Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by Elias L. Rivers
Dear Editor,

The translation of poetry, as we all know, poses a fundamental question: since the poet's own words are what make the poem what it is, in what sense can a translator claim that his or her quite different words are in fact the same poem? Unless the reader can read the original language, he must take the translation on faith. Hence I was tempted to ask, about April's Translation Issue, whether it would not have been worthwhile, for those readers who know at least one foreign language, to have printed the original poems on facing pages. But perhaps not; the translators' notes were a partial compensation.

But now I find in the May issue a lengthy review of a translation of the Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert, and that review was written by someone who says (nonchalantly? shamefacedly?), "I can't ... read Polish," while at the same time he has the chutzpah to assert that two Polish Nobel laureates are "of, as I see it, manifestly lesser gifts and importance." But how on earth could he see it—or hear it or feel it or understand it?

I hope that in the future you will be able to find reviewers who, if not linguistically competent, are at least modest enough to realize their limitations.

Coral Gables, Florida

Originally Published: October 27, 2008

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