"Translating poetry is like method acting," said poet-scholar Jonathan Cohen, who had hitchhiked down from Stonebrook, Long Island, to attend the International Symposium Literary Translation at the University of Maryland. "I try to get inside a Spanish poem like an actor trying to get inside the character, the persona, of Hamlet."
That was not the only problem discussed by the 50 translators at the three-day event -- the first major project of the university's new Center for Critical Studies -- but it was characteristic.
The verb "to translate" is derived from tow Latin woras meaning "bring across." And what came across during the conference was the lure of language and the wider implications of the art.
Finding the corresponding English word for one in Spanish, Russian or Chinese is an important part of the process -- but only the beginning. Translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni and his subject Jorge Luis Borges, summed it up in their preface to "The Aleph and other Stories":
"We do not consider English and Spanish as compounded of sets of easily interchangeable synonyms; they are two quite different ways of looking at the world."
When working on brand-new stories with Argentinian Borges, Di Giovanni said at the convention, "many times we revised and tinkered with the originals as we made our English vesions. When we finished ur translation we would then go back and translate parts of it into Spanish for the Spanish-language text.
"We even wrote a number of pages together in English, including a longish autobiographical piece, that never came out of a scrap of Spanish and that someday someone may have to translate into Spanish."
Ruth Whitman, who was born of Yiddish-speaking parents but learned Yiddish at Harvard University, was virtually forced by Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer into becoming his translator.
"I came to Yiddish late," she recalled in a conversation. "I was an assimilationist and when I was young I eloped with a gentile poet." When she won a poetry prize in 1962, Singer attended the award banquet and wrote an article about it for the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward, of which her grandfather had been a founder.
"He said it was a shame -- a schande -- to see this girl with the beautiful oriental features and ther goyish name abandoning her heritage, unable to speak a word of Yiddish.
"I was stunned -- he was ritht and I had been thinking about it already. I started private study of Yiddish, and then Harvard offered its first course in Yiddish and I enrolled. I was already an experienced translator in French, and when I felt that I had a working knowledge of Yiddish I went to Singer and talked to him.
"'Now that I can translate Yiddish,' I asked, 'what poets should I translate?'
"'Me,' said Singer."
At first, she said she found the experience "terribly frustrating, because I was a scholar and wanted a text, but a lot of the stories he wanted me to translate, he was making up as we went along. I don't know whether he ever wrote out some of the stories in Yiddish or not."
"When you can talk to the author, a lot of problems simply don't exist," said another Singer collaborator, Elizabeth Shub, who has translated many of the Grimm fairy tales.
"I remember in a Grimm story encountering the word 'Raspelbrot,' which wasn't in any dictionary. After trying to figure it out, I finally wrote to the Grimm Museum to ask them, and they took a whole paragraph to tell me what was meant by that one word. It ias a special kind of bread baked to be given to the poor, with an extremely hard crust and not much nutritional value.
"I finally translated it 'bread crusts,' which wasn't quite exact, but worked.
"With Singer, it's much easier. If something is untranslatable, he will write out a new paragraph."
That solution, of course, is impossible to those who work with ancient languages, where the problem is returning spontaneity to the original. That was the subject of a talk on Greek drama given by William Arrowsmith of Johns Hopkins, who is editing a complete new translation for Oxfore University Press.
It can be disatrous, he said, to entrust Greek drama to "professors with poetic aspirations"; and full-time proets are apt to forget that it is really theatrical material.
The sense of the theater was even present in epic narrative, said Robet Fitzgerald, translator of the Homeric poems. "Free improvisation was part of the essence of every performance," he said. "What we would call free translation is much nearer to what the original performer would have expected of a translator, if he could have conceived of one.
"So the possibility arises of translating not from one dictionary to another dictionary, so to speak, but from one tradition to another, from on life to another."
Translation, as a way of life, almost always entails economic hardship, but most say they accept it cheerfully.
"I can't afford to eat and translate poetry at the same tine," said Jonathan Cohen, translator of "The Dark Room and Other Poems," by the Chilean poet Enrique Lihn, which was published last year. In spite of such hardships, he has established the Islands and Continents translation award, a $1,000 prize contributed and awarded annually to poet-trnaslators by their peers.
"I keep my thermostat at 55 degrees all winter to help pay for that prize," said Cohen.
He finds the growing interest in translation among American poets encouraging because "for the last generation, American poetry has been locked into the first person. Translation is a good way to get out of that little box."
At the other end of the financial spectrum, the National Endowment for the Humanities, a cosponsor of the Maryland conference, is providing funds for the translation of material with special cultural or scholarly value.
"All translations must include an introduction and explanatory annotation," the NEH guidelines insist, and the professors present agreed that the academic payoff is for notes and commentary, not for the actual work of translation.
"In a publish-or-perish situation, translators are likely to perish," said Seth wolitz, who is "now a fenured professor, able to indulge in translation."
"Translation has yet ot gain academic respectability," Wolitz said. "They look at it and say, 'He's indulging himself.' It is thought that people translate because they can't do real critical work like studying Hemingway's use of the semicolong."
Perhaps for this reason, the translatiors assembled for the conference which ended yesterday seemed a relatively self-effacing crew. "There is no such thing as a perfect translation," said one; and another cautioned against trying to outshine the author.
Nobody used the line attributed to James Thurber when a woman praised the elegance of his work in a French translation: "Yes," Thurber said, "it loses something in the original."