My experience with Zbigniew Herbert is, I suspect, much like the majority of readers who have struggled over the years simply to find the work of this great poet. The narrative detailed by Michael Hofmann in the May issue of Poetry ["A Dead Necktie"] is reminiscent of my own: the inquiries to book dealers, the compulsion to rescue unread copies, the frustration at the general inaccessibility of this major twentieth-century writer. For all the similarities in our background as readers, however, I feel confident that Herbert's longtime advocates will find less agreement with Hofmann's vituperative review of Alissa Valles's new translation of the Collected Poems.
Hofmann begins his dismissal of Valles by introducing her as an unknown poet, someone who (according to Hofmann's "vague and unattributable and thirdhand" gossip) has won the contract to translate Herbert through some hinted-at combination of connivance and nepotism. Though he makes a halfhearted attempt to disown his "snobbish impulse," the ad hominem introduction is a rhetorical gesture unworthy of his argument. It is also, on a factual level, untrue: Alissa Valles is not only an accomplished translator (into Dutch and English, from Russian and Polish), but a celebrated poet in her own right. Publishing under the name Alissa Leigh, she was the recipient of this magazine's most prestigious award for younger poets, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, and has appeared in at least four issues of Poetry, beginning in June 2002.
Hofmann's response to the translations is, I'm sorry to say, no more reliable. His review ridicules Valles's assertion that "great poets deserve many translators"; Hofmann suggests that alternatives lead only to "clutter, distraction, waste" or, worse, the illusion that we have discovered the poet's true voice through "triangulation." Yet Hofmann acknowledges that his relation with Herbert has been produced through this very process: he has read the poems only in available translations in English and German. I have no problems with this fact; it is the purpose of translation to make literature otherwise unavailable accessible to us. But given his admission, I do mistrust the authoritativeness—and the virulence—of his pronouncements about the tonal qualities of Herbert. He speaks of Valles's translations as "disasters" and points to their "awful twanging," then asserts that "the original (I'm quite sure) is . . ."—what? Well, vastly different from Valles's, at least.
All he's truly proven is that his appreciation of Herbert derives from the versions he knows, which is to say, primarily from the intermediation of John and Bogdana Carpenter. But what is merely preference, after all, does not qualify him to pass judgment upon another version. As a reader of Herbert, I am deeply grateful for Valles's delivery of two additional books of previously unavailable poems, and admire her renditions for their linguistic ingenuity and ardor, and for their precision (for example, her eschewing of the Carpenters' occasional propensity to rewrite Herbert, their tendency to produce metaphors where none exist in the original). We can speculate that these are traits that Zbigniew Herbert would appreciate.
At this point, the choice is not between the Valles version and the Carpenters' version; it is between the Valles version and no version. With his stockpile of out-of-print volumes, Hofmann may have preferred the latter. I, however, feel immense gratitude that a wide audience has gained the opportunity to know this monumental poet through Alissa Valles's beautiful translations.