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Poetry in Translation

by Nicolette Reim

The continuum of most literal to “the freest of verse” in poetic translations bears its share of contention.  The seventeenth century poet John Dryden, the most significant definer of translation in English literature’s history, sought a middle ground of common sense between word-to-word and what he considered idiosyncratic forays on the whims of translators that abandoned the original author.  These he termed “imitations,” not a new word for the writing world, but he made it memorable.   Dryden thought words did not have to be strictly followed, as long as meaning was not altered.  The intent is to arrive at a piece that could have been written by the foreign poet if he had been working in one’s own language.

Robert Lowell in London, 1970.CreditCred

Robert Lowell in London, 1970 Photo Credit: Gerard Malanga

In the twentieth century Robert Lowell re-used the word “imitation.”  Philosophically, he thought an art work should contain elements of previous works; that is how art advances.  Lowell and Ezra Pound modeled poetic texts after exposure to and inspiration from writings by others.  It became a question, when does an “imitation” become a poem in its own right (having given credit to the inspirational source under the title)?  This makes poetic translation a bit of a curmudgeon among other forms of art – music, dance, painting – which revel in creations based on artistic influences from which they can be separated to exist freely.  However, translation is notoriously contradictory.  Even Dryden broke his own rules, and many think a work can be both an “imitation,” something genuinely new, and a “translation.” The current term in use, “poetic translation,” reflects Dryden’s “middle ground,” and seeks again a path between literal and imitative.

ezra-pound Photo by Archivio Camera phot

Ezra Pound Photo by Archivio Camera courtesy Epoche/Getty Images

Translation is concerned with every word, punctuation, nuance and detail of construction within a mandate that it has to be a fit with the contemporary world.  Responsibility is to the literary material; one can’t just put down anything.  However, there is a consciousness that something new is being made.  A translator is not simply a proxy, but an all-out advocate for the original source, not for versions in another style, say, like Ezra Pound or Robert Lowell.  Literal (word to word) translations usually end up as if they were originally in the language into which they have been translated.  The ideal translator, working between the two polarities of poetic translation, tries to give the experience from which the translation is made. This has to start with a sense of what shape or form the finished piece is going to have, so doing a translation is very much like actually writing poetry.  There is no single, correct or best way to translate a poem.  All translation at best is mediation rather than definition.  Imagination can be the biggest problem to resolution of meaning.  As evidence of the limitless possibilities of the human mind, give a hundred competent translators a page to translate, the chance of any two versions being identical is close to zero.

Is a translator an artisan or an artist?  Similar to mutations in the evolution of species, major acts of translation seem to come about by necessary chance.  The reason why is usually understood after the fact.  What is at work, is not science, but an exact art – often called the “art of choice.”  The translator is guardian of “the ark,” that is to say, the content.  The communion of self with otherness is the conundrum of the translator’s craft.  Attempt to “improve” the original is a contempt for the foreign poet.  Bad translation has the overstepping voice of the translator – one sees no poet and hears only the translator speaking.  More than jumps from dictionary to dictionary, translation is a poem reimagined, a statement for a specific time, not meant to be definitive, but, as much as possible, to be welcoming.    

The wand is waved from reading to writing.  Those that write have felt the magic of the “right words in the right order” and want to repeat that experience.  What translation does in the first place is represent the meaning of a foreign text.  Language is only a system of differences but no one has figured out how to get a computer to know what a sentence is.  Translators assiduously unearth possibilities of understanding word by word and thought by thought, aided by native speakers.  The same process is repeated when these experiences are handed over to a different language.  To be able to get a final poetic version, a translator needs to have had the experience of writing poetry.  The native speaker helps, not only for meaning, but for the correct overall tone of the poem (usually the hardest part for a translator).

Robert fitzgerald harvvard square.jpg

Robert Fitzgerald courtesy Harvard Square Library

Why do people translate?  Willard Trask, 1900-1980 (prodigious American translator, especially of primitive and medieval poetry) said, “It’s impossible, of course, that’s why I do it.”  All translations need a completely untranslatable moment to remind that any translation is, in truth, impossible.  But, as Robert Fitzgerald, 1910-1985 (American translator of Greek classics that became standard works for a generation of scholarly study) said, “I prefer the live dog over the dead lion.”  Translation can be a kind of apprenticeship, like painters learning by copying the Masters; a way of growing in one’s work.  Translation can compel or entice one to write poetry other than one’s own.  Poets discover parts of their own voice in another’s, parts of others can end up in theirs.  Translating has its own particular parameter of time; when translating, one is not alone.  There are political opportunities in choices of what to translate and how to do it.  There is the excitement of discovery, the solving of a puzzle, gaining knowledge of another culture, another language.  Translators slip by, invisible in the world, passed over and profoundly influential.  They are taken for granted, randomly picked out for praise or taken apart.  They are notorious for the freedom in which they engage in jabs at each other. 


Translation prepares a pathway for a relation between a reader and an author.  Unfortunately, what is most difficult is a relationship between reader and both the author and translator.  Excellence in literature cannot be determined, cannot exist, without translation as a means of repeated reaffirmation.  When the words of translation matter in turn, when it is felt, in a translation, that indeed it must be these necessary words in this necessary order, the translation becomes literature, too.    

Then there is the significance of literature itself.  It is a defender of language.  It defends the importance of writers working in their own languages. They save their dialects and cultures from being chipped away and disappearing.  More translations are being called for outside the European speech domain and more being searched out from desires to better understand disenfranchised people.  A vast quantity of literature is lost each passing century (especially oral).  Terrible to think of all we have already lost.  Responsible translators acknowledge their limitations and try to have at least a cursory understanding of how the original language works and sounds.  Society can only sustain itself at its best level if there is an ongoing interaction between its great works and the intimate lives of its citizens.  Technology is reducing us to the pre-literate state of face-to-face conversing.  The computer operates on the ease with which any record of progression in thought can be wiped out.  With fear of the outsider on the rise across the western world, the complex art of translation has achieved a new level of cogency for English language readers.  Choosing between one word and another is the basis of not only translation, but of working out how we deal with the world.  “Is translation done for the world?  Why not!” says Kate Briggs, author of This Little Art, a most recent publication.

This Little Art.jpg

“Don’t do translations if you’re planning a career.  It’s a thankless thing, a ‘little art,’ ” writes Briggs.  There is a caricature of the translator as a wannabe writer, someone resentfully in service to literature, on the outskirts, jealous of its in-crowd.  There are the usually behind-the-back comments on the role of privilege in being able to spend so much time on something not financially lucrative.  The reality is it is really difficult getting a poetic translation published.  English is the dominant language of translation yet the number of publications translated into English make up only 3% of published texts, including technical and scientific texts.  Poetry comes in at 0.7%.  The novelist, playwright, etc. whatever his foreign land, looks to English translation to place himself in the world.  Poetry, in particular, lives in a state of perpetual reexamination and can’t survive when it has no place to go.


Robert Frost in 1943. (Eric Schaal/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images).


Not everyone has embraced enthusiastically poetry in translation.  Robert Frost’s “frosty” comment is, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”  Then there is Chaim Bialik, 1873-1934 (translator and considered the pioneer of modern Hebrew poetry), who compared translation to “kissing through a handkerchief.”  Should one do translation? Yes!  We need it for places where we don’t or can’t live.  It offers chances for reconciliation, as well as failures to understand, confusion or being challenged.  Are translations getting better?  It doesn’t necessarily follow a new translation is an improvement on a previous.  Errors are continuous.  Transfer swims in imperfection.


Hayim Nahman Bialik (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Israeli national photo archive)

If you don’t like making mistakes, don’t translate!  Many translators do not read their printed works, knowing they will reach for a pencil to begin changes.  The history of mistakes in translation is vast – translation still has to endure.  To err is human; translators try not to make big mistakes, try to take chances and try not to be afraid to fail.  Being hooked on the word by word is a sand trap - translation is an x-ray, not a Xerox.  I ran across this “mistake” story as recounted by John Felstiner, 1936-2017, in his book Translating Neruda.  It is a cautionary tale on the hazards of translating.  In 1973 a poem was circulated by international wire services in which Pablo Neruda was heard to denounce violently Nixon and Pinochet, among others, as “hyenas evening / our history . . . satraps bribed a thousand times over / and sellouts, driven / by the wolves of Wall Street, / machines starving for pain.”  Felstiner couldn’t understand how Neruda, extremely ill at the time, could have produced such a concerted outburst.  After hesitating for fear of endangering Neruda’s position, he was persuaded to do the translation of the poem.  It was published immediately on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, in many other periodicals and used as a poster.  Then he learned “The Satraps,” as it was titled (a biblical word, in English “The Henchmen”), was actually written by Neruda twenty-five years earlier, about Central American dictatorships backed by the United States.  Someone changed the dictators’ names to apply to 1973.  Felstiner was chagrinned at not having recognized the poem.  Reexamining the original sent to him he found one line that had gotten mixed up over the wires.  It was not máquinas hambrientas de dolores, but dólares – not machines starving for pain, but for dollars.  Considering the mistranslation had its own truth, he let it stand.

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What the work of translation involves and how it should think and feel are historical determinations that change.  It is thought they should be redone every 25 years to be relevant – to catch up with modern sensibilities.  Realistically, in the vast majority of poems, a reader has few reliable ways of knowing if and to what degree it can be counted upon to be a translation.  Poets have rifled each other’s treasure chests since the beginning of time.  Since everything is made from something else, we are all translations, hopefully, redone periodically.


Nicolette Reim is a visual artist, poet, and writer, who lives and works in New York and Atlanta.

Photo: Elias Maus

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