On Translating Poetry

Ulrich Baer: “The original must course for long periods through the translator’s ears and mind and body, only to cast often quite suddenly into the target language, at which point it adapts to and occasionally stretches the gestalt and rhythms of that idiom. And that idiom must be full of breath and life…”

Marvin Bell: “In every translation, there comes to us a new wave of permission, an increased sense of freedom.”

John Berger: “True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal. One reads and rereads the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them to reach, to touch, the vision or experience that prompted them. One then gathers up what one has found there and takes this quivering almost wordless ‘thing’ and places it behind the language it needs to be translated into. And now the principal task is to persuade the host language to take in and welcome the ‘thing’ that is waiting to be articulated. . . A spoken language is a body, a living creature, whose physiognomy is verbal and whose visceral functions are linguistic. And this creature’s home is the inarticulate as well as the articulate.”

Susan Bernofsky: “When you create a translation of a literary work, you are creating a new set of rules for the text to operate by. This is what revision is for. Only by revising a text again and again, doubting and testing the strength of each of its sentences, can we produce translations that merit consideration as works of literature. And yes, somewhere along the line the original text must be forgotten.”

Philip Boehm: “I suppose all translators are alchemists at heart.”

Danuta Borchardt: “I think that having a sense of humor is quite essential [for literary translators] because humor in a work of art can easily be missed.”

Clarence Brown: “To translate is to change.”

Hélène Cardona: “Translation is necessary to know oneself — to know where once comes from.”

Lori M. Carlson: “Poetry translation — all literary translation — serves to share the artistry and meaning of one language and one culture with another; a kind of binoculars through which we see two different vistas.”

Nikolai Duffy: “The practice of translation, like the art of reading well, involves being out of place, unsure, unsteady; it entails equivocation. It is to set off, to wander, to go looking, but to find myself travelling in circles, further away, elsewhere.”

Sarah Elwell: “A story is never really formed only by words going onto paper. It is also walked across the earth . . . It is ghosts and promises. A story is all the things we have lost somewhere in the world, and all the things we have gathered to ourselves.”

Annie Finch: “As a reader of translations, I feel cheated if the translator doesn’t convey to me the physical experience of the movement of the original poem. . . . Experiencing something close to the physical reality of the original poem is more important to me, and certainly more interesting, than having a palatable experience.”

Forrest Gander: “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.”

Reginald Gibbons: “While in its language of origin a work might be very fresh in manner or statement, that same manner or statement might already be familiar in the target language, which makes it difficult for the translator to convey the original freshness. There is an opposite problem, too: what if a particular manner, familiar and even clichéd in the source language, is unfamiliar or even unprecedented in the target language? Should the translator bring this element into the target language as something very fresh? Or rather find an analogous cliché in the target language? . . . Almost any pairing of languages offers the writer (and translator) different linguistic openings and opportunities, as well as different literary-historical contexts that may be either constraining or liberating in terms of the poetics that are in play in the translating.”

Witold Gombrowicz: “The most important thing is that the [literary] translator should be an artist . . . And that they should have a sense of humor and of poetry.”

Lucy Greaves: “Translation is about making creative decisions . . . Good translation shimmies its way around untranslatable words in a host of different ways.”

Pierre Joris: “Translation always needs to be done anew. In a way, every generation has to translate the major texts again for itself. When you have a situation like the one in relation to Arabic poetry, where you have 200 years of bad translation, the job is even more urgent. Bad translation can kill a poet for a whole generation in a country or for a culture.”

Ilya Kaminsky: “Like a phoenix, the poems of great masters are reborn from the ashes of translation. . . In a successful translation we observe the renewal of the living tissue; the original undergoes the process of transformation.”

Etgar Keret: “Translators are like ninjas. If you notice them, they’re no good.”

Myung Mi Kim: “To be translated, or to be in a condition of translation or under translation, is in some sense to be able to pay attention to the suddenly emergent, the thing for which there is no name, the ungraspable.”

Watson Kirkconnell: “English is gravely lacking in consonance and there are instances where no amount of juggling with the synonyms of every word in a sentence will provide a chiming pair. In amplifying the sense to fill out the prosody, one must, of course, seek to echo phrases that are in the original and to avoid anything alien to the spirit of the poet.”

Maxine Kumin: “Translating is like doing a crossword puzzle, or better: it’s like doing a double-crostic puzzle, which is more fun . . . it’s a more mechanical process [than writing your own poems], although it requires a great deal of creativity.”

Stanley Kunitz: “Translation lets you crack your own skin and enter the skin of another. You identify with somebody else’s imagination and rhythm, and that makes it possible for you to become other. It’s an opening towards transformation and renewal.”

Gwyneth Lewis: “I’m one of those who believes that not only is translation possible, it’s an essential element in every nation’s culture. Poetry isn’t only what’s lost in translation — it’s what’s gained. In a culture the desire to translate is always a sign of strength. . . the whole point of translation is to introduce a new element — of rhythm or thought — into a literary tradition. The point isn’t to produce a version so culturally smooth that no one would ever guess it was imported. There has to be something strange, novel and fascinating either about the style or cast of mind of the new piece.”

Barry Lopez: “I watched the enormity of the clouds for several minutes. What I wanted to experience in the water, I realized was how life in the reef was layered and intertwined. I now had many individual pieces at hand; named images, nouns. How were they related? What were the verbs? Which syntaxes were indigenous to the place? I had asked a dozen knowledgeable people. No one was inclined to elaborate — or they didn’t know. ‘Did you see the octopus!’ someone shouted after a dive. Yes, I thought, but who among us knows what it was doing? What else was there, just then? Why?”

William Matthews: “A translator can bring over into his own language the denotative level of a poem and its physical imagery. But tonal and textural peculiarities in the poem are in the language — we might almost say of the language — in which it was written. They can’t be detached from it. The average translator stops here . . . But even when a good translator is at work, his version is usually slightly less complicated, tonally and texturally, than the original poem.”

Anne Michaels: “Translation is a kind of transubstantiation; one poem becomes another.”

Anthony Milosz: “Translation has no final result, there are always alternatives; it’s never perfect, or finished . . . A good poem can yield many good translations, each of them different, and each shedding light on a different facet.”

Herta Müller: “The art of translation is looking at words in order to see how those words see the world. Translation requires an inner urgency that will make that which is different as close to the original as possible. . . To get closer to reality we need to catch the imagination unawares.”

Sawako Nakayasu: “One of the difficulties in translating poetry is balancing multiple demands at once — for example, to make it simultaneously faithful and beautiful. Yet it got me to thinking about faithfulness and its opposite, perhaps also in terms of defining what it means to be ‘true.’ (What good is a faithful partner if he or she is not interesting in the first place?) At some point I started experimenting with unfaithful or less faithful, roguish translations. I wanted to find different ways of being “true” to the work I was translating.”

Vivek Naryanan: “There is no perfect translation. All translations are necessarily in conversation with each other.”

Andrés Neuman: “Translators need to doubt every world, like poets. . . I never expect a translator to respect me or that a reader understand me. What I really want is for both to invade me, transcend me, give me their passport.”

Howard Norman: “Translators can often get help in comprehending the original language — the question is, how well do they know their own language?”

Gregory Pardlo: “Translation is a practice of empathy, like choosing a twin, whose affinity and kinship is a declarative act and not a passive discovery.”

Anne Portugal: “And we must keep in mind that translation is always a gain: it’s a puff pastry added to a puff pastry, and sometimes new lines of signification arise, even for the translated poet himself.”

puthwuth: “I can’t know for certain, but I would hope the Irish poem is as happy being written in Scots about Aberdeenshire as it is by a Victorian English Jesuit about the Dublin skyline.”

Donald Revell: “Mastery has almost nothing to do with poetry or with translation. . . . Translation is play, and play must never be bewitched by mastery.”

Alberto Ríos: “What is translation actually? Is it saying something, then finding other words to say the same thing redundantly, or is it in fact a fuller expression of sentiment, saying one thing in all its iterations so that multiple languages are actually crucial to our understanding of a moment?”

Raquel Salas Rivera: “I am a decolonial translator. I am a trans translator. The things I keep and change are informed by that.”

Mira Rosenthal: “For me as a poet, I know that when I’m writing my own work, it’s sound that drives sense and not the other way around. That can liberate you as a translator.”

Antonio Ruiz-Camacho: ” I’d only manage to grow my voice by embracing my idiosyncratic blemishes, by marrying the ambiguities of my phrasing with the shatterproof elasticity and unmatched generosity of my second language, by making a virtue of the droll absurdism of my alien heart, by conjuring beauty out of the haze, by making myself at home in the blur.”

Olivia E. Sears: “Ironically, we have found that translation allows us to know each other better, and therefore feel more connected to one another, here at home.”

Nisi Shawl: “Translation is a lens, magnifying what the translator thinks is important . . . I can’t see what the translator’s not looking at. I have to gaze where her glance falls. I can’t get asides he doesn’t render. I miss subtleties such as code-switching — the differences in tone and vocabulary characters may use in differing situations.”

Ilan Stavans: “The translator must make the text come alive in the receiving language: not the equivalent words, but magic, ought to be the outcome. To some degree, that means betraying the original in some respect, making it malleable, and a trampoline.”

Richard Tarnas: “Every gifted translator brings forth something new and essential from the original, revealing new insights and levels of meaning, different facets of the jewel, different windows into the mystery, further blossomings of the original . . . . In a participatory universe, the true poetic translator brings particular qualities of experience and knowledge that provide essential vessels for the mystery’s self-unfolding.”

Sophie L. Thunberg: “Poetry is, in a way, itself a translation, between lyrical components and verse, between song and creative writing, stream of consciousness and craft, soul and structure.”

Marina Tsvetaeva: “I tried to translate but then decided — why should I get in my own way?”

Alissa Valles: “Translation is an intimate and risky forms of associating with a writer you love: you have to serve another voice selflessly and yet be faithful to your own language.”

Charles Waugh: “I’ve come to relish the joy of translating. The work unfolds and refolds like origami . . . when each word aligns with just the right counterpart, when every sentiment or idiom has been rendered into another language but with all its otherworldly, strange glory intact, the work has a shapeliness that is deeply satisfying.”

Eliot Weinberger: “Poetry is that which is worth translating. The untranslatable poem is simply one which has not yet found its translator.”

E. B. White: “Remember that writing is translation, and the opus to be translated is yourself.”

Christian Wiman: “Part of the enjoyment of poetry — an enormous part — is letting yourself experience things you do not understand, letting the textures and rhythms of verse take you to places in your consciousness — and unconsciousness — that you could not have accessed otherwise.”

Natasha Wimmer: “In a way, the translator must know the text better than the author. The author is allowed to write intuitively, sometimes blindly — the translator is not . . . The translated work isn’t (and can’t be) the object itself; it is a reading, an act of seeing.”

Nina Zivančević: “Every poet has his own poetry’s poetry that cannot be translated.”


Last updated: 1.21.2019




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