“Does World Literature Exist…” (Part 1) by Art Beck

Art Beck


I: A visionary myopia, or how bilingual do you need to be to translate poetry?

Late last year, Tim Parks posted a provocative essay entitled “Translating in the Dark” on The New York Review of Books blog. It can be accessed here.

Parks, a regular NYRB contributor, is a British novelist, translator and essayist who’s lived and taught at the university level in Italy for some time. Beyond being fluent in Italian, he seems to be more than a bit of an Italophile. I’m not quite sure if his article draws any final conclusion, which makes it all the more fertile. But his thrust is to challenge the fairly well-accepted convention that (with the help of various resources) poetry can be successfully translated without a thorough grounding in the source language and culture–so long as the translator is a good enough poet.  Or, as a quote in the article from the British poet Jamie McKendrick puts it: “The translator’s knowledge of language is more important than their knowledge of languages.”

Parks opens by quoting last year’s poetry Nobelist, Tomas Tranströmer: “We must believe in poetry translation if we want to believe in world literature.” And Parks gives due credit to all the poets, bi-lingually challenged or not, who’ve attempted to contribute to literature by translating. But Parks wonders if it’s all that easy, and over the course of the essay, he almost seems to question whether such a thing as a “world literature” can or should exist. As Parks puts it:

I have no quarrel with the aspiration, or all the intriguing translation/imitation processes it encourages. My sole objection would be that it is unwise to lose sight of the reality that cultures are immensely complex and different and that this belief in World Literature could actually create a situation where we become more parochial and bound in our own culture, bringing other work into it in a process of mere assimilation and deluding ourselves that, because it sounds attractive in our own language, we are close to the foreign experience.

This statement, perhaps unintentionally, seems to echo an ongoing “domestication vs. foreignization” debate among translation theorists. “Domesticated” translated texts ideally read as if they were originally written in the new language. By artfully presenting the illusion of clarity rather than a smudged window, the translator brings you an interesting visitor who’s learned to speak your language well.

Proponents of “foreignization,” conversely, advocate subordinating the target language to the unique otherness of the translated culture. Rather than straining for equivalent images and idioms that can distort as much as clarify, the “foreignizing” translator takes you on a trip abroad. If clarity is possible, that’s great, but the illusion of transparency is a falsifying mirror.

Parks seems to frame that debate when he goes on to quote Tranströmer again: “I perceived, during the first enthusiastic poetry years, all poetry as Swedish. Eliot, Trakl, Éluard—they were all Swedish writers, as they appeared in priceless, imperfect, translations…”

No one would quarrel with Parks’ general argument that a deeper knowledge of the source language can only improve a translation, and I find myself agreeing with him insofar as prose translation (at which Parks excels). But I’m not so sure about lyric poetry where I find I’m more in sympathy with McKendrick. My quibbles are the practical concerns of a practicing poetry translator, wondering whether “imperfection” may not be the unavoidable price of translating poetry. Whether accuracy, as opposed, say, to resonance, should even be the primary goal. An awful lot of what passes as translated poetry is prosaic, vapid, and published only because of the reputation of the original. But I’d argue that the deficiency of these renderings isn’t usually their accuracy. Rather, it’s a lack of creative vitality.

I’m guessing Parks would disagree. He’s particularly dismissive of Dante’s Inferno, a 1998 collection edited by Daniel Halpern of various renditions and imitations of Dante by 20 contemporary English language poets as diverse as Seamus Heaney, Jorie Graham, W.S. Merwin, Carolyn Forche, etc.  For Parks:

The result is inevitably extremely uneven as in each case we feel the Italian poet’s voice being dragged this way and that according to each translator’s assumptions of what he might or might not have sounded like. Sometimes it is Heaney’s Inferno, sometimes it is Carolyn Forche’s, sometimes it is W.S. Merwin’s but it is never Dante’s.

These kind of exercises will, of course, not be to everyone’s taste and results are bound to be mixed. However, I think Parks is critical of Halperin’s project, not for what it is–essentially a response to Dante from within another time and culture. But for what it’s not: a serious attempt to replicate Dante.

As an alternative to the creative re-renderings in Halpern’s Inferno, Parks offers Robert and Jean Hollanders’ 2002  “unrhymed verse”  “reworking” of John Sinclair’s 1939 prose translation as a “serious approximation and a fine read.” Fair enough. The three translators are Dante scholars with a deep respect for the original and this is the kind of version that should merit the respect of anyone who wants to go beyond just being entertained.

But, insofar as bringing us “close to the foreign experience,” a serious reader might also bear in mind that Dante died in 1321, roughly a couple of generations before Chaucer. The Hollanders’ translation is presented in mannered, but contemporary English. Perhaps Italian has developed less dynamically than English, but Dante’s Italian isn’t modern Italian and from the start any Dante translator has to decide which Dante to bring over: The antique Dante that a modern Italian reader encounters; a Dante who speaks a modern tongue; or some combination.

And is there any technique that might bring us anywhere even close to what must have been the almost revolutionary experience of the 14th century reader discovering the birth of a suddenly eloquent language in Dante’s vernacular? These are translation issues that the light of scholarship and linguistics can’t solve. I’d argue that the only responses lie in creativity.

In the back of my mind, there’s some vague, still forming, stretched metaphor of a large immigrant family where some of the children assimilate and others remain faithfully in the barrio. If translations are emigrating children, how fertile has The Divine Comedy been these many generations later? And how can you expect all those great, great, great grandkids to remain home, still making the sign of the cross?

Parks also doesn’t address what, to me, seems a core question: whether poetry translation involves an essential added step akin to the elusive but real difference between poetry and prose. The question comes to mind because there are times his meditation almost abuts the Robert Frost “poetry is what gets lost in translation” bromide. Parks, not un-similarly, quotes Celan: “Poetry is the fatal uniqueness of language.”

But why is it only in poetry translation, not prose, that the tradition of foreign language challenged translators is respectable, even honored? Is this just a quirk, or are there reasons that have as much to do with the nature of poetry as with the vagaries of translators?

Many commentators thoughtfully discuss the difficulties of translating prose across cultures.  But it’s usually only when discussing poetry that “difficult” sometimes segues to “uncaptureable.”  Is there some correlation worth exploring here?  There’s a lot of crossover and both are equally “literature,”  but I wonder if beyond their many commonalities, the translation of, at least shorter lyric, poems doesn’t involve different practicalities than, say, translating novels or stories.


II: Reverberation and Re-Creation, Poetry at Play

Translation involves the interaction of both reading and writing skills in various admixture. At the writing extreme, we can find poets interested primarily in writing their own poem, using the foreign language original only as a touchstone. Yeats’ great poem which begins “When you are old and grey and full of sleep/ And nodding by the fire, take down this book…” is really a variation on a famous 16th century French sonnet by Pierre de Ronsard. Its opening,  Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,/Assise auprès du feumight be rendered: “When you are very old at evening, by candlelight beside the fire…”

The Ronsard poem is as iconic as Yeats’ is, but would anyone seriously wish Yeats had stuck to Rostand’s text and forewent what amounts to a rich ancestral conversation, a “continuation” rather than translation of Ronsard. Yeats doesn’t pretend to be translating and makes no reference to Ronsard.  Is it translation? Yes; no; maybe? Would Yeats’ poem have existed without Ronsard’s? And of course this comes down to a matter of intent. Or, rather, the degree one might value the translator’s or appropriator’s intent versus the intent of the original poet. Still,  if poetry in translation aspires to rise to the level of poetry, it has to do so in the target not the source language.  In a sense, Yeats begins by exploring Ronsard like a bat in a treasure cave, but then discovers a larger poem echoing in himself.

Among practicing poets, there’s an often-noted dynamic: A successful poem achieves poetry only at the point that it imposes its own sudden intent on whatever intent the poet began with. Let’s posit that this spark is what can’t help but be “lost in translation.” And can only be re-captured by a similar spontaneous combustion in the target language.  If you buy into this, poetic license is not only a privilege, but the essence of a poem.  And the la belle infidele mot, which implicitly wonders whether a translation has to choose between beauty and fidelity, becomes the obverse of Celan’s “fatal uniqueness of language.” Even if for some theorists, the translated poem should ideally retain a foreign accent, it’s an accent in the new, not the old language. This is at least one argument for “dark translation”:  Skill follows temperament. There just aren’t that many good poet-scholars. No matter how formal or mannered on the surface, poetry cultivates an essential wildness.


III. Crutches,  Night Vision and Germination

Implicit in Jamie McKendrick’s observation, which values language skill over “knowledge of languages,” is the acknowledgement that there are many available compensations. A poet with limited foreign language fluency can access dictionaries, trots, other translations and commentaries. The practice of consultation or collaboration with linguistic scholars or native speakers is common. In some cases, the translator can correspond with living authors. Taking this a step further, the University of Iowa has an International Writing Program that sponsors visiting foreign authors who collaborate with graduate writing students in translating their work, sometimes for publication.

Last fall there was a long American Literary Translators ATALK chat group thread triggered by Parks’ essay. In the course of it, I asked Russell Valentino, who edits The Iowa Review and has some exposure to these workshops, if the collaborative authors get fussy about “mutations” in the poetry translation process. He responded:

Some are quite willing to allow their English works to become something quite different from their “originals.” And sometimes they go back and change things in their originals as a result of being translated in this way, which puts their texts under a kind of scrutiny that they may not have ever enjoyed before.

So a linguistics-challenged translator-poet can enlist a lot of help. But there are really no compensations for poetic weaknesses. There are many examples of literature being created by good writers translating (often with even suspect help) from languages they weren’t fluent in. There are no examples of literature created by inept writers.

Still, Parks’ essay raises a valid question. When translated poetry rises to that indefinable but recognizable level of “literature,” is it “world literature”? Or simply literature in the new language? For me–and it’s only my personal temperament talking–does it matter? If the translated poem achieves poetry, something’s come alive and I’m not going to complain just because that life is new.

Browsing an old journal entry, I found I’d noted two quotes from George Seferis, another poetry Nobelist, with an indication to myself that they were from different periods of his life. I’d like to be able to cite their sources, but maybe it’s more fitting for the direction of this piece just to pull them out of the air and hope they’re accurate. “All art/poetry is blind.” And “No poem is ever alone.” Those statements, taken together, might as well be comments on the organic nature of translated poetry. Rather than “translating dark,” maybe the issue is whether the translated poem, similar to the original poem, requires a leap in the dark.

Why not accept that when poems move as poems between languages they don’t/can’t replicate; but rather mutate and germinate? And if so, it’s not clarity but fertility that’s at stake. Tranströmer’s youthful reading of Eliot, Trakl, Eluard etc. as Swedish poets seems, after all, to have had the effect of inspiring a great new Swedish poet.

To revisit the 16th century, Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is an English masterpiece. But its rhymed couplet scheme and earthy Anglo-Saxon energy present a stark contrast to Ovid’s 1st century sophisticate’s subtle Latin voice. Ovid, it might be argued, was writing, if not at the end, at least at the peak of an era. Golding, conversely, wrote at the fountainhead.  And he created an English rather than Latinate work that seemed to insistently captivate the greatest English poet of his age.

Golding’s Ovid is difficult to read now, its language and accent as olde as its quirky aesthetic. But scratch Shakespeare almost anywhere, from Romeo and Juliet to The Tempest and you’ll find Golding’s Ovid speaking to you. Most well educated Elizabethans could read Latin; a literal replication would have served little purpose beyond a trot, similar to those in the Loeb Classical Library. Golding was a skilled Latinist among many other Latinists, but those skills were secondary to the elan–the poetry–of his personal re-creation. It was Golding’s command of English, not Latin, that enriched Renaissance English.

Thinking about the Iowa collaborative translation program and Golding, it occurs that it would be nice if translators were able to similarly interact with dead poets. So, maybe it’s time for me to interject that like most of the essays in this series, this one will soon start to wander. And my plan in “part two” is to ultimately wander to a place somewhere supernaturally close to a dead poet interaction.

Note: Click here to read part 2 of this essay.


Art Beck was a regular contributor to Rattle e-issues with a continuing series of essays on translating poetry. He has published several collections of poetry and poetry translations, most recently Luxorius, Opera Omnia or a Duet for Sitar and Trombone, published by Otis College, Seismicity Editions. His poetry and essays have appeared in a wide range of literary journals including Alaska Quarterly, Artful Dodge, OR, Sequoia, Translation Review and in anthologies such as Heyday Books’ California Poetry from the Gold Rush to the Present and Painted Bride Quarterly’s 20 year retrospective.

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