On Translated Poetry

Thanks to Clarissa Akyroyd for pointing me toward this article from Cordite Poetry Review. It’s a little on the long side, but very good, so definitely check it out if you have the time. In case you don’t, the article deals mainly with the presentation of translated poetry in academia and the biases that prevent critics and academics from taking it seriously. The author, Johannes Göransson, describes academics as having a sort of idealized vision of what a poem should be, one that, to them, precludes the poem’s truly existing in other languages. This mindset, he says, arises from two concerns: first, that of “faithfulness” to the original text, and second, that students and younger poets will lack the necessary background knowledge to understand translated poems in their proper social and historical context.

Of course, there’s no denying that a poem’s form is often significantly changed in the process of translation. (For an idea of how much a poem can change between two languages, read this article by Ann Kjellberg on Joseph Brodsky and the features of the Russian language that make Russian poets so hard to translate.) There will always be rhymes discarded, rhythms flattened, and wordplay that is lost. True, a valiant translator can find ways to preserve the music of the original in another language, but then often the literal meaning is changed. There isn’t really anything that can completely take the place of the original. But does this mean that we have nothing to gain from translations? I don’t think so, for reasons I will explain in a moment.

It’s also true that cultural difference adds another layer of complexity to foreign poetry. Even after the words themselves have been translated, you might still be left with cultural and historical references that lose their significance once they leave their own borders. Even trickier from some readers is trying to get inside the head of a poet whose upbringing, worldview, and system of values may be very different from their own.

In a way, though, that’s the point: we read poetry for many reasons, but one of the most important is so that it can broaden the horizons of our minds, instead of couching us in what is already safe and familiar. There’s “too much world”1 for us to take it all in by ourselves: we need other points of view, as many as we can get, if we want to form a fuller picture of ourselves and of existence. Reading translated poetry gives you that, while also giving you a glimpse into what is common between all people. It sets a people apart while also illuminating the things that transcend culture, creed, ethnicity, race, and time.

It confuses and slightly alarms me that the prejudice against translated poetry would be so strong in academia. More than ever, academics claim to be concerned with diversity, so it’s strange that, when it comes to non-English poetry, some of them will actively discourage diversity. Context and respect for other cultures are important, and as readers, we should want to increase our understanding of the world by learning (even if it’s only a little bit) about the cultures and time periods whose literature we read. But the concern about “improper influence,” as the article calls it, shouldn’t be allowed to suppress the poetry it claims to protect. Otherwise, we say to the rest of the world that only people who are like us have anything worthwhile to say to us. We deny the coherence of human nature in favor of a linguistic tribalism.

1 From “The Separate Notebooks” by Czesław Miłosz, translated by Renata Gorczynski and Robert Hass, Selected Poems: 1931 – 2004 by Czesław Miłosz published by HarperCollins, 2006.

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