with the five Russian (performed by K. Balmont, V. Bryusov, B. Tomashevski, R. Dubrovkin and one anonymous translator) and two Georgian (by L. Gamsakhurdia and me) translations of Edgar Poe’s poem To Helen. The analysis has been conducted in terms of faithfulness to the original, and maintenance of its form and contents, transfer of different elements of the poem, particularly its melody. It was of special interest to see if the allusions employed by the author had been transferred adequately by the translators, considering the great role of this element in the interpretation of connotative and subtextual information contained in the original.
As an object of analysis I selected the poem, which, despite its small size, is quite rich in allusions and poetic images and its translation requires philological research. The analysis revealed that most of the translations are faithful to the original, although some of them contain errors. In this regard I would like to focus on two issues:  Firstly, a translator cannot confine himself/herself to the microcontext of the original work, but its correct interpretation requires further study of the macrocontext or extratext, which implies philological research. Such research can help a translator to extend the text or make it more compact (if needed for reproducing the right meter, rhythm, rhymes or melody). Thanks to that kind of additional knowledge a translator will be able to treat the material more freely and confidently without damaging its message. On the other hand, after studying the extratext a translator will not misinterpret the text and, consequently, will not mislead the readers. Secondly, it is a problem that very often the information conveyed by the original is sacrificed to rhymes, which is not acceptable at all.   

Finally, I would like to offer my attitude towards poetic translation: in my opinion, the criteria for assessing poetic translation should be closeness to the original both in form and contents; maintenance of its melody, rhymes and figurative language; and the adequate transfer of connotation and subtext. All this is a necessary precondition for creating a text of equal value to the original, which is the goal of every translator. 


მერაბიშვილი ი.
პოეტური თარგმანის ლინგვისტიკა, თბილისი.
ფანჯიკიძე დ.
თარგმანის თეორია და პრაქტიკა, თბილისი.
პო ე.ა.
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Стихотворения. Сборник. Составление и комментарии Е. К. Нестеровой. «Радуга» › edgar-po › stihi › stih-3. 11/16/19. › ... › Free Verse. 11/10/19 › 2015/08/12. 11/16/19 › wiki . 11/10/19