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Latest Review: "Selected Translations" by W. S. Merwin

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is by Grant Barber on Selected Translations by W. S. Merwin, from Copper Canyon Press. Selected Translations is a collection of Merwin’s greatest translations, representing authors from all over the world and languages from almost every corner.

Grant Barber is a regular reviewer for Three Percent, a keen bibliophile, and an Episcopal priest living on the south shore of Boston.

Collections like this are always fascinating to me—we get to see a wide range of the translator’s abilities and tastes, and are simultaneously introduced to more than one era, style, and form of poetry. So if you find it difficult to sit through an entire book of haikus, but would find more pleasure in reading a haiku here or there among a plethora of other poetic styles, this collection will be right up your alley.

Here’s a part of Grant’s review:

To enter Merwin’s larger poetic project, whether in his translations or his own poems, the reader weighs life’s experiences captured in language so that “these very things may be the poem.” This collection gathers poems spanning 2,500 years, from thirty-eight languages, seventy-eight different poets whose names are known, and twenty-six anonymous poets, the latter including songs from communal oral traditions. Two previously gathered selected translations (1948-1968 and 1968-1978), join those Merwin has selected from 1978 to 2011. Each of the three sections is preceded by Merwin’s explanation of his evolving project of translation.

“Since the eighteenth century, and especially since the beginning of modernism, more and more translations have been undertaken with the clear purpose of introducing readers (most of them, of course, unknown to the translators) to works they could not read in the original, by authors they might very well never have heard of, from cultures, traditions and forms with which they had no acquaintance . . . . (by) poet-translators who do not, themselves, know the languages from which they are making their versions, but must rely, for their grasp of the originals, on the knowledge and work of others.” (from “Forward, 1968-1978”)

Merwin honors his fellow poets who have helped him in his project of translations from not only languages more familiar to Western ears, and the haikus of classic Asian writers of the form, but also ancient Egyptian, Quechua, Kabylia, Dahomey, Caxinua, Vietnamese, Tartar, Urdu, and so forth. Beyond French and Spanish, Merwin explains that he is dependent on dictionaries and other translations; he might not work from the original but from, say, a French translation of the original.

Click here for the entire review, and some preview poems.



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