Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Sharon Bryan
Dear Editor,
I applaud Michael Hofmann's review of Alissa Valles's Zbigniew Herbert translations. What he says supports my own dismay, but more importantly, I think it's a masterpiece of literary reviewing—highly intelligent and informed, thoughtful and insightful. He couldn't have deployed his argument more compellingly and effectively: his reluctance to be critical, and his delay of the damning examples, make his conclusions completely credible.

I also learned a great deal about translation from reading a review by someone so deeply and intimately familiar with the process himself. Though I agree with Hofmann that Valles "doesn't write even passably good English," and am shocked by how often she simply misuses words and mistakes one for another (which right off should have disqualified her from translating anyone, let alone someone as important and complex as Herbert), I might well have made some of the same choices she did—using an apostrophe instead of "of"; in general making things concise, tight. That's a high value in American English, and one I often have to call attention to as an editor of other writers' works. But now I see how easy it is to do it unthinkingly, reflexively, without a deep enough understanding of the poet's work. Hofmann's review makes clear just how deeply the Carpenters do understand Herbert's work, and he's right that the differences in verb tense and article choice have startlingly profound effects. He makes clear exactly why and how these translations are a disaster. If there were a Pulitzer for reviews, I think this should get it.

Clinton, Washington

Originally Published: October 27, 2008

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This prose originally appeared in the September 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

September 2007
 Sharon  Bryan


Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, Sharon Bryan earned a BA in philosophy from the University of Utah, an MA in anthropology from Cornell University, and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She is the author of the poetry collections Salt Air (1983), Objects of Affection (1987), Flying Blind (1996), and Sharp Stars (2009), which won the Isabella Stewart Gardner Poetry Award.
Bryan’s work as an editor includes Where We Stand: Women . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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