It seems to be harder and harder for us, at Three Percent, to find people willing to take on the task of reviewing poetry volumes in translation. Other review sites might have it easier—in which case, share your secrets with us! But in a literary world that currently feels dominated by prose (and to be honest, I kind of think it’s been that way for some time), Vince dares to toe the line between prose and poetry translations and translators in a way that makes me think that the difficulty in getting poetry reviewed may stem from a more difficult process for readers of given poetry to connect with the text on myriad levels, and even so far as the difficulties in translating the original poems. As primarily a prose translator, I definitely bristled at the opening lines of Vince’s review, but the more I think about it, the more I’m willing to concede a bit and say that, while one may not necessarily be harder than the other, there are most likely, if not absolutely, difficulties inherent to poetry translation that prose translators may never (or rarely) come across. What do you guys think?
Here’s the beginning of Vince’s review:
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to take a form of writing known for its discipline, its strict forms, rhymes, and meanings suggested through language and render it into a second tongue. It’s inevitable that something will be lost in the process of translation. Prose might survive such a transformation (it may even benefit from it), but poetry is wounded each time it’s translated. I don’t speak Italian, but I know for sure that I’m missing something when I read Dante in English.
Perhaps this is why so much of the poetry in translation I come across seems to fall into the free verse, avant-garde category. One need not fret over how to turn a rhyme from a language like Spanish—a language that allows for easy rhyming—into English when the original doesn’t rhyme. Iambic pentameter from French to English could be rough, but if the French poem doesn’t adhere to a rigid pattern, so much the better for the translator.
That being the case, the free verse poems had better be good. That’s significant pressure on the integrity of the work. A mediocre but clever work in one language can easily fall flat when presented in another. Cultural quirks or idioms might carry an otherwise slight poem, but, robbed of these strengths via translation, the work is ineffective.
For the rest of the review, go here.
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