Depending on whom you talk to, the translation of poetry is either a subspecies of art, science, imitation, mime, magic or, as Robert Frost (in)famously implied, an infernal combination of all of these and, therefore, a horror. Perhaps the only thing all can agree on is that the words of a fine poem, either in its original or its translation, are but the visible tips of a vast spiritual and linguistic iceberg, most of which, though accessible through language, is largely out of sight. For just as poetry sounds for the depths prose can’t fathom and uses language to gesture beyond language, poetic translation must admit, too, that its most important transactions are ineffable ones. The greatest poems, after all, have secret corridors and are full, therefore, of dark trails that even their authors, sometimes by choice, have not completely traversed. And thus, in possible rejoinder and perhaps in gratitude to Frost for his insight, it is only by proceeding on the assumption that translating poetry is, strictly speaking, impossible – implicated, too, in Cleanth Brooks’s equally (in)famous “heresy of paraphrase”— that the task becomes, practically speaking, manageable.
All can also agree, because it is a fact, that the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation was returned this year because it was found that the author had “lifted” his translations from others, adapted them, and submitted them under his own name. So presumably all agree that translations themselves must be authentic – “original,” to coin a term – and yet originality might be the very last thing we think of when discussing translations. An original “take” perhaps, but however you look at the translated product, the laurel of originality is now obtainable for all – and at least in one country, Japan, the laurel is bestowed for almost every version of a translation of the same work, from “first translation” to “new translation that replaces earlier translation” to “co-translation” to finally, and perhaps the Japanese translator’s version of the assault on Parnassus, “choyaku,” a translation that is superior to the original. While perhaps one can’t imagine this laurel being bestowed on a translation, say, of Dante’s Inferno, for which American poets are always offering their “takes,” there is an American version of this accomplishment – at least if a translation is measured in terms of items sold. Oprah’s recommendation of the novel William Faulkner called the greatest ever written, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, caused Viking-Penguin to print almost one million copies and made co-translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s version of this oft-translated classic America’s best-selling Anna Karenina ever.
If the “choyaku” belongs to this translating team for outdoing the original in sales, the phenomenon of “co-translators,” most often teams of writer and language expert, begs the question whether knowledge of the original language is central to the art. According to Barbara Goldberg, translator of the contemporary Israeli poet Moshe Dor and leader of a panel entitled “The Translator’s Dilemma: Beauty or Fidelity?” at last September’s Confluence: Translation in the Capital Area conference on the west side of Montgomery College’s Takoma Park campus, it is not absolutely necessary to be fluent in a language to translate it. When an audience member – and fellow translator – disagreed with Goldberg’s premise and said that she (the audience member) was with Jorge Luis Borges, “who says that every word implies another word in the very same language,” Goldberg countered by quoting the former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, who once admitted that he didn’t even know English that well – and confessed further to loving an Emily Dickinson poem without knowing what it meant. “Poetry is more than meaning,” Goldberg said. “It is sound and … it helps whether or not you know the language if you are a poet yourself.” Even so, when music and meaning collide, if the bride is beautiful (as the translator’s saying goes) she is likely not faithful, and if she is faithful, she is not beautiful.
Wherever you stand in this debate, the arrival of the Internet and the digital world has changed the landscape for translators, including introducing heretofore unseen ethical issues and presenting the kinds of questions one is more used to encountering in legal seminars about just war and ethnic conflict. For while translators can now more readily access authors across the globe, this unprecedented access comes with new responsibilities. Patricia Davis, whose translations of Francisco de Oraá and other Cuban poets have appeared in local literary journals, said in a panel entitled “Pick Your Battles: Translation Ethics in the Digital World” that her role as a translator is as “a microphone.” She said that she simply asks herself, “What voices do I want to amplify?” and, since she claims most translations are “business class, investor-class oriented,” added, “I translate things that I think need to be said.” Farah Arjang, another panelist, who has worked more than 25 years as a translator and helped organize the event, agreed. “I come from a country, Iran, where censorship is always present,” she said. “The importance of a translator is to show people that they are not alone.”
Perhaps it is to be expected that in a self-referential age, translators would pick and choose their subjects based on their own political inclinations, but this raises questions as well, poetic questions, such as: Does this sort of choosing color the translation itself, especially if it’s based on a political inclination? After all, isn’t it the case, looking back, that a poet’s politics are often at best irrelevant and embarrassing? Great poems survive their politics for they contain their own opposites, having sometimes foolish creedal affirmations along with internal pathways and secret corridors suggesting opposing sentiments the poet has yet to acknowledge as his or her own. Katherine E. Young, the Translation Ethics panel leader, seemed to acknowledge this when she spoke of the dilemma of translating a jailed Ukrainian dissident whose poetry sometimes advocates and inhabits the proto-fascism of earlier writers.
Young, a Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize finalist and prize-winning translator of Russian poetry, had an earlier career in diplomacy and international relations and admitted that, “Perhaps I am more sensitive than I ought to be about how translation affects people.” After describing how money for translations “in the old days” tended to come from the CIA, she said, “It is now more likely to come from the Russian government, the Russian oligarchy.” She spoke of being at a translator’s conference in Moscow where, though it was being strenuously and categorically denied, bombs were first beginning to drop on Ukraine. She spoke of dissident poets in Ukraine, one in particular that she was working with – for whom, in fact, she described herself as the “Facebook avatar”— and said that she wonders sometimes what may happen “when I press the send button.” Today a translator is no longer in the library stacks with his or her dictionary but, in the digital age, is sometimes (figuratively) on the front lines.
Young asked the panelists to come up with “words, titles or positions” to describe this new reality. “Publicity agent,” “orchestra conductor,” and “impresario” were suggested, and an audience member posed the perennial translator’s question of whether any of the panelists would translate Mein Kampf. And while the panel saw this as an old shibboleth, at best an academic question, at worst a cliché, it nevertheless became clear that who gets translated today is almost completely a matter of personal preference and thus reflects today’s hyper-individualistic, atomized, and self-referential culture. One need only note the incomprehension with which Jhumpa Lahiri’s decision to write in Italian has been received – as if a nuanced writer of post-colonial consciousness could not also be enough in love with a language to learn to write in it – or to put it another way, on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, one cannot help but to think of all the attempts to translate his plays even within the English language and how often they are taught with the implicit assumption that his language is now only to be understood in American schools as a foreign tongue. As Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, recounted, when speaking at Montgomery College’s Germantown campus in March, she was told upon arrival from Iran to the United States that she could “write her own ticket” as a “Middle Eastern woman” in various humanities departments but instead responded, “No, I want to study dead white men” and prepared herself to accept a less distinguished post.
The best literature is moral in and of itself because it leads to a greater understanding of human nature. Literature whose content is moral is merely itself a form of moralizing, and moralizing does very little to help a reader walk in another’s shoes. Indeed, most aesthetic faults are moral ones. It is perhaps notable that Germany, just as waves of Syrian and North African refugees have streamed into the country, has allowed republication of Mein Kampf after banning its publication since the country’s defeat in World War II. Mein Kampf is now a bestseller in Germany, and perhaps the better, more contemporary question for the panel might have been whether anyone other than intelligence analysts would translate jihadi poetry – as the beheading videos are often accompanied with the voices of the jihadis reciting it. A special authority comes with demonstrations of poetic expertise in Arab culture, as most poems are full of literary devices and techniques that can take years to master. Osama bin Laden, after all, considered himself a poet, and in the cache discovered in Abbottabad after the raid by the Navy Seals, there was a book of prosody. So before deciding on whether or not to translate someone based on political preference, perhaps it might be useful to recall why Plato banned poets, presumably both the moral and immoral ones, from The Republic.
Young co-presented a similar panel this April at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival (in the Human Rights Campaign Room) where the focus was on how translators were speaking for politically oppressed peoples – “activist, curator, [or] cultural interpreter” – as the “basis for thinking about the ethics of what translators do” in a digital world where they serve as the “de facto online publishers and gatekeepers” of oppressed authors.
Also this April, on the east side of the Montgomery College campus at Takoma Park, at a reading organized by Mark Miller, Takoma Park reference librarian and all-around Renaissance Man, one could perhaps see the same self-referential phenomenon at work in the analog world. The poet Donald Berger, who was invited by Miller to read his work and whose book The Long Time was translated into German by Christoph Koenig, related that Koenig approached him after hearing him read in Germany and asked to translate his writing. Berger, greatly influenced by John Ashbery (indeed Ashbery calls this collection “dazzling”), writes poems that, like Ashbery’s, may require, for some readers, translation in and of themselves. But for writers like Berger, whom Koenig calls an “ear witness,” and Ashbery, for whom meaning is sometimes completely acoustic, the art of translation takes on a new challenge. The poem entitled “Almost Everything,” translated as “Fast Alles,” reads in part, “Shine on through one eardrum / and it will come out the other” and later, “when the lion is closed-mouth: / material, when the lion / Is open-mouthed: spiritual.”
The translation of the title poem, “The Long Time,” Berger said, was hard to do. Koenig “only asked language questions” either over email or in person, Berger said, “and never asked what a poem meant.” Asked if he ever tried to exercise control, Berger insisted that he did not and added, “I mainly just trusted the questions.” Nevertheless, Berger relayed that a flight attendant told him upon seeing the book cover that the German version of the title read more like the “The Lingering Time.” But even here, where meaning is largely acoustic, perhaps the original and its “incorrect” translation together enhance rather than confuse or, as prize-winning poet Saundra Rose Maley, an adjunct professor of English at Montgomery College, said of the book in her review in the Innisfree Poetry Journal, “The Long Time of the title may be the residue of love and spirit that stretches across decades and centuries, and hides in the spaces between words.” So the Long Time is also the lingering time – the best poets, after all, are part of the “great conversation” with their forbears in any language or, as James Wright wrote at the end of his life, perhaps (we might imagine) offering his own “take” on the original and translation of the title of Berger’s book: “And to take a long time to live is to take a long time / To understand that your life is your own life.”
The mechanics of poetic translation were also discussed in detail at the Confluence conference last September. Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka, co-editor of the Loch Raven Review and Harriss Poetry Prize-winning author of Oblige the Light, presented a panel that looked at three translations – English, Spanish, and French – of a Polish poem “Kwiat we wlosach,” or “Flower in Your Hair,” by her mother, the noted Polish poet Lidia Kosk, to examine the translation process itself as seen in different languages, exploring shades of meaning as they are “obscured, ignored, or reflected” in the translated poem. The title presented the first big challenge for the Spanish translator Patricia Bejarano Fisher, who pointed out that Garcia Lorca used “pelo” when writing about a woman’s hair. “If he can use pelo, then I can use pelo.” But Spanish is very soft, she added; in English, Polish, and French there are many hard stops. French translator and novelist Keith Cohen asked her, “When you choose x over y, didn’t you worry about the secondary meaning of x?” “Yes I worried,” Fisher replied, “but I went with it. It’s the translator’s choice. When I read a translation, I say, ‘I wouldn’t have used that word.’ I cross it out and use my own.” Cohen added, “Verbs in English are often helped many times by prepositions. Not so in French. The word soleil in French, for example, is really laden with textuality.”
Kosk-Kosicka, who spent her formative years under dictatorship and left Poland in 1980, just before the imposition of Martial law (and the same year Czeslaw Milosz was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature), began her work as a translator in the United States. She created translations not only of her mother, Lidia Kosk, but also of another Polish Nobel laureate, Wislawa Szymborska (1996), into English while translating three acclaimed Maryland poets, Josephine Jacobsen, Lucille Clifton, and Linda Pastan, into Polish. Kosk-Kosicka, who also read from her prize-winning book this March at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, has written in her first book, Face Half-Illuminated (described by Sue Ellen Thompson, winner of the 2010 Maryland Author Award, as a “must read for anyone who either knows or wants to understand what it means to live in two worlds”), that the one great advantage of translating the Maryland poets was that they were available for consultation. “I appreciated the opportunity to ask Linda Pastan whether the children in her [widely anthologized] poem “Ethics” were girls, as in the Polish language the verb forms are different depending on the person’s gender.” But perhaps it is easier – that is, bestows, paradoxically, a lesser sense of enforcement – for the translator not to have to create the image of the original author standing lonely vigil by her side as his or her original is being recreated.
If the global context and the political conditions under which poetry is produced were important to Kosk-Kosicka, the psychological trauma caused by those conditions are central to Alicia Partnoy, and in her mother’s case shed light on another facet of the many uses of translation. Partnoy, the recipient of the first annual Settlement House American Poetry Prize, and one of the survivors of the Argentinian secret detention camps of the 1970s, read her poems, along with her daughter Ruth and mother Raquel at her side reading their own work, at Montgomery College on the Rockville campus this March. The prize-winning volume, Flowering Fires/Fuegos Florales, has the originals set side-by-side with their English translations by the poet Gail Wronsky. The Settlement House prize, which is open to first-generation American poets, “including both immigrants and children born of immigrants to the United States as well as individuals with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status and Temporary Protected Status (TPS),” means to make a point about the centrality of the immigrant experience to the history and legacy of the United States. Partnoy, a former vice-chair of Amnesty International, includes in this volume, in lieu of an ars poetica, an “Ars Political,” or “Arte politica,” that begins, in Wronsky’s translation:
A verse stripped of all manipulation
so no one can say
that after Auschwitz,
after the Conquest,
after so many
so many tiny Sabras and Shatilas
and Rwandas and Kosovos
and all of the bombed-out Fallujahs
so that no one can say
that nothing remains
for us to say
that nothing still dryly cuts apart
the brain the tongue
and whatever other viscera
are given the luxury
of throbbing with grief.
While Theodor Adorno may or may not have implied that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric, he said nothing about translation. The book contains drawings by her mother Raquel Partnoy, a noted painter and poet herself, who, in addition to suffering through the several years of her daughter’s disappearance, gave yet another window into the uses of translation when she said that writing in English allowed her to concentrate more on her grammar than her feelings and thus afforded her a measure of distance from the horrors she experienced and was attempting to convey.
In an era of globalization, perhaps the most relevant use of the translation of poetry is the conveyance of cultures. In fact, Montgomery College, whose Rockville campus, with students hailing from over 160 countries and recognized in a recent New York Times education supplement as the tenth most ethnically diverse campus in the country, began a series of “conversations about immigration” last September, repeated this April on the Takoma Park campus, in which students, it might be said, translated their cultural experiences (albeit through discourse, not poetry) for other students and faculty. As Salman Rushdie has pointed out, the word “translation” comes, etymologically, from the Latin for “bearing across.” And after all, Robert Frost also said, when speaking of the countries of the world, that poetry “marks” a national character better than anything else.
If there were an invisible, unseen force of great power at September’s Confluence conference, it was Mark Miller, the reference librarian, who oversaw the organization of sixteen presentations and workshops focusing on translation techniques and practice not only in literary matters but in educational and business spheres as well. And while Miller was the unseen force, it was Professor Maley, another organizer and the recent recipient of the Enoch Pratt Free Library/Little Patuxent Review Poetry prize, whose book Solitary Apprenticeship: James Wright and German Poetry perhaps describes what, in the end, all can agree is revealed by the translation of poetry while at the same time lending insight into what we can learn from the seemingly arbitrary even, some might say, solipsistic, choice made by the translator of whom to translate, at least if that choice is made by a great poet. In Maley’s over 700-page study of the translations of the American poet James Wright (she has also edited the collected letters of Wright), she stresses that Wright’s obsession with German poetry began in college, well before his more well-known period at the University of Vienna as a Fulbright Scholar studying Holderlin and Rilke and his later interest in Georg Trakl, which has widely been accepted as one of the principal reasons for the famous shift in his third book, This Branch Will Not Break, from traditional rhymed and metered verse to open, associative forms.
As a student at Kenyon College, Wright even briefly lived in his German professor’s house, where he was known as “the farm boy/poet built like a nose tackle,” and here Maley identifies an even more important shift – or break – that occurred much earlier and can be found in his college translations. In fact, it is in Wright’s early translations of Rilke, widely derided as awkward and overblown, that Maley finds “anticipations” of the famous George Doty poem in Wright’s first volume, The Green Wall, which was chosen by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. The very first reference to Doty – “George Doty killed a girl one night because / she would not lay for him inside his car” – occurs as a seemingly complete departure in Wright’s translation of a Rilke poem (“Manchmal geschieht es in tiefer nacht” or “Sometimes it happens in the depths of night”). In his status as a social outlaw, Doty – who would figure prominently not only in The Green Wall but also in Saint Judas, Wright’s second volume, which continues Wright’s exploration of social outcasts – forges a direct link, Maley argues, to another book of Rilke poems, Das Buch der Bilder, which Wright translated on his own and whose second edition contained dramatic monologues spoken by a beggar, a suicide, a widow, an idiot, an orphan, a dwarf, and a leper, and, thus, she suggests, profoundly validated Wright’s obsession with social misfits and outcasts. This reinforces perhaps the only thing all might agree translation can do definitively, and that is to pry open the translator’s major obsessions. Even if there is no agreement here, perhaps all poets would concur that translation itself is central even in their own work, in their own original language. As Paul Eluard said of the search for poetic truth: “Il y a un autre monde mais il est dans celui-ci.” (There is another world, but it is in this one.)
- Albert Kapikian