Marilyn Hacker took part in this interview at Guernica, focusing primarily on her translation of Tales of a Severed Head, by Moroccan poet Rachida Madani.

A little bump before the jump:

Guernica: How much background information about Morocco, if any, do readers need in order to access the text [Rachida Madani’s Tales of a Severed Head]?

Marilyn Hacker: Although I provided some historical background in my preface to the book, I think the text is accessible without very much additional information. The poems make it clear that the trope of Scheherazade is being used to reflect on a contemporary situation of political repression, which is by no means limited to Morocco. But knowing about the Moroccan resistance and its repression—that brought intellectuals and workers, women and men, together—gives a clarifying specificity to the sequences.

You often choose writing and translating projects with a political undercurrent. What can poetry do that journalism can’t?

Marilyn Hacker:
Good journalism is preferable to bad poetry. Ezra Pound said that poetry was “news that stays news,” and one would hope that poetry, but all good writing really, transcends the specificity of its occasion even while, indeed by means of, rendering it genuinely specific. As poets like Adrienne Rich, Louis MacNeice, and Robert Hayden, among many others, have exemplified in their work, individual experience and political observation are not separate; they exist on a continuum, and it is a particular gift or responsibility of the poet, of the imaginative writer, to observe and render that continuum.

Guernica: You studied Romance Languages as a very young undergraduate at New York University. What was it about foreign languages or literature that appealed to you at fifteen?

Marilyn Hacker:
A fascination with language in general. That included the heady joy of discovering poetry in English, at first the poets that would delight an adolescent like Dylan Thomas, e.e. cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, Hart Crane. A foreign language was a door onto branching corridors of other histories, other ways of thinking, other linguistic echoes. American education didn’t emphasize what was then called world history, as opposed to the forefronted American history. And a second European language was also a way to widen that perspective, necessarily—you cannot read Racine or Stendhal in an historical vacuum. Even at fifteen I had read translations of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, also of Sartre and Genet, and I wanted to be able to experience the work directly. A paradox there about translation—that, at its best, one of the things it does is inspire a desire to read the original. I’m very grateful to Yale that Rachida Madani’s book/my translation is bilingual, and the reader can fulfill that desire.

Originally Published: October 10th, 2012