There’s a story that says when the Old Testament was being translated from Hebrew to Greek for the first time, 72 translators were hired to do the job. Each of them worked on the project separately, and when the results were compared, each translation was exactly identical to all the others. This was considered a sign from above that the translation of the text was indeed God’s Word. If this story is true, it would definitely need to be a divine miracle, because finding even two translations that are the same is basically impossible.
For the most part, people trust translations to represent the original text pretty accurately, but this trust starts to ebb when it comes to poetry. There is something about poetry, whether it be the importance of the individual words or the visual form of the poems, that makes it so much harder to translate from one language to another. Take one of the simplest concepts in poems: rhyming. When translating two words that rhyme, is it more important to find two words that rhyme in the translated language, or to get as close to the definition of the original words as possible? This is just one of many questions that are addressed in the anthology Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries, a recent book from Graywolf Press that was edited by Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer.
For those who want to read non-English poetry, this book is a great introduction to works from all over the world. Exactly 25 poems appear in chronological order, which includes the poem in its original language, three English translations and a short commentary about the poem. Collins acknowledges at the beginning that there are not enough African poets and female writers in this book. She expresses her hope that this book will act as just a first step to a more inclusive treatment of international poetry in translation. At the least, there is a reasonable amount of language diversity, from an ancient Greek poem by Sappho to a Haitian Creole poem by Félix Morisseau-Leroy.
Even if you’re not someone who reads poetry in your spare time, the translations in the book are beautiful. There is something so fascinating about seeing three translations side by side and looking at the differences. You can look at each word and question the decisions behind it. Even with a two-line poem, like the one in the anthology by Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō, the resulting translations can be wildly different:
The end of autumn, and some rooks
Are perched upon a withered branch.
translated by Basil Hall Chamberlain (1902)
On a leafless bough
A crow is sitting: — autumn,
Darkening now —
translated by Harold G. Henderson (1925)
A black crow
Has settled himself
On a leafless tree
Fall on an autumn day.
translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa (1966)
The commentaries that follow each of the poems cover a vast array of topics, from the fascinating to the pedantic. At times the tonal and informational differences between the commentaries take away from the cohesiveness of the book, but they do occasionally help keep the essays from becoming repetitive. Some parts are eminently skimmable, because they go into a level of detail that readers outside academia probably do not care about. The worst sections are those in which the writer seems to spend the entire essay arguing why the three translations in the book are inferior to their own. Apparently, those who contributed to the anthology did so under the condition that their own translation cannot be one of the three included. Still, a few writers include their own translation in their commentary anyway, which seems a bit self-serving.
Most of the writers do a fantastic job of illuminating the theories behind poetry translation in engaging ways. David Young’s essay on the Rainer Maria Rilke section is helpful because it not only discusses the three translations, but also explains why each of them was chosen in the first place, and how each translator approaches the problem of the poem. In another part, Carl Phillips reveals his opinion at the very beginning of his commentary, writing:
If I don’t know a language, and if I am coming to a text for the first time, I’m completely at the mercy of a translator, and I want to be able to trust that he or she has made it possible for me to believe I have in fact read War and Peace, for example, and not a variation on it (side by side with the reality, though, that every translation is a variation).
In reading the book, you can also patch together an ideological history of translation. More than one writer talks about Virgil’s statements about how translating a poem is “song replying to song replying to song.” Joanna Huss Trzeciak Huss cites Walter Benjamin, who said “the translator’s task is to restore to wholeness a vessel that, after Babel, has been shattered into fragments.” Which is quite a task to ask of anyone, really. There is no cohesive story of translation throughout time, but that is a job for a different book. In Into English, it’s just a hodgepodge of ideas, many of which will help you rethink poetry in other languages.
The most important question addressed: why bother translating a poem more than once, anyway? A range of answers are offered. For one, the English language changes, so new translations can help modernize the text. There is a somewhat skeptical possibility, offered by Joannes Göransson, that “once a poet like Tranströmer has become part of the U.S. canon of ‘international poetry,’ it becomes an act of conservatism to continue translating him: we translate and review the translations because the poet is acceptable and publishable.” There are sad repercussions to this canon, because it means that a single person becomes the poetic voice of a country, and everyone else gets ignored. New poets remain unknown, while old ones get published again and again in the billionth edition with a new foreword by Jonathan Franzen or whomever.
Then, there’s the seemingly defeatist answer to this question: poems are simply untranslatable. Hearing it like that, it might make the whole practice of translating poetry seem pointless. Why read something you’ll never fully “get?” The best part of reading Into English is that it helps you push against that thought. Many of the commentaries exude the palpable excitement of the authors reading a poem’s many translations and finding new meaning in each. By reframing this impossibility of translation as a good thing, it makes a powerful argument for poetry as a whole. Cole Swensen, commenting on Charles Baudelaire, writes it as such:
All translations need an absolutely untranslatable moment to remind us that any translation is, in fact, impossible — and thus unlimited.
This is the third article in our series Babbeling Books. We’re spotlighting non-English books, new and old, that interact with language or language-learning in some way. If you have any books that you think we should cover next, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org or in the comments. Our only requirement is that the book must have been originally published in a language other than English.