Admussen’s Errata

Many people have said that translation–especially poetry translation–is more about interpretation than about accurate representation. What do these interpretations tell us?

In one of the best personal essays about translation I’ve come across, Nick Admussen spots a mistake in a translation he did of a poem by Ya Shi 哑石, “a moment when my work as a translator loosened and a ghost slipped in“:

And shadows of branches steal in through the window           the oak desk
that’s so fragile I am forced to love it has exploded just a little bit

而树枝阴影由窗口潜入   清脆地

“My version of the line,” he writes, “stretches the grammar without apparent rationale … I had inserted an entire concept, so fragile I am forced to love it. It’s not in the poem, I brought it into the poem, and I knew where it had come from.”

What follows is an incredibly moving remembrance of fortune, fathers, and furniture. Admussen ends with,

The translator regrets the error. I am especially sorry to admit that I still don’t know what the translation should look like or if there exists a version that will feel both stable and “right.” I’ll keep trying: perhaps my repeated mistakes will reveal as much about the poem as a translation could. I don’t know how to remember my father or how I should have acted in the Goodwill parking lot. The memorial, if it exists, seems to be happening outside what I think I am saying. All I can do for now is show you what I have done, to describe the psychological result of the process of translation, the experience of the texture, language to language, father to son, writer to reader: how qingcui it is, how fragile, how much like music.

Click the image above to read the full piece.