1. Home
  2. Poetry Magazine
  3. Various Tongues: An Exchange by Adam Kirsch, Ilya Kaminsky
Prose from Poetry Magazine

Various Tongues: An Exchange

Is true translation impossible?

First of all, let me say congratulations on The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry. It’s a moving and impressive book, and I hope you’ll be able to talk a bit about how you edited it—there are so many poets from so many parts of the world, I wondered how you found them all. There are famous poems here—one of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, Akhmatova’s “Requiem,” Celan’s “Deathfugue”—but I think every reader will make a lot of discoveries, too.

The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, ed. by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris. HarperCollins Publishers, Ecco.$19.99.

ADAM KIRSCH: First of all, let me say congratulations on The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry. It’s a moving and impressive book, and I hope you’ll be able to talk a bit about how you edited it—there are so many poets from so many parts of the world, I wondered how you found them all. There are famous poems here—one of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, Akhmatova’s “Requiem,” Celan’s “Deathfugue”—but I think every reader will make a lot of discoveries, too. I particularly liked W.S. Merwin’s translations of the Argentine poet Roberto Juarroz, whose “Life Draws a Tree” is a wonderfully spare defense of art as the third force that balances life and death.

But let me start by asking you about the book’s title, which points to one of my own persistent doubts about poetry in translation. Wouldn’t you agree that there is no such thing as an international poem? A poem can only be written in one language, just as it can only be written by one person at a given moment in history. This is, in fact, one of the great themes of twentieth-century poetry, as your anthology makes very clear—the obligation of the poet to his place and time. As opposed to Symbolist and Modernist poetry, which made art a separate kingdom, most twentieth-century poets reacted to the horrors of the age by insisting, as a matter of moral and aesthetic honor, that they too are casualties of history. This is a central concern of Czeslaw Milosz, whose “Bobo’s Metamorphosis” you include: “In every pocket he carried pencils, pads of paper / Together with crumbs of bread, the accidents of life.”

Is there a risk, when you translate the “accidents of life” into the rather featureless dialect of international poetry, of losing the very truth the poem wants to tell us? I think Milosz is a good test case here, because some of his poems, when put into English, become not poetic at all, but pompous and public-sounding prose. “Human reason is beautiful and invincible,” the first line of “Incantation,” is a noble sentiment, but the language is wooden and unmemorable. I think of the Arab named Mohammed Sheab whom Giuseppe Ungaretti writes about in “In Memoriam”:

He loved France
and changed his name

Became Marcel
but was not French
and had forgotten how
to live
in his own people’s tent.

Mohammed-turned-Marcel, we learn from the poem, committed suicide. Is this a kind of warning to the translator?

ILYA KAMINSKY: Thank you for your insightful commentary, Adam. It is a joy to speak to you about literature. I am grateful for this opportunity.

Let me first state that there is no hidden meaning in the title of this book. A quick look at Answers.com defines “international” as “involving two or more nations.” It is simply an anthology that collects poetry from more than one nation.

I’m assuming that when you speak about your “persistent doubts about poetry in translation” you aren’t speaking about the classics, from Chapman’s Homer to the King James Bible to Pound’s Cathay. Therefore it’s not that you have doubts about the art of translation itself, but rather about certain translations? If so, I am inclined to agree with you, as I agree with Auden’s statement that a translator should know at least one language well, preferably his own. Anyone who aims to translate into English needs to write well in English. When this is the case, the translation enters the canon of the new language and, perhaps, changes that canon.

For example, consider Yeats’s well-known poem, “When You Are Old,” which many people have memorized. As it happens, the poem is also very famous in China, where it was translated from the English. Not all readers realize, however, that Yeats’s poem is actually his version of “Quand vous serez bien vieille” by the equally beloved French poet, Pierre de Ronsard. Could this, then, be an international poem? As far as I am concerned, such a thing occurs only when the translator can write well. Yeats certainly did that.

There are also several well-known cases in twentieth-century poetry when an English translation is actually superior to the original. As far as I am concerned, that is a happy situation. Ironic and unusual, yes, but happy. For instance, Auden’s and Kunitz’s translations from certain Russian poets of the sixties “Thaw” generation are far superior to their Russian originals. Could this be another case of some sort of international poem? Or a poem where the truth of the original is lost? Should we care?

There are many examples of successful renderings into English such as these. But then, what some people find very successful, others don’t. For instance, the very poem you criticize, Milosz’s “Incantation,” has been read in a quite different way by Seamus Heaney, who, trying to explain his admiration, admits that the poem’s “unabashed abstract nouns and conceptually aerated adjectives should have been altogether out of the question”:

What was going on? The crucial point was, of course, the title, “Incantation.” This is a spell, uttered to bring about a desirable state of affairs, rather than a declaration that such a state of affairs truly exists—for nobody knows better than the author how long and how invincibly the enemies of human reason can prevail. What gives the poem its ultimate force is, therefore, the intense loss we recognize behind its proclamation of trust.

In other words, there may be more than one way to read a line that, for you, comes off as “wooden”—particularly from the Polish tradition, where the possibility of beauty in a post-Holocaust world was constantly questioned throughout the twentieth century.

AK: The terms of Heaney’s praise for “Incantation” are significant: he refers to its message and its truth, but not to its language or music. I think there are poems of Milosz’s that come across very well in translation, such as the wartime series “The World,” in which ordinary objects are described with a simplicity that becomes heartbreaking when we remember what was going on in Warsaw at the time. And of course Milosz’s sentiments and example are heroic—he is a touchstone for thinking about the ethics of poetry. But when Heaney writes his own intensely moral poems, the language is never torpid, even when he uses abstractions, as in “The Grauballe Man”:

hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Dying Gaul
too strictly compassed

on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped.

The difference is immediately clear: the Milosz lines are a noble thought, but the Heaney lines have the “actual weight” of a poem. And the only way to characterize the difference is in terms of beauty—the beauty of rhythm, music, verbal association—which is fundamentally an untranslatable quality. Heaney himself is aware—uncomfortably, I think—that there is something amoral about the energy of language, which is why he often expresses the pious aspiration that this energy is somehow moral in effect. But when he describes “Incantation” as a spell, I think he is closer to the truth: a spell is only effective when it is uttered in precisely the right words. It can’t be paraphrased or, to come back to the main question, translated.

This is why the examples you give of successful translation are really examples of successful reinvention, in which the foreign poem is made to serve the translator, not vice versa. (Notoriously, Pound introduced a Frigidaire into “Homage to Sextus Propertius.”) My fear is that this kind of boldness is less and less common or even possible today, precisely because of our more catholic and cautious approach to international poetry. Maybe we are best served when the translator is not a scholar but a plunderer, taking what he or she needs from the original and flinging aside the rest.

Let me ask you, as a bilingual poet (and the translator of some Russian poems in the anthology), about one example: the W.S. Merwin and Clarence Brown translations of Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam is one of those poets who have never gained real purchase in English—probably more people know his life story than his work—because it’s very hard to grasp in translation what a Russian reader is hearing. Joseph Brodsky, in his essay “The Child of Civilization,” disdained the Merwin translations as “an absolutely impersonal product, a sort of common denominator of modern verbal art,” which made Mandelstam resemble “some witless Neruda piece.” Brodsky believed that a translator must replicate the exact meter and rhyme of the original: “verse meters in themselves are kinds of spiritual magnitudes for which nothing can be substituted. They cannot be replaced even by each other, let alone by free verse.” How would you compare the Russian to the English in this case—does the translation capture what makes Mandelstam himself?

IK: If your standard for translation, along with Brodsky’s, is work in which meters attain a spiritual magnitude “for which nothing can be substituted,” then I agree that very few works of art can meet that rigorous standard. We can stop now and announce to the world that translation is impossible and therefore no one should do it. Various works in English, from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde to Marlowe’s Ovid, from FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat to Pope’s Homer, and all the way to Anne Carson’s Euripides and Sappho, should be discarded as failures.

But perhaps not so quick? As I said in The Ecco Anthology, according to George Steiner an original poem exists in an ideal, static state, and the translator attempts to transmigrate this ideal totality into a second language. Since two languages never mesh perfectly, a translation can never be completely successful; something is always lost.

Few translations in any century could be called “successful reinventions”—or what I would call great translations. But how many great poems are there in any century? Hundreds of poets wrote during the Romantic era; perhaps two dozen are still relevant today. A translator of genius—like a poet of genius—is hard to find. But the fact that there are few translators of genius in any century doesn’t justify rejecting the art.

I grew up on Russian Formalists and sympathize with your lament for the loss of music. Asked by a beginning writer for a reading list, I would recommend poetry from around the world, yes (for its passion, poise, ambition, interesting and unexpected imagery; to break out of our little island, to see what the rest of the world is thinking). But I would also, with equal persistence, recommend seventeenth-century poetry in English—to get a sense of the wondrous musical possibilities of this language. That has little to do with this discussion, however, since I believe that, in skillful hands, rhythm and music can be reinvented (and “reinvented” is enough for me in translation).

This brings us to Mandelstam in Merwin’s version. I’m afraid this is not the best example to support “persistent doubts about translation.” Anyone who has read the book will remember Clarence Brown’s lengthy and very careful disclaimer, announcing the volume “as Mandelstam [translated] into Merwin.” That the book certainly accomplishes—and it would be unfair to criticize it for something else it didn’t set out to do. For me, this book’s approach is very much in the tradition of Lowell’s Imitations. It has been in print for many decades, and several important American poets—from Jean Valentine to Carolyn Forché to Mark Irwin (to cite some very different authors, of various generations)—have been influenced by it. That, for me, already justifies its existence in English.

But what interests me is not only the genius of the poet translated but also the genius of what is possible in English as it bends to accommodate or digest various new forms. By translating, we learn how the limits of our minds can be stretched to absorb the foreign, and how thereby we are able to make our language beautiful in a new way.

I love that devotion to the “local” in your earlier commentary, and would like to turn the discussion to the idea of influences. How does this inherent local power in English language poetry grow, expand, and learn its own abilities from its constant encounters with the other? What keeps that wonderful poetic (or, at times, anti-poetic) “local” fresh? What allows it to constantly renew itself and not die of incest and boredom?

AK: What you say about poetry’s encounters with otherness seems to me to apply especially to American poetry. Think of Pound and Eliot, who were never more American than when they attempted to channel the whole of European literature; their reading of Jules Laforgue and Tristan Corbière, not to mention Dante and Homer, helped them to create the sound of Modernism in English. That kind of openness, of course, inspired a reaction from poets like William Carlos Williams, who railed against the Old World and claimed to be creating a purely American poetry.

But reading your anthology made me think of how impure all literatures are, and how ironic the cycle of influence can be. In the sixties, American poets helped to liberate themselves from the formal and emotional constraints of the New Criticism by reading Latin-American poets like Neruda. Merwin’s and Bly’s translations of Neruda, which you include in the book, helped to push their own poetry in the direction of open emotionalism, free association, and the speaking voice. You can see why, reading Bly’s version of “Nothing but Death”:

I’m not sure, I understand only a little, I can hardly see,
but it seems to me that its singing has the color of damp
of violets that are at home in the earth,
because the face of death is green,
and the look death gives is green.

Yet the very qualities that the Americans valued in Neruda, Neruda clearly borrowed from Whitman, the ur-American; these lines, with their voluptuous deathliness, sound like a variation on “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” In a similar way, Eliot found in Baudelaire qualities that Baudelaire had found in Poe. This is a heartening example of how international poetry can function, when translation is a form of transfusion. (Though it could also be seen, more cynically, as the old American tendency to disparage everything homegrown. Whitman and Poe—and, for that matter, Frost, another prototypically American poet—have had to be continually redeemed from critical disdain.)

Speaking of Neruda, and Brodsky’s crack about him: while I read The Ecco Anthology, it sometimes felt to me that twentieth-century poetry gravitates toward two poles, which might be called, in honor of those poets, the Romance and the Slavic. The Romance poet tends to be romantic (appropriately enough), expansive, egoistic, at times bombastic; the Slavic poet tends to be ironic, understated, compassionate, at times prosaic. This is a broad brush, of course, and there are lots of exceptions—Montale would be Slavic in my scheme, and Mayakovsky Romance. But still, think of Apollinaire, Breton, Lorca, Vallejo, versus Akhmatova, Zbigniew Herbert, Vasko Popa, Adam Zagajewski. Now that I make the list, an overlapping distinction occurs to me: the former tended to be Communists, the latter anti-Communists. What do you make of this?

IK: I think you’re right: all literatures are impure. Certainly English poetry would not be the same if Thomas Wyatt (and others like him) had not begun to translate Petrarch’s sonnets from Italian. Petrarchan influence is clear in Elizabethan authors as various as Spenser, Sidney, Campion, and even in Shakespeare, Donne, and Johnson. There are other curiosities. After the seventeenth century, few English authors were able to write verse plays comparable to those of Shakespeare and Webster (though almost every major Romantic tried his hand at them), but poets in other languages, such as Goethe and Pushkin, were able to follow that tradition. Perhaps English-speaking authors felt overwhelmed by Shakespeare, but other poets were able to pick up on the tradition and continue it, thereby expanding their own literatures. What can we learn from literatures of other languages in the same way that Pushkin and Goethe learned from Shakespeare?

This importing of foreign forms, tones, and approaches is an integral part of our literary tradition. Sonnets and villanelles come from Italy, pantoums come from Malaysia, ghazals from Arabic verses, and so on. English poets whom we ordinarily think of as masters of music are often able to become such masters because of their conversations with other traditions. For instance, Louise Bogan claims very persuasively that “many of the effects in Hopkins which we think of as triumphs of ‘modern’ compression are actually models of Greek compression, as transformed into English verse.”

This borrowing goes on in many directions. Your classifications of “Slavic” and “Romance,” it seems to me, have to do with tone. Readers of Akhmatova’s Requiem and Northern Elegies may be curious to know that the poet was translating Shakespeare’s Macbeth at the time of writing those poems—and, clearly, Akhmatova’s tone often overlaps with what we find in Macbeth and other tragedies. As for Communism—I think it only existed in the hopes of the people, never in reality, at least not in Soviet reality. That is why—as you note—those who aspired for it, such as Neruda, may sound romantic today, while those who had to live in the totalitarian aftermath of failed hopes, such as Stanislaw Baranczak, are very ironic.

(A side note about irony, which is a very popular device in American poetry today: I think when someone like Herbert used it in Poland in the time of martial law, when saying something straightforwardly meant being killed, it was a powerful thing. But when I see a thirty-something in Manhattan writing poems that are so overtly ironic they remind me of Seinfeld, I wonder if there is an overuse of this device in the work of our contemporaries.)

You mention Whitman, and one instantly thinks that there could be a whole anthology of poets under his influence (Lorca, Pessoa, Neruda, Mayakovsky, Apollinaire, Yona Wallach, Tristan Tzara, Tomaž Šalamun, Milosz). Brodsky once claimed to stand completely outside of Whitman’s influence, but a quick look at his “Great Elegy for John Donne” brings to mind Whitman’s “The Sleepers.” How did that come into Brodsky’s work? It came there, perhaps, because Brodsky was obsessed with Marina Tsvetaeva’s The Ratcatcher, which in turn has a clear connection to Whitman’s “The Sleepers.”

It is also quite instructive to see what happens to a European language when its poetics are expanded by what is happening elsewhere. The Negritude movement was a huge influence on French poetics, as was the work of Edmond Jabès, a Jew from Egypt, exiled to France, who brought his learning in Midrash to French literature, producing a marvelous and very unexpected effect. Vénus Khoury-Ghata, born in Lebanon and living in France since her late thirties, has said, “I write in Arabic through the French language,” and her work—although heavily influenced by movements such as Surrealism—seems to be a return to a kind of tribal uttering of rage and lament in very modern French. To my mind, that is the best sort of postmodernism: not someone proclaiming snobbishly from the ivory tower that there is no “truth” in our moment, but the notion that there are many versions of truth—many local, imaginative, tonal, and musical ways to deal with questions that we are all obsessed with.

AK: Randall Jarrell said that in a golden age everyone goes around complaining about how yellow everything is. I don’t want to make that old mistake, but I wonder if there are some costs to living in a time when books like The Ecco Anthology make so much foreign-language poetry so easily accessible. What strikes me about the many examples you cite, from Wyatt down to Akhmatova, is that they are all cases of poets immersing themselves in a foreign literature and using its resources to renovate their own. As you say, this has been especially true of English-language poets; as Pound puts it in “How to Read,” “English literature lives on translation, it is fed by translation; every new exuberance, every new heave is stimulated by translation, every allegedly great age is an age of translation.” Maybe our affinity for translation has to do with the fact that reading English is already a matter of translating, internally, between its Anglo-Saxon and Latinate elements. To appreciate Shakespeare, in particular, requires this sort of quasi-bilingualism: “No; this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine,/Making the green one red,” says Lady Macbeth, and the contrast between “incarnadine” and “red” brings home the disparity between the rhetoric of blood and its reality.

But ironically, the current abundance of English translations from all imaginable languages—The Ecco Anthology contains not just French and Spanish and Russian poems, but Armenian and Marathi and Gaelic ones as well—means that the stimulating experience of estrangement is harder to come by. The only way to really “engage in conversations with other traditions” is to get to know those traditions, which requires a good deal of study—and not just of a language, but of the whole literature and tradition in which any given poem is situated. (Pound again: “Obviously this knowledge cannot be acquired without knowledge of various tongues.”) If that effort is delegated by the reader to the translator, the reader can get something from the poem—the argument, the imagery, the metaphors—but not the crucial experience of an unfamiliar music and logic, from which the “heave” and “exuberance” come.

I’ll venture a personal note: when I first tried seriously to write poetry, in high school, I found that I couldn’t produce anything that satisfied me as being a real poem. I didn’t have the confidence or, even more important, the sense of what kind of experiences and emotions fit the shape of a poem. So I worked on translations, instead—I especially remember trying, with my fourth-year French, to convey in English the tenderness and lightness of Verlaine’s love poem “Green” (“Voici des fruits, des fleurs, des feuilles et des branches / Et puis voici mon coeur, qui ne bat que pour vous”). In retrospect, I think this was a crucial stage in my learning how to write poetry, much more so than any workshop assignment to write a sestina or villanelle. At the very least, trying to translate verse teaches you how little of any poem can be grasped in even the most professional translation.

IK: You speak of the abundance of English translations of poetry available. But the truth is, very little is available: 50% of all the books in translation worldwide are translated from English, but less than 3% are translated into English. And that 3% figure includes all books in translation—in terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7%! (The figures are available at wordswithoutborders.org. My anthology is published in alliance with Words Without Borders, and all the royalties will be donated to keep them alive. They need all the help they can get.) Don’t these figures suggest that we in the us may be looking into the mirror a bit too much? Maybe we should start looking through more windows for a change?

Opening the window to the world is, in part, the job of a translator.

I may hope that my own translations are less colonial raids into other languages than subversions of English, injections of new poetic forms, ideas, images, and rhythms into the muscular arm of the language of power.

That’s Forrest Gander in his recent book of essays, A Faithful Existence, which contains some of the most interesting writing about translation available in English since Pound. Gander is one of many American poets interested in translation, but the abundance is illusory. There are serious gaps in our knowledge of contemporary world poetry. Very few major twentieth-century women poets are available to us in quality translations. Also, while so many acclaimed contemporary American poets translate authors from, say, Paris, very few translate from the rich tradition of French-language poetry from Africa.

The realities of the world change. Languages such as Chinese, Spanish, French, and English are no longer confined to their original geographic locations (and some, like Yiddish, exist outside geography), and we certainly—thank God!—no longer live in the world Wyatt knew. That more poets are available to us is a great thing, and there is no reason to assume that people who are serious about contemporary poetry are going to be satisfied with a few anthologies and will abstain from a “good deal of study.” You cite Wyatt and Akhmatova as you say that too much is available: Armenian! Marathi! But as her contemporaries’ memoirs clearly tell us, Akhmatova did read quite a lot of poetry translated from Armenian. If she did, then why in the world shouldn’t we?

No need to hide behind the large sign “Poetry is lost in translation” and pretend that works of art written elsewhere do not exist or should not be available to us. They exist. The genius of our literature, as you rightly quote Pound, feeds on our interaction with these works, and so there is a clear need for them to be brought over into English, if the genius of our literature is to be sustained.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of Poetry magazine

  • Poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch was born in Los Angeles and earned his BA from Harvard. He is the author of three collections of poetry: The Thousand Wells (2002), selected for the New Criterion Poetry Prize; Invasions (2008); and Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August...

  • Poet Ilya Kaminsky was born in the former Soviet Union city of Odessa. He lost most of his hearing at the age of four after a doctor misdiagnosed mumps as a cold, and his family was granted political asylum by the United States in 1993, settling in Rochester, New York....

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Various Tongues: An Exchange

Is true translation impossible?
  • Poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch was born in Los Angeles and earned his BA from Harvard. He is the author of three collections of poetry: The Thousand Wells (2002), selected for the New Criterion Poetry Prize; Invasions (2008); and Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August...

  • Poet Ilya Kaminsky was born in the former Soviet Union city of Odessa. He lost most of his hearing at the age of four after a doctor misdiagnosed mumps as a cold, and his family was granted political asylum by the United States in 1993, settling in Rochester, New York....

Other Information

  • Browse Poems