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
“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.