Jerome Rothenberg Encinitas is an internationally known American poet, translator and anthologist who is noted for his work in ethnopoetics and poetry performance. Here he speaks about how his own poems get translated:
Q: So we just have to learn every language, if we want to translate our own poems.
A: Well, recently on a trip to South America, I was doing my own reading of the Spanish translations. Could I follow while I was doing my own reading? No, I really couldn’t. It definitely sounded pretty good. And often too I work very closely with the translators. That works out better, for instance, in Spanish than Chinese. In Chinese, I can’t in any sense become a reader. I can answer questions, but I can’t otherwise work too closely. Sometimes it becomes very strange. Somebody, maybe even now, is working, trying to do a translation of “Cokboy,” which is very culturally specific, both Jewish and American in its language and thematics, and that makes translating wildly difficult. For example, in “Cokboy,” I play for a few lines with a kind of fake Yiddish accent, trying to imitate it or pretending to: “vot em I doink in dis strange place,/ mit deez pipple mit strange eyes.” The Chinese translator asked me, “Why does Cokboy resort to African-American dialect?” [laughter] I don’t know in what way dialect is expressed in Chinese writing, whether the written system is flexible enough to duplicate that peculiarity of sound that we think of as a dialect.
I hope he did not use that translator ever again!