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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Monday, March 14, 2016


Here's an exercise. Take this poem by Frost:

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Now come up with a linguistically rigorous explanation, for each noun, crow, dust, snow, tree, change, mood, day... of why you have either: indefinite article, definite article, no article at all. You can skip my heart and some part. In absence of that, just explain in non-technical terms what is going on. For example, you can't say "the crow" at the beginning, because that assumes the interlocutor knows what you're talking about already, but you can say "the dust" because ... why? This is difficult... You have to say "The way" because that's always followed by some specification. I love you "just the way you look tonight." You can never say "I like a way that you say things..."

Now translate the poem into a language you know well enough that you have an intuitive or technically precise enough knowledge of its use of articles. Maybe it's Chinese and the poem would be crow, me, snow-dust, hemlock, heart... whatever, without any articles at all.

Now translate it back into English, but make it not a Frost-ish poem at all. Use the style of a different poet, one as unlike that one as you dare. It should be recognizable, but not parodic.

Now translate it into your own poetic style. This should be as different from Frost as Frost is from Pound.

I see translators all the time who don't understand that articles work differently in different languages. If you think this is easy then you aren't paying attention.