A Few Thoughts About Translation
I don’t read much poetry in translation; in fact, I tend to actively avoid it. As Robert Frost famously said, “Poetry is what is lost in translation.”?
What distinguishes a poem from a story or an essay or a letter or an op-ed column isn’t its subject matter (any number of these things can deal with the same subject) or its ideas (lots of poems, good ones even, have very little in the way of ideas), its imagery (after all, there aren’t any actual images in poems, or in stories or novels: just words, that don’t depict or resemble things) or even its emotional force or poignancy (I have much more often been brought to tears by pop songs that resonated with me than by the most moving poems). It’s the particularity of its language, the way the words interact with one another to produce rhythms and sonic patterns, what Ezra Pound called logopoeia. This is exactly what goes missing when a poem is translated. So I have always agreed with the Italian epigram “Traduttore traditore": “The translator is a traitor,” either to the original text (which he or she replaces with an unconvincing simulacrum) or to his or her own language (which gets mangled or homogenized into a synthetic and flavorless “translatorese”) or, too often, to both.
But, because I also believe that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds (and because I wouldn’t want to be too predictable), there are a few translations that have seemed to me not just cribs or reading guides, but poems in English. They aren't always the most literally accurate translations (Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin’s Mandelstam translations take liberties, and James Greene’s take even more), but they convey, to my monolingual ear and eye, not just an idea of the original poems (what Celan translators Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh call “a working version of mere meaning”), but also a sense of why we should care, why we should read them at all, in any language. Too many translations just convey the sense of the poem (the least important aspect, certainly the least distinctive or unique), without conveying what makes it poetry. I’m willing to accept a degree of straying from the letter if it results in greater faithfulness to the spirit. As Greene notes, what’s important is to carry across the effect of the poem. In this sense, Joseph Brodsky was right when he said, no doubt responding to Frost, that “Poetry is what is gained in translation”: if, that is, one is exceptionally lucky.
As Clarence Brown writes in his introduction to his and Merwin’s edition of Mandelstam’s selected poems, “We have tried to translate Mandelstam into the English that works as an instrument of poetry in our own time, and we have accepted the responsibility entailed in the fact that to translate is to change.” This is what I ask of a translator, as opposed to those Brown calls “Those of my colleagues in the academy who are sent up the wall by ‘mistakes’ in the translation of poetry, those who are happy to maintain that poetry is untranslatable here on earth, and the arbiters of their own brand of literalism everywhere.”
Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd was born in New York City in 1963 and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a BA from Bennington College and studied at Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first collection, Some Are Drowning (1994), won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in...