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             I was writing poems before I was translating poems, and I write poems still. I am a translator because I am a poet, not because I am a linguist. I began translating about the same time as I began writing seriously, but I didn't think what I was doing was much different from writing my own poems. I read Catullus and Ronsard and put them into my English, the way I had read others doing, the way I knew most poetry from around the world. Translating was doing two things at once: honing my skill in the language I worked from, and reading other poets' work closely and carefully. In those days, there were no translation studies, no translation MFA programs. We read. We wrote. In college, I stumbled backwards into one translation course (with the exigent Norman Shapiro) and reworked my poetry under the occasional guidance of another poet for whom translation and his own writing were simultaneous and congruent — Richard Wilbur.

            When I began translating seriously — distinct from my own writing — it was partly as resistance to anything approaching scholarship. Asked to comment on the translations a friend had written, I found anything I had to say about the tone of her work critically pompous and unfriendly. It was more natural and easier to make my own translations as a response. And so we entered into a correspondence, an exploration. One thing led to another. From the very beginning, I was introduced to a community of literary translators, very different from other writing communities. Literary translators are, by definition, people who are interested in other people's work.

            But long before that, I was propelled over the moon the first time a poem of my own was put into another language, French. I ran to show it to a good friend. His reaction was immediate and exact with a line from A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! thou art translated." Ever since then, the guardian muse of my translation work has been Bottom the Weaver. Even my car carries the vanity licence plate OCHOBA — the literal Russian translation of the name of that rude mechanical.

            Shakespeare's Bottom is a weaver, and the "bottom" is the warp on his loom. I won't embroider the image of a translator as a weaver — Shakespeare's contemporary Cervantes has done that before me. I'll proceed directly to what we remember best about Bottom the Weaver: He is translated. "When I did him at this advantage take, / an ass's nowl I fixed on his head," Puck reports to Oberon.

            So if the translator is Puck, then the poem — or by extension the poet — is Bottom, crowned with an ass's head, the honest workman turned into a ludicrous braying monster.

            This is not our usual image of the translator as culture hero and guide. We find that other notion reflected in the threnody of Valéry Larbaud:


    'Thanks to you, "Your friend can read this poem, this book that you love. It is no longer a closed code. He can get to know it, and you are the one who has broken the seals. It is you who introduce him on his visit to this palace, who accompany him on all the byways and into the most charming corners of this foreign city which, without you, he would probably never get to see. You have picked up his admission-ticket; you have paid his fare. What pleasure is equal to that of sharing your own happiness with those you love?"'


            Well, I guess it does sound a little like a midsummer night's dream.

            So here are two representations of the translator: the malicious trickster (who we know can grievously mistake one Athenian gentleman for another) and the enthusiastic cicerone.

            And suspended between them, here is the poet — sporting an ass's head.

            Russian readers especially never fail to remind you of the monstrosities of translation  — miswritten words, untranslatable word-play, unreachable allusions. Russians are not shy. The constant critique (unmatched in any other culture I know, where most people are overwhelmingly grateful to have their byways and palaces thrown open to foreign guests)  is such that we at Zephyr Press display a special sign with our books. It reads, in Russian, "Russians are requested not to complain about the impossibility of translation."           

            If the translator is a poet, too, we look at life from both sides now.  When I read translations of my own poems, "I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me." Thinking carefully about how I have been translated can help make me a better — a humbler — translator of the poetry of others. I need to remember always that the translation is not meant for me to read.

            The first Russian to turn a poem of mine into his own language was Arkady Dragomoshchenko, who rendered one line completely into its own negation. But, as Dragomoshchenko himself had already written (in the Lyn Hejinian translation) "Everything begins with an error in vision," I thought that inversion was more fun than anything else. And he was just having fun, too; this wasn't for publication. Then the ebullient Genrikh Sapgir translated a few of my poems, turning them into ebullient Genrikh Sapgir poems that swerved well away from my originals— you can read these in a 1999 number of the journal Новая юность. Where in the original ("Jacob") will you find anything remotely like, "I scooped up water to wash with, and smirked / I had stolen the blessing, sapphires burn on my brow. . .?"  Even as I scratched my hairy ears, I was flattered.

            The theologian Grigory Benevich translated a whole sequence of my poems written in Old Testament voices, including "Jacob," and it's remarkable to me how little he lost. What I missed most in his versions was the music. Whether we like his hee-haw singing or not, Bottom sings. I've also been translated by Andrey Porvin and Nika Skandikia.  I don't mean to be parading conquests here, but just trying to show how well I know what it's like on both sides of the fun-house mirror.

            I also know, as a translator, the specific difficulties of translating my own kind of poem. Once, as an exercise, using my experience as a translator, I decided to write a poem that would deliberately be, among other things, "translatable." But the God in Whom I do not believe is also a prankster, and, the very day I thought I had achieved what I wanted, I received a request from a French magazine for a poem of my own devising and, s'il vous plaît, a French translation. Hoist with my own petard, I had to rewrite that poem in French. As well as I could. Of course, as the author-authority, I felt free to make what changes I thought were necessary. It was an odd freedom — to grow my own ass's ears. Go Puck yourself.

            Most recently, Dmitry Manin decided to translate poems from my collection The Briar Patch into Russian. Manin has been a careful reader of my own translations of Russian poems, not hesitating to point out where I have made mistakes or missed allusions. He also prides himself on being a strict formalist in translation — committed to reproducing as specifically as possible the formal elements of the original poem.

            Here's the original English of the poem Manin translated:

Rule Number One: Everything's attached.

In the briar patch whichever way you turn

somebody gets scratched.

Rule Number Two: Your eyes bleed

when they are plucked out and weep

when they ate stuck in. Proceed

accordingly. Your oldest friend

needs that woman, that job no more

than you do. Friendships mend

if they are meant to. Have some fun.

Make some money. Get what you can.

Above all, look out for Number One.

            This what I wrote to him after he sent me his first draft:

    "I think you have caught the sound and explicit sense quite well.  .  . The problems with my own poems for a translator . . .  are those of allusions and double meanings. This poem hangs from three crucial references: (a) the Uncle Remus story of 'Br’er Rabbit and the Briar Patch;' (b) the British nursery rhyme 'There was a man in our town / And he was wondrous wise. / He jumped into a bramble bush / and scratched out both his eyes / And when he saw what he had done / With all his might and main / He jumped into another bush / And scratched them in again.' And (c) the use of 'look out for number one' as an idiom for 'take care of yourself before anyone else' (or 'save your own ass') so that the last phrase loops back to the beginning with irony. Your version leaves as much behind as . . .  I have to leave behind in the Russian poems I translate….."


            The briar-bramble-patch allusions create one kind of frequently occurring problem that can be resolved in one of three ways. The first is to ignore the resonances of the allusion and simply reproduce the words. The second is to substitute an equivalent cultural reference where one can be found. This can slide over into the third, most radical solution — to refashion the entire passage.

            Far more serious, because he rewrites the whole poem in intent as well as words, Manin translates "Rule Number One" as "the first rule." Not only does this subtly modify the authoritative tone of the speaker, but it gives up entirely on the irony of the circularity of the poem, losing (if it ever could have been reproducible in Russian) the idiomatic meaning of "look out for Number One." This kind of failure is one I'm all too familiar with myself. A French poet I translate, Jean-Pierre Rosnay, has a beautiful couplet that is even more "untranslatable" in its complexity of idiomatic allusion. Speaking to a schoolgirl, the voice in the poem says, "Quand je vous parle du seizième, / C'est au siècle qu'il faut penser." "When I speak to you of the sixteenth, you must think of the century." There is no possible way of putting into succinct English the double resonance of "le seizième" arrondissement as the high bourgeois neighborhood — Scarsdale, Beverly Hills —  of Paris, and "le seizième" siècle as the age of the French High Renaissance. Using the adjective as a substantive in both cases, ordinary discourse in French, the two lines cry out for six (I've counted them) footnotes — or to be left to live their vibrant life in French alone.

            Manin backed away:  "I think I'll settle down on the version below. Not to publish it anywhere, just for you as a token of appreciation (assuming you don't hate it. Smiley face.) " and that is what I am left with:


Первое правило: всё переплетено.

В терновом кусту, куда ни ступи,

Кто-нибудь да уколется все равно.


Второе правило: глаза кровят,

Если их выцарапать, иначе --

Плачут. Учитывай этот факт.

Имей в виду, что другу нужна

Эта женщина, эта должность не больше,

Чем тебе. А трещина все же должна

Зарасти. И раз уж судьба заставила,

Делай что-то. Развейся. Скопи деньжат.

Но главное, помни первое правило.


            In another essay, "A Question of Mastery and Ownership," I have written about this question of the author and authority, and who gets to establish the "final" version. The negotiation between the poet and the translator can be a delicate one, the terms are never set.

            Am I making the Russian case for the so-called impossibility of translation? No, but I am making a case for the limitations of translation, the vulnerability of the original text, and the humility of translators. Think of the classic problem first recorded by Alcuin in the eighth century: how to get a cabbage, a goat, and a wolf across a river in a small boat that can carry only two at a time. The answer, of course, means ferrying one or more of them back and forth — you can't get them all in at once. No definitive version will hold all the produce and livestock in a single go. Yet nowhere is it written that there can exist only that single translation. And if we don't want to reduce literature to combinatorial mathematics, we can also think of engaging another boat entirely — recognizing that multiple translations will always carry over different pieces of the puzzle, even if one version can't hold them all. This is something that both the poet and the translator should hope readers can take for granted, and not kick against. After all this, it's a dreary reality how many critical readers keep looking for the translation of a work of literature, or complaining that it doesn't exist.

            There's one kind of responsibility here when I'm translating a poet who is "mine" — whom no one else has put into English, whom I am truly introducing into the language; and a looser kind of responsibility when I'm poling one more ferry across a well traveled river. Douglas Hofstadter's translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin or Louis Zukovsky's Catullus would be boat wrecks if they were the only ones available. But the translators had so much fun with texts that are easily retrievable from so many other sources, that I have ventured to guess that sometimes  the original poet would have enjoyed such  transgressive playfulness.

            And as I am an honest Puck, I say this even as I feel that my own translations of Pushkin's small poems, for instance, are better than any others I've ever seen. In fact, I could even make a case for why mine are the best of all. If not, why do I work at translating in the first place? This may be hard on the original poet, still wearing his / her ass's ears, for whom the first rule can never exactly be Rule Number One. Fortunately or unfortunately, Pushkin, who himself translated from English with interesting degrees of freedom in his versions, is not here to weigh in.

            The fact is that the act of translation is, like the very community of translators, by definition social, not individual or competitive. It engages the original poet, the Puckish middleman, and the reader. There is perhaps no better explanation or even definition of literary translation than Michael Polanyi's discussion of passion: “By contrast to his bodily passions, which man shares with the animals, the satisfaction of his mental passions does not consume or monopolize the objects which gratify it; on the contrary, the gratification of mental passions creates objects destined to gratify the same passions in others.”

            Can we hear both Bottom and Larbaud in this?

            One of the advantages of translating contemporary poets is the give and take, the sharing of knowledge and responsibility. If all art, all literature is a correspondence, a conversation across time and space, then perhaps translation most of all. I have been fortunate to work with my contemporaries, other poets with whom I can give and take. The best of these serve as advisers and guides, the worst as adversaries — duellists and sparring partners who help me refine my moves.

            There is Mikhail Aizenberg, who allows that I make mistakes, but "they're the right mistakes." He can give me advice like:


    We have talked about "ksiva" before, you and I, but let's try again. The word itself is thieves' argot (which in Russia has always been comprehensible not just to thieves) signifying a passport or any document in general. Its etymology is problematic, but in argot, as is well known, many words are corrupted from Yiddish and Hebrew (the influence of Odessa). Just so, "ksiva" is a corruption of the Hebrew "ktuva" — "record." When I hear it, this word induces heartburn. There's something acidic ["kisloe"] about it.


Exemplary and helpful. For better or worse, I settled on "ticket," which carries a prison-slang connotation and a tick-tick, if not exactly acidic, sound to it. The point I'm trying to make here is not how successful or not my solution was, but an illustration of the process of communication between the two of us.  

            So that's between poet and translator. What about between the translator and the reader?

            Much as I was flattered by Sapgir's attentions, I didn't really want to think my Jacob is gloating over having stolen Esau's birthright. I thought I was adding anguish into the dimensions of the patriarch. But one other careful reader of that poem in the original English — a composer who happens to be setting my Old Testament poems to music right now — sees the nastiness in Jacob, too. Has Sapgir just highlighted something I've unsuccessfully suppressed? Has he brought me over to the reader better than I had imagined? If I allow that a translator has, in some measure, presented my work better than I myself have, should I be so churlish as to complain? Gabriel García Márquez famously claimed that he liked Gregory Rabassa's translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude better in its English than in his original Spanish. As a reader, I can think of three works of literature I like better in translation than in the original I can read: Brian Hook's Cyrano de Bergerac, W. E. Henley's  version of François Villon's "Straight Tip to All Cross Coves," and Max Hayward's translation of Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope.

            Robert Frost wrote that the poet is entitled to anything the reader can find in a poem.  Since even the best of translations is a single critical reading, a translator's version of my poem can teach me a great deal about what I've written, how successfully I've written what I might have intended, and what else I wrote that I didn't intend. And so, when I came to translate, in a poem by Aizenberg about emotional protection,  the words "тюлений жир" — literally "seal fat" — as "blubber," touching on the secondary reference of the English word to uncontrollable weeping, the poet's response was, "If I could have done that in Russian, I would have."

            My eye in translating is always on the reader. We need to remember that the intended readers of translation are not those who know the original language. This is not meant as an apology for mistakes in the process. (Lord knows, I've made enough of those). The translator can and does use that as a rationale — there is a delicate, fuzzy line between tolerance and excuse —  but the awareness of our own puckish disposition of the ass's head never goes away. it's helpful to keep in mind Theseus' rebuke to the sophisticated young lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream, even as he acknowledges the justice of their mocking critique: "The best in this kind are but shadows: and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them," as well as Hippolyta's acidly accurate response to the immediate matter at hand: "It must be your imagination, then, and not theirs."

            It is a curious fact that literary translation and children's books are the only genres of literature not commonly reviewed by their intended readers. Translations are reviewed by those who — and I am among them — play ping-pong back and forth between the original and the English. This is not a bad game, but it's a different game from the one the intended reader is playing. This awareness colors my position among the vexing questions of how closely the translation of a poem should adhere to the formal components of the original: I'm a pragmatist, a shape-shifter. It depends. But what it always depends on is rooted in English, not in the language from which it comes. German trochaic tetrameter in the lyrics of Heinrich Heine — "Wer ein Herz hat und im Herzen / Liebe trägt, ist überwunden / Schon zur Hälfte; und so lieg ich / Jetzt geknebelt und gebunden" — should not come out in English sounding like "On the shores of Gitche Gumee, / On the shining Big-Sea Water, / Stood Nokomis, the old woman, / Pointing with her finger westward."  Rhyming in Russian modernist and post-modernist poetry in the late twentieth century is not the same as neo-formalist rhyming in late twentieth-century English, any more than the words are the same. The French alexandrine line is not an English alexandrine. These are accidents of cultural history to which a translator has to stay sensitive the way we are sensitive to cognate "false friends" in vocabulary. Sometimes we have to be exact: a sonnet must be recognizably a sonnet, a ballade recognizably a ballade, and a ghazal recognizably a ghazal. But sometimes we have to be discreetly or wildly unexact, as translators of haiku have long since come to terms with.

            And we translators hope that readers understand this.

            Without that co-operation from readers, the translator is toast.        




Act III, scene 1

Act III, scene 2

Les grands traducteurs français, Edmond Cary (Génève, 1963) p. 120, my own translation


Act III, scene 1

The Old Testament (Cold Hub Press)

The Briar Patch (Hobblebush Books)

Manin himself has written me, though, that "терновый куст does readily evoke Brer Rabbit (there's a beautiful Russian translation, and "не бросай меня в терновый куст" is a meme), and the scratched-in eye was translated by Marshak, so these two references, luckily, are there."

The Study of Man, Michael Polanyi,  p. 60

Act V, scene 1

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