Poets Translate Poets ed. by Paula Deitz. Syracuse University Press. 448 pp.
Poets Translate Poets is an collection of work previously published by The Hudson Review. It features poems by eighty-three poets, translated by sixty writers into modern English from twenty-four original languages. The poems run the gamut in terms of subject and form, and they’re a great sampling of different translators’ styles that provide a wide-ranging look at just what can be done with the English language.
Reading this collection provides a glimpse into themes from different eras and cultures. It’s also a great springboard if you’re looking for a new poet to read; between the original poets and the translators, you’re bound to find someone you enjoy. It wasn’t an overall favorite of mine, though: I found a couple of poems and poets worth looking into further, but overall, I’m not sure if I’d recommend this anthology. It may be worth reading once, but I wouldn’t purchase it as a gift for a poetry-enjoying friend. (That honor remains reserved for Harold Bloom’s The Best Poems of the English Language.)
The introduction, though, presents some excellent food for thought. When a poet translates someone else’s work, how closely must he adhere to the original? Furthermore, once a poem has been translated, to whom does it belong? Is the English-language translation to be considered a poem by the original author, a work by the translator, or some combination of the two? Mark Jarman’s inquisitive and thought-provoking introduction raises these questions, and I enjoyed them so much that I needed to find someone to discuss them with. My translation skills are virtually nonexistent, and I wanted to talk to someone who’d had hands-on experience with the process.
Enter Jordi Alonso. Here’s a bit about Jordi:
Jordi Alonso is an English and Creative-Writing major at Kenyon College. He works at The Kenyon Review managing their presence on social media and reading the slush pile. His poems have appeared in Pegasus, The Volta, and other journals. His first manuscript, a re-imagining of the work of Sappho, is under consideration at a small publishing house in Ohio. When he’s not writing or reading, he cooks, reads, bakes, teaches himself obscure European languages and dreams of living in Mytilini, Greece, or Paris.
Follow him on Twitter @jordialonso91
And now I pass the figurative microphone over to him:
(Thanks, Jordi, for taking the time to put together some excellent ideas about the relationship between translation and etymology.)
Poets have been translating and adapting other poets’ work for as long as poetry has existed. The act of translation demands close reading on the part of the poet so that his or her audience might hear another language’s sounds and ideas through their own tongue. Close reading, though, does not imply absolute fidelity to the source text, and, as Catullus and Robert Lowell have shown through Carmen LI and the book-length project Imitations, respectively, “unfaithful” poets have much to offer.
Recently, after having completed my own translation of Pablo Neruda’s seminal 1959 collection Cien sonetos de amor (One hundred sonnets of love) and making much slower headway on my other two proposed translation projects Ovid’s Heroides in blank verse, and Pierre Louÿs‘ Chansons de Bilitis in a sort of regularized free verse, I began to wonder how the languages that a poet or translator has mastered affect his personal philosophy of translation. These views run the gamut from the oft-quoted maxim that poetry cannot be translated by virtue of its being poetry, to Ezra Pound’s dictum that a translator should “make it new.” That is to say, a well-translated poem is as much an artful object as its original. The word poetry ultimately comes to English from the Greek ποιέω meaning “I make”, “I create”, and “I make my own” among other things.
These linguistic musings led me to start thinking in Spanish. I was translating Neruda, after all. The Spanish and French verbs have a common ancestor in the Latin verb for to translate meaning, quite literally, “to lead across:” trans + duco. English, on the other hand, takes a different etymological route to express the same idea: I translate. This word’s ancestry shares, at least in part, some heritage with Latin and its daughter languages: the trans is there, but here’s where it gets interesting. The main part of the verb to translate in English is the second syllable of the verb: -late. Where does that come from? In the mid 1500s, according to my copy of the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, we English speakers did not yet translate; we traduced, like they do in Spanish and French. The irregular Latin verb fero has many meanings, but its principal meaning is to carry. The past participle of fero is latum, which I will loosely translate as having been carried.
Is there a fundamental difference between the attitudes towards translation given the translator’s first language, or the language from which he or she is translating? In Latin, Spanish and French, one leads across, whereas in English one’s translation has been carried across tongues. What ideas and motives would Catullus have had when leading Sappho across the cold chasm of language and death onto the warm life and sand of the Lavinian shore? Would Chaucer have shared Catullus’ mindset when adapting Boccacio for his Boece and Knight’s Tale? John Dryden, when working on his Aeneid, said that he was writing his Vergil “in words such as he would probably have written if he were living and an Englishman”. My hypothesis is that English translators and poets generally feel more free to adapt and truncate source material to, as Pound said, “make it their own” because of the passive history of our word for changing the language in which a literary object was originally made.
Among Edward FitzGerald’s first publications was Six Dramas of Calderon, which in 1853 began paving the way for his masterpiece, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. FitzGerald’s idiosyncratic approach to translation was very much like Pound’s would be some years later. He was inspired by a text and sought fit words to put his own stamp on it and make it into an English beauty. FitzGerald epitomizes the etymologically English way of translating, which he called “transmogrification”. It is what Lowell did with his Imitations, and personally, what I’m doing with lines from Sappho, that is, creating a new text that has the potential to stand on its own, when picked up by a reader, and yet having a link, whether weak or strong, to the previous text with which it dialogues.
Are we, as poets and translators into and out of English, given a freer rein over the process of translation ipso facto that the word itself does not hold us with as much agency as it does our Roman, Spanish, and French compatriots? Do you have other theories on translation?
Let me know in the comments.