The Possibility of International Poetry
The Poetry Foundation website posted a fascinating conversation last week between author/editor/translator Ilya Kaminsky and reviewer Adam Kirsch. The reason for this interview was the recent release of The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (full review forthcoming), and the main topic is the possibility, or impossibility, of translating poetry.
The entire conversation is worth reading, but I’m going to pull our a few of the highlights. To be honest, this sort of discussion usually gets under my skin. The debate on whether a poem can really be translated from one language to another swerves so greatly from the actual point of an anthology like this: putting together a collection of excellent poems to be read and enjoyed. Literature, ideas, beauty, and words, are what I’m really interested in. Sure, there are interesting theoretical spaces that one can knock around in while thinking about the transference of ideas and writing from one language to another, but so often these discussions simply bolster the pervasive prejudice that, by reading works in translation, you aren’t getting the real thing and, therefore, why bother? It’s all “lost in translation,” anyway, right?
The other week at the Best Translated Book Awards, I read a passage from Edie Grossman’s new book Why Translation Matters about the defensive position of the translator. I know I should get on with quoting from the Kaminsky/Kirsch conversation, but I want to frame this first—so here’s a quote from Edie:
We read translations all the time, but of all the interpretive arts, it is fascinating and puzzling to realize that only translation has to fend off the insidious, damaging question of whether or not it is, can be, or should be possible. It would never occur to anyone to ask whether it is feasible for an actor to perform a dramatic role or a musician to interpret a piece of music. Of course it is feasible, just as it is possible for a translator to rewrite a work of literature in another language. Can it be done well? I think so, as do my translating colleagues, but there are other, more antipathetic opinions. Yet even the most virulent, mean-spirited critic reluctantly admits on occasion that some few decent translations do appear from time to time. And the very concept of world literature as a discipline fit for academic study depends on the availability of translations. Translation occupies a central and prominent position in the conceptualization of a universal, enlightened civilization, and, no small accomplishment, it almost defines the European Renaissance.
This “rhetoric of failure” that’s often applied to translation pisses me off. It’s not like the book and media industry isn’t dripping in failed enterprises already. (Case in point: Adam Kirsch used to write for the New York Sun, which went bankrupt.) I agree that there’s a danger to over-celebrating everything just because it falls into a certain category (not all translations or translated books are wonderful), but why do we have to start with the point of questioning an entire discipline? Theoretical notions be damned, translators and anthologies like this help generate more interesting reading material for people who don’t speak all the languages of the world (re: all of us excepting Peter Constantine and Michael Henry Heim).
All that baggage was what I brought to this article. I was already defensive that I was going to have to be defensive. And Kirsch didn’t let me down. (Which isn’t surprising, considering his reaction to Le Clezio receiving the Nobel the other year.) Although as the interview develops, his position vacillates from a much more interesting perspective to a semi-deluded one. Rather than interject or flood you with my commentary, here’s a remixed version of the conversation—just the pertinent extracts:
AK: But let me start by asking you about the book’s title, which points to one of my own persistent doubts about poetry in translation. Wouldn’t you agree that there is no such thing as an international poem? A poem can only be written in one language, just as it can only be written by one person at a given moment in history. This is, in fact, one of the great themes of twentieth-century poetry, as your anthology makes very clear—the obligation of the poet to his place and time.
IK: Let me ﬁrst state that there is no hidden meaning in the title of this book. A quick look at Answers.com deﬁnes “international” as “involving two or more nations.” It is simply an anthology that collects poetry from more than one nation.
I’m assuming that when you speak about your “persistent doubts about poetry in translation” you aren’t speaking about the classics, from Chapman’s Homer to the King James Bible to Pound’s Cathay. Therefore it’s not that you have doubts about the art of translation itself, but rather about certain translations? If so, I am inclined to agree with you, as I agree with Auden’s statement that a translator should know at least one language well, preferably his own. Anyone who aims to translate into English needs to write well in English. When this is the case, the translation enters the canon of the new language and, perhaps, changes that canon.
AK: The terms of Heaney’s praise for “Incantation” are signiﬁcant: he refers to its message and its truth, but not to its language or music. [. . .] This is why the examples you give of successful translation are really examples of successful reinvention, in which the foreign poem is made to serve the translator, not vice versa. (Notoriously, Pound introduced a Frigidaire into “Homage to Sextus Propertius.”) My fear is that this kind of boldness is less and less common or even possible today, precisely because of our more catholic and cautious approach to international poetry. Maybe we are best served when the translator is not a scholar but a plunderer, taking what he or she needs from the original and flinging aside the rest.
IK: If your standard for translation, along with Brodsky’s, is work in which meters attain a spiritual magnitude “for which nothing can be substituted,” then I agree that very few works of art can meet that rigorous standard. We can stop now and announce to the world that translation is impossible and therefore no one should do it. Various works in English, from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde to Marlowe’s Ovid, from FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat to Pope’s Homer, and all the way to Anne Carson’s Euripides and Sappho, should be discarded as failures.
But perhaps not so quick? As I said in The Ecco Anthology, according to George Steiner an original poem exists in an ideal, static state, and the translator attempts to transmigrate this ideal totality into a second language. Since two languages never mesh perfectly, a translation can never be completely successful; something is always lost.
Few translations in any century could be called “successful reinventions”—or what I would call great translations. But how many great poems are there in any century? Hundreds of poets wrote during the Romantic era; perhaps two dozen are still relevant today. A translator of genius—like a poet of genius—is hard to ﬁnd. But the fact that there are few translators of genius in any century doesn’t justify rejecting the art. [. . .]
But what interests me is not only the genius of the poet translated but also the genius of what is possible in English as it bends to accommodate or digest various new forms. By translating, we learn how the limits of our minds can be stretched to absorb the foreign, and how thereby we are able to make our language beautiful in a new way.
AK: But reading your anthology made me think of how impure all literatures are, and how ironic the cycle of influence can be. In the sixties, American poets helped to liberate themselves from the formal and emotional constraints of the New Criticism by reading Latin-American poets like Neruda. Merwin’s and Bly’s translations of Neruda, which you include in the book, helped to push their own poetry in the direction of open emotionalism, free association, and the speaking voice.
IK: This importing of foreign forms, tones, and approaches is an integral part of our literary tradition. Sonnets and villanelles come from Italy, pantoums come from Malaysia, ghazals from Arabic verses, and so on. English poets whom we ordinarily think of as masters of music are often able to become such masters because of their conversations with other traditions. For instance, Louise Bogan claims very persuasively that “many of the effects in Hopkins which we think of as triumphs of ‘modern’ compression are actually models of Greek compression, as transformed into English verse.”
AK: Randall Jarrell said that in a golden age everyone goes around complaining about how yellow everything is. I don’t want to make that old mistake, but I wonder if there are some costs to living in a time when books like The Ecco Anthology make so much foreign-language poetry so easily accessible. [. . .] But ironically, the current abundance of English translations from all imaginable languages—The Ecco Anthology contains not just French and Spanish and Russian poems, but Armenian and Marathi and Gaelic ones as well—means that the stimulating experience of estrangement is harder to come by. The only way to really “engage in conversations with other traditions” is to get to know those traditions, which requires a good deal of study—and not just of a language, but of the whole literature and tradition in which any given poem is situated.
(Ed. Note: OK, one interjection. Does Kirsch hold that kind of standard to readers of American lit? No Sam Lipsyte for you until you understand your Faulkner and O’Connor.)
IK: You speak of the abundance of English translations of poetry available. But the truth is, very little is available: 50% of all the books in translation worldwide are translated from English, but less than 3% are translated into English. And that 3% ﬁgure includes all books in translation—in terms of literary ﬁction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7%! (The ﬁgures are available at wordswithoutborders.org. My anthology is published in alliance with Words Without Borders, and all the royalties will be donated to keep them alive. They need all the help they can get.) Don’t these ﬁgures suggest that we in the us may be looking into the mirror a bit too much? Maybe we should start looking through more windows for a change?
Opening the window to the world is, in part, the job of a translator.
Rock on, Ilya. Rock. On.