The Blue Butterfly, Authorial Intent, and a Few Thoughts on Translation

I’ve always liked John Green’s thoughts on authorial intent  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWtyhGsgosE). Now, a while back we translated Herman Hesse’s Blauer Schmetterling in one of my classes. I ended up doing two entirely different translations and I realised that that was one of my favourite things about translation: it, very concretely, takes the power from the author and gives it to the reader-translator. After which, their version of events will in turn be submitted to its readers thoughts and opinions, and so on. However, when you read something in translation, the gap between the author’s intent and the reader’s interpretation is, inescapably, widened. It’s almost like reading secondary source material.

So, then, if that’s the case, can anything actually be translated? If one person alone can translate a poem in different ways, what is the true translation? Is there one?

Of course there isn’t one. Translation by its very nature is a futile gesture. But maybe that’s why we continue on with it. After all, futility has a particular beauty all of its own.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, here are some translations.
The original can be read here: http://www.karo.b-hoffmann.de/Dat/Schmetterling.html for those of you that speak German.

The Blue Butterfly #1

Oh, up on the wind there winged
A small blue butterfly.
An ir’descent little thing
That glittered, glimmered, and passed by.

As up to the sun it flit,
And I strained t’ward the sky
Happiness beckoned as it
Glittered, glimmered, and passed by.

The Blue Butterfly #2

The butterfly came in on a gust
So small and blue and all aflutter
A mother-of-pearl little shiver
That glittered, flickered, and fell to dust.

Yes, it went quickly as these things must
But I  craned my head to see it go
To see happiness wave to me though
It glittered, flickered, and fell to dust.

 

 

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