Poets Translating Poetry

I’m so far behind with blog postings that I am only now writing up my notes from a translation panel that to my mind was one of the highlights of this year’s PEN World Voices Festival: the inimitable Rosanna Warren moderating a discussion between Jonathan Galassi – president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux and also a translator and poet – and Joachim Sartorius, a prominent German translator-poet who has a diplomatic career behind him and for the past decade has served as director of the huge festival Berliner Festspiele. The panel, held at the New York Public Library, was ostensibly devoted to a discussion of Galassi’s new/old translations of Giacomo Leopardi’s Canti (“new”

                                                                          ©Beowulf Sheehan
because the book came out just last fall; “old” because Galassi says he began translating Leopardi at age 23). But by the end of the panel, the discussion had ranged far beyond the work of any one poet.

Galassi and Sartorius began by making short work of Robert Frost’s infamous dictum about poetry and translation: both believe that the translation of poetry is indeed possible. As Galassi put it, “There may be specific features of poems that cannot be translated, but the poems themselves can.” Sartorius quoted French poet Michel Deguy: “The more a poem is itself, the more it cannot be translated; the more it is linked to a location, the more it cannot be transplanted,” but then he pointed out that the supposed untranslatability of poems has been disproved by a thousand translators over the years. The successful translation, he said, is based on a universal dimension contained in all poetry that becomes “a wire on which we perform the high-wire act of translation” – a universal idiom of sound and feeling. Translation, he said, is an x-ray image of the original.
There is a tradition of translator-poets infusing the works they translate with their own sensibility; I wrote at length about this phenomenon in my book Foreign Words. Sartorius cited Ingeborg Bachmann’s translations of Montale, and Paul Celan’s translations of Osip Mandelstam, which tended to come out 50% Mandelstam, 50% Celan. Ted Hughes, on the other hand, who published translations from several languages, said that introducing anything from the translator’s medicine bag was out of the question. I wonder how he managed to avoid doing so.
Sartorius then elaborated on the notion of difficulty in poetry translation by talking about translating Wallace Stevens, whom he considers the hardest poet he’s ever worked on. As he sees it, there are 4 levels to a Stevens poem:

– the level of thought/thinking and philosophy
– music
– organization/form/syntax
– cultural context

If you’re lucky, Sartorius says, you can capture 2 or maybe 3 of these 4 levels in any given translation of Stevens’ work.

Sartorius has also translated two books by John Ashbery (one in collaboration with Christa Cooper). Ashbery being himself a translator from the French, Sartorius tried to ask him questions about his poems, but the responses were never much help. Their conversations would go like this:
JS: What did you mean when you wrote X?
JA: I can’t remember.

But in the end, Ashbery – who doesn’t know German – did wind up participating in the translation of his poems. Sartorius would read him the lines of the German translation, and the two would discuss the musical properties of the lines. For Galassi, this process recalls what he refers to as “rhythmic equivalence” in poetry translation: “You can replicate the movement of the sentences” he says, since poetry has a “rhythmic subtext that is translatable.” This subtext, he believes, “provides the baseline for a successful translation.” For Rosanna Warren the baseline is even more basic: she describes poetry translation as “an exercise in recombinant DNA.”

In the Q&A, both Galassi and Sartorius reported that their own development as poets was influenced by their translation activity. In Galassi’s case, Leopardi entered his writing life when he was still quite young. He says he always did translations as a way of “doing poetry,” and was always conscious of the need to create poems that worked as objects in their own right in English – “faithful, but not too faithful.” For Sartorius, too, translating a poem always meant writing a poem, but he cited a much more specific influence that translating Ashbery’s work had on him: it helped him move from abstract formalism to what he describes as a more “relaxed” mode of writing related to parlando that made him “more narrative and easy-going” in his work. As for the rest, he declared that translation is the best training a poet can have. And this is something I tell my students all the time.

For a complete audio recording of the panel, visit the website of the PEN American Center.

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