You'll find in the September issue of Poetry a very lively debate about Michael Hofmann's review of the new Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert. His piece, "A Dead Necktie" (which we ran in May), dismissed the new translations, and the seven letters we've published this month are just the tip of the proverbial and metaphorical iceberg. One of the letters is up right now on the Poetry website; all are passionate and make good points. Among the issues raised: what constitutes competence in translators... and in reviewers of their work? Do great poets deserve many translators - or, as Hofmann said, not. In what sense is a translated poem the same poem as the original? All represent what one letter-writer calls "strong beliefs about what makes good poetry." The debate continues...

Originally Published: September 4th, 2007

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

  1. September 4, 2007
     Joseph Hutchison

    I read all of the letters in the latest issue and must say that anyone who doesn't read the original language has no standing to criticize the quality of any translation–except as a work in the language of the translation. A poem translated into English can be attacked as being a bad poem in English, but inferring a failure to reflect the original is impossible without knowing the original. Comparing translations may be instructive, and one can (again) claim that one English version is better than another, but not that the better of two English versions more accurately reflects the original. This is as true of prose as of poetry. We can flatter ourselves that we've read Don Quixote, but unless we read Spanish, what we've truly read is Putnam, or Rutherford, or Starkie, or Grossman. This is why books continue to be re-translated, each time being transformed to reflect the translator's era and understanding of the author's intentions. Bottom line: stop whining and be grateful that more of Herbert's work is available in English!

  2. September 4, 2007
     P Miller

    I wish that followup would be done to determine why the Carpenters are no longer translating Zbigniew.
    Most of their existing translations are out of print. The Carpenters seem to be in a rather poor spot here as it's the same press releasing this new volume.
    I haven't bought the new volume and am holding off until more satisfactory information is presented. I want to know why the Carpenters were not involved. I have this whiffing sense that it was for reasons other than their translating skills.

  3. September 4, 2007
     Simon DeDeo

    I don't have a copy of the latest Poetry to hand, so I can't follow the whole conversation. I think Joseph (above) is correct to a certain — possibly tautological — extent.
    But readers of poetry will always be in need of criteria to judge translations in the absence of knowledge of the source text. [Tangentially, let me propose just one: the translation should be obviously not a product of reigning trends in the destination language. Readers should be allowed to confront what is new and strange.]
    I have to agree that I found Michael Hofmann's review to be a bit snotty. Sniping at the translator's importance (or lack thereof) is nasty, as is holding her responsible for the publisher's blurb and marketing, which is always going to be out of her control. So is unfounded gossip about estates!
    That aside, it's important to hear from Michael because he actually has important things to say about how Herbert sounds to him. His comparisons of the two translations are absolutely devestating in proving his point. Once he pulls clear of the gossip, it's clear he's right.
    But note that Michael himself doesn't know the original! He's just doing what we all do when it comes to translations: judge them as poetry.
    The essence (if I may distill) of Michael's criticism is that Alissa has allowed her own ideas about what poetry should be and sound like alter her translations — and that those ideas are pernicious.
    I'm sure, for example, that whatever notion of assonance there is in Polish is completely different from ours, so there's no doubt that Alissa's use of it is something she's come up with herself.
    In the end, we as readers and critics read a translation the way we might watch the progress of a caravan at night, from an aeroplane above. We can't see the terrain, we can only judge how well it's navigated.

  4. September 5, 2007
     Zachary Bos

    To expand on Simon Dedeo's comment: if we are to come closer to 'seeing the terrain' of poetry composed in languages foreign to us, the most ready method for doing so is the "triangulation" which Hofmann poo-poos. How else? For wouldn't it be abrupt, if not parochial, to concede the perfection of one particular translator's version, if we don't have the ability to judge for ourselves its success at carrying over both sound and sense. Go even further, and compare additional translations in parallel until we approach the character of the original asymptomatically.
    NYTimes columnist David Orr weighed in on Hofmann's assessment back in July.

  5. September 7, 2007
     Simon DeDeo

    To follow up -- of course a technique like Hoffmann's (that I suggest as well) has it's limits. We are in danger of affirming translations that conform to our notions of what things should sound like. That can either be preferring translations that make the poet seem "like us" (on the one hand) or bizarrely exotic (on the other, and as in the chinoiserie of early C20.)
    Anyway, a fun discussion.

  6. September 7, 2007

    Here's what Bill Knott more or less says about whether the translator needs to know the original language or not (he calls his own attempts "transversions"):