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Friday, May 5, 2017

The Myth of The Poet-Translator


The prestige of the poet-translator remains high. When I suggest that this is a mythical figure, what I am really saying is that many claims made on behalf of the translations of poets "in their own right"--and the implied contrast with translations made by mere scholars, or by poets of less renown--do not bear much scrutiny. I will be examining first some specific expectations we might have about poetic translation, and secondly some typical ways in which these expectations are disappointed.

There are real achievements by poet-translators. Some are serviceable versions with their typical strengths and weaknesses, but ones that do not not support more grandiose claims. Some translations may support the highest category of claims. The myth of the poet-translator rests on such texts as Pound's Cathay. Yet such texts may ultimately be quite exceptional.

Rather than seeing Pound's translations as the beginning of a tradition of notable poet translators, (as I once did) we might see him as a last survivor of a renaissance tradition (one that lasted until the Victorian period) in which poets typically produced capable verse translations that were more or less equal in quality and function  to their own poems.  The decline in verse translation after Pound (even among those influenced by him and by WCW) is due to a shift away from this standard. The use of free verse (or very loose blank verse) and the shift toward higher expectations of fidelity meant that a new norm was created, in which the space for truly poetic translation became narrower and narrower.


The common notion is that poets will be profound interpreters of one another's work, deep or strong readers. This expectation underlies Bloom's theory of influence (even if in Bloom's version a strong reading is also a misreading by definition). Another version of this expectation would be that a poet might be more attuned to the poetic art in general, with a deeper understanding of poetry from the inside out.  

When combined with the  idea that translation itself is, ultimately, interpretation, the poet-translator as deep interpreter becomes an even more powerful idea.

Translation is decoding and encoding. We expect the poet-translator not necessarily to be an expert in the language, literature, or culture of the source text, but to begin with a space of deep sympathy or engagement with another poet. The critique of howlers, or unintentional mistakes stemming from decoding errors, is often considered pedantic, and does not draw on the full resources of translation theory.

Translation is also a fundamental part of the poet's education, a way in which poets hone their own poetic talents. We see this in Pound, of course, but actually the practice of translation is quite common throughout literary history.

From the perspective of encoding, the poet-translator has the capacity to create new texts of poetic value in the target language. Verse translation is, or purports to be,  poetry in the target language, so it requires a poet, or someone acting in that capacity at least.

When we combine the expectations of decoding (profound, sympathetic interpretation) with encoding (the production of poetic texts of value), we have a powerful expectation that one significant poet translating another will be a significant event, a kind of meeting of the minds that might give us goose bumps just to think about.

The Disappointments 

Yes, translation is interpretation, but if the translator works line by line, hewing fairly close to the original, according to standard expectations of translation, then the space for interpretation is fairly narrow.  How do we reconcile the sometimes rather trivial nature of the translator's decisions with more grandiose claims about interpretation? I am not saying that someone couldn't make arguments connecting these two levels of interpretation, but that the connections are by no means automatic.

The idea of the poet as deep reader of another poet is also overblown in most cases.  Poets are often prone to the same superficially weak readings of other poets that other readers are. Translation, in which a poet rewrites another poet, are often not the best vehicle for the imaginative freedom that makes one poem a deeply imaginative rewriting of another, (in Bloom's sense that one poem can be a rewriting of another poem). Once again, I am not saying that this never occurs, but that it typically does not, and that very free translation does not have very many defenders nowadays.

We might also question the idea that poets have a deep understanding of the poetics of a poet from a foreign language.

There are disappointments also in encoding, in that translations are often not convincing as poems in English, despite typical claims made on their behalf.  If we place a poet's translation of Machado alongside that of a scholar, we might not be able to tell which is which. Spanish professors with no pretensions to being great poets can often produce readings based on deeper understanding, but with no necessary sacrifice of poetic acceptability to the norms of the target culture.


Translations in rhyme and meter were the norm from the renaissance to the Victorian and Edwardian periods. We might say from Wyatt and Surrey to Longfellow, Masefield, and Symonds.  The original texts being translated were also metrical.  Translating a sonnet into a sonnet in English inevitably entails more rewriting, and a method of less literal translation, than ignoring the metrical requirements in producing a translation. So metrical constraint produces a greater degree of freedom in both decoding and encoding.  The end of metrical translation meant an increase in literalism (sometimes backed up by "foreignizing" ideologies of translation).

Metrical translation no longer feels acceptable to contemporary readers, and I am not defending it here per se.  The problem is that this mode of translation feels Edwardian to us, so that there is a third element introduced into the reception of the translation (the intromission of an irrelevant style from the history of poetry in English.). This might even be the case for the translation of and "Edwardian" era poet like Machado!

Yet a good portion of contemporary free verse translation often feels as though there were no prosodic impulse behind it all.  It is divided into lines, but the lines correspond to those of the original, rather than having an independent existence.  We might contrast that with Pound's Cathay, which is in free verse, but was actually a moment when free verse of that type was being invented.  So, once again, what seemed like the beginning of a new, vibrant way of translating poetry ended up opening up the way for the ravages of Robert Bly et al...



Vance Maverick said...

I like this. Another poet whose modern reputation seems to rest to a large extent on translation is DG Rossetti, though I don't think he did much from Spanish.

The supernally high claims made for Pound's translations by e.g. Kenner do seem to encompass the notion of misreading -- I don't remember a direct reference to Bloom, for what it's worth.

Unknown said...

Yup, agreed. But two other poet translators worth mentioning, and a comment about meter. Blackburn, Economou. As to meter, yup, way too much is usually sacrificed to maintain it and rhyme, but it's also the case that often the meaning of both is different in the source and the target languages. Spanish poetry isn't metrical, in the sense that the word is used in English, it's syllable count. When translated into English meter, usually iambic, there's a falsification of the cultural context--Quevedo isn't Shakespeare. A translation that suggests formal intervals usually works best. As to rhyme, in Spanish it's harder to avoid it than to maintain it. Rhyme in English owes its prestige in part to its difficulty.

Best, Mark Weiss

Unknown said...

Professor Mayhew, What did you have for breakfast??

Jonathan said...

Spanish poetry is metrical. The 11 syllable line is pretty much iambic. We classify lines by number of syllables but they still have internal metrical structure based on distribution of accents within the line.

Jonathan said...

I've worked with Blackburn in my chapter on poet-translators in Apocryphal Lorca. I will look at Economou. I know him but not his translations per se.