Two Views On Translation: Feature On Karl Kirchwey And John Ashbery

By Harriet Staff

Over at the Wall Street Journal, Eric Ormsby explores contemporary translation through a feature story based on interviews with Karl Kirchwey, who recently translated Verlaine's "Poems Under Saturn" and John Ashbery, who recently translated Rimbaud's "Illuminations."

From Ormsby's introduction:

Translation once meant more than the mere transfer of meaning from one language to another. Once upon a time, bodies were "translated" too. In the most famous example, from the Book of Genesis, Enoch (father of the even hoarier Methuselah) doesn't simply keel over at the ripe old age of 300 but is "translated," body and soul, into heaven. So, too, in a good verse translation: The original must be somehow embodied in the translation. In such a translation, a sharp scent of strangeness remains, as vague yet distinctive as sweat on a shroud.

The question isn't only what makes a good translation but whether translation is possible at all. Robert Frost said that "poetry is what gets lost in translation." We all know what Frost meant, but is his statement true?

From the feature on Kirchwey:

He saw the project as an effort to find a balance between "sensuality and learning," as Verlaine somehow did. Mr. Kirchwey also responded to Verlaine's "keen feeling of a self." Even Verlaine's spectacular inconsistency in his life and art appealed to Mr. Kirchwey: his catastrophic love affairs (not least with Rimbaud), his absinthe-soaked days, his legendary eccentricities, all reflected in poems that range from tender hymns of devotion to grossly obscene sonnets, made a chaotic but enticing mix. It was as though Verlaine, at once shambling and sublime, had realized the full range of human possibilities.

And Ashbery:

Mr. Ashbery has lived with the radiant and elusive prose poems of the "Illuminations" for a lifetime; they tantalize him still. I ask him about his translation of a line that has always puzzled me and that the English translator Martin Sorrell (whom he admires) renders literally as "Our desire lacks knowing music." In an earlier copy for reviewers, Mr. Ashbery gives this as "We have no desire for complex music." Don't we? I'm more mystified than ever. He chuckles and exclaims, "Oh, I've changed that!" In the finished book it will read, "Wise music is missing from our desire." Ah, suddenly the line makes sense. Better still, it has Rimbaud's distinctive rhythm in its accents. Something strangely palpable has been transferred.

Kirchwey's translations are available from Princeton University Press. Ashbery's translations, gorgeously designed by Jeff Clark, are available from Norton.

Read the entire feature here.

Originally Published: June 29th, 2011