Poets as Translators

AT THE END of Horst Frenz’s essay “The Art of Translation,” standard reading when I was a comparative literature undergraduate at Indiana University, there is the wonderful exhortation from the correspondence of Andre Gide that “every creative writer owes it to his country to translate at least one foreign work, to which his talent and his temperament are particularly suited, and thus to enrich his own literature.” Indeed, this labor of love is a very vibrant part of what has been going on in American literature for decades. From Ezra Pound onward, American poets ⁠— W.S. Merwin, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Wright to name just a few ⁠— have found the need to branch out beyond their own poetic craft and linguistic context, to find second wind, second vision, a new way of looking at the world and at the poem.

Although the matter of bringing the work of other literatures into English is of major importance in American poets’ ongoing interest in writing produced in other languages, it is hoped that this series by Artful Dodge will offer at least a small window into another crucial aspect of the craft ⁠— translations’ function as an inextricable element of an individual writer’s creative activity. In a way, one might see translation as a particularly engaged way of reading, a disciplined way of writing. Here, the reading involves entering into the depths of a poem, into what is between the lines, and the writing involves working within the original framework of the relationship between text and reading in the attempt to recast this energy in the adopted tongue. This is a matter that undoubtedly goes beyond the facile literalist notion of form and content. Decisions get made on the basis of a myriad of concerns, sometimes with the aces that a bilingual and bicultural background might give, sometimes with the help of native or bilingual co-translators, sometimes with the collaboration of the author. Always there is a balancing act present ⁠— an awkwardness fragile, but potentially as arresting as poetry itself.

We hope all our readers enjoy the series, and we encourage other poets and translators to submit new work as well as critical or personal responses to the theory and craft of translation. In the end, we hope you encounter not only an interesting testimony to these writers’ attempts to expand America’s vast but not infinite cultural and aesthetic borders, but also an introduction to their accomplishments as poets making flesh the ongoing miracle of poetry: their poems and the poems of those not writing in English.

⁠— Daniel Bourne