Monday, February 17, 2014

Book Review: Poets Translate Poets

Title: Poets Translate Poets
Editors: Mark Jarman and Paula Deitz
Publisher: Syracuse University Press
Publication Date: October 1st, 2013
Read: January 2014
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Poetry
Rating: 4 Stars

As two people whose academic pursuits involved both poetry and translation (one of us focused on classics and the epic tradition, the other with a thesis actually about translating poetry), this book was definitely something we were interested in when we saw it come up on NetGalley for review. The premise is pretty much summed up in the title: It is a collection of poetry that has appeared in The Hudson Review, translated into English by other poets, with the idea being that, a) who is better to translate poetry than real live poets, and b) when a poem is translated, it becomes as much, if not more, a creation of the translator as of the original poet. Speaking for myself, as I went into reading this book I had a list of things in my head that I think are important when it comes to translating poetry, and I was very happy to see all my concerns addressed in the foreword and prologue to the book.

One of the things that I have always found to be one of the most basic challenges of translating poetry is the choice between hewing as closely as possible to the content and style of the original, and blazing a new trail with a translation that perhaps captures some of the original, but is essentially very, very different. Editor Mark Jarman discussed this idea very thoroughly, referring to the two translation styles as the Wilbur style and the Pound style, after poets and translators Ezra Pound and Richard Wilbur, whose work often appeared in The Hudson Review. Though I try to find a balance between the two, I find myself more of the Wilbur school in my translations, but reading some of Pound’s translations that appear in the book has convinced me of the fun and effectiveness of sometimes throwing all that to the wind and doing something wild and crazy with a translation. Case in point: His translation of The Women of Trachis from the Greek is a radical tour de force that managed to be both hilarious and, at its heart, wholly tragic. One does not generally expect country/old-timey/Southern-ish dialogue in a translation of Sophocles, and it was completely engaging.

The diversity of languages represented in the translations in this collection is impressive, ranging from classics of Latin and Ancient Greek, to the expected French and Spanish, to the more unusual Quechua, Proven├žal, and Romanesco. Some of the poems were more to my taste than others, and I particularly enjoyed the translations of Tufu (affecting), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (our love of this poem already firmly established), Walther von der Vogelweide (charming), and G.G. Belli (startlingly vulgar, but very funny!). Having such a range of poets and translators ensures a wide array of topics, styles, and themes, and there are certainly many more that I enjoyed that I have not listed here.

If I had a wish for this book, it’s that the poems would appear in the original language alongside the translation—probably no one would be able to read all the poems in their original languages, but if you can read some, it’s interesting to see what choices were made in translating. If you can’t, it’s still interesting to visually experience the original. Another wish I’d have for the book regards the context of the poems—there is a bit of biographical and contextual information about the original poets and translators at the end of the book, with additional context appearing in Jarman’s introduction. I’m glad it was available, but I personally would’ve preferred a bit more of it, and closer to the poem it was associated with. At the same time, however, I can understand why it wasn’t—if the point of the book is that translated poems become new poems entirely, it is easier to appreciate the poems on one level, as they are, standing on their own, and then later on a new level when some context has been provided.

I could probably wax nerdy about this stuff all day. Talking about how much I loved poems/translations is all well and good, but it’s no substitute for experiencing them yourself. If you like poetry, or foreign languages, or find translation fascinating, or want to broaden your reading, or any combination of these things, I’d recommend this book to you. Of the many, many poems included, you are sure to find some that speak to you.

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.

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