Hence the vanity of translation; it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its color and odor, as seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet. The plant must spring again from its seed, or it will bear no flower—and this is the burden of the curse of Babel.”  — Shelley, A Defense of Poetry

We caught the Adam and Ilya show over on the Poetry Foundation site: the critic and former-Seamus-Heaney-student-at-Harvard critic and the Russian-transfer-student-professor poet were debating the finer points of translation—points, thankfully, which are easily translatable.

Ilya Kaminsky was for it, Adam Kirsch was wary of it.  Ilya was climbing the tower as fast as he could while Adam was standing on the ground, looking up, saying…I don’t know…

Ilya Kaminsky was selling his book (The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry) and Adam Kirsch was selling valid notions of translation.

Then Sam Hamill commented on the discussion:  

“I’ve grown very weary of these arguments, especially when they are relentlessly Eurocentric. Not a single mention of a Chinese poet, or Japanese or Vietnamese, no poem from Tamil, from Sanskrit, from Thai; no thought of Native American languages and traditions.” 

We’re getting ahead of ourselves, obviously, reprinting a remark which followed the debate by two young titans, but grouchy Hamill helps us to see how problematic the whole issue is: Fail! no poem from Tamil.  The tower is big, baby.

The tower is big, so big, it’s probably best to stay on the ground and hang out with Philip Larkin, who, when asked about Jorge Luis Borges, retorted, “Who’s Jorge Luis Borges?”   Just congratulate yourself that you speak English, which practically the whole educated world speaks, and note that English is a language both Romance and Germanic, as close to an Ur-language as ancient Latin, Greek, or Sanskrit.

Fluency in English is enough.  Who needs to learn other languages when you’ve got Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Byron, Shelley and Keats?   If studying Latin and Greek made those old English poets better, it was because English is fed by Latin and Greek, on a purely practical, mechanical, nuts-and-bolts level; it makes as much sense, then, to study Latin today, as it did then.  (Are MFA poetry students studying Latin, today?  Nope.)   Or, to study Pope, because he knew French, Italian, Latin and Greek.   A reader not fluent in English, unable to appreciate Pope, what can they defend?  

We think it richly, funny, then, this whole silly debate, for one either knows a language fluently, or one learns another one, but if neither the poet, nor the reader, nor the translator, is an Alexander Pope, it is a hypocritical farce, all this blather about ‘translation’ and ‘international poetry.’

Translation from what, to what, for whom, and to what end? 

That is the question. 

Poetry must ask this question all the time, whether it involves translation, or not.  Translation is the last of our worries, really.   Study French or Italian or German or Latin or Greek or Chinese or Shakespeare or Pope to make your English better and shut up.  Don’t tell me I need to read some comtemporary Russian poet or some contemporary Greek poet or some contemporary Vietnamese poet translated into contemporary English. 

Now, I could read the mumblings of WC Williams or the rantings of Ezra Pound, or the kickapoo of Jorie Graham.   Would that make me more internationalist, or just hopelessly pretentious?  I suppose it depends on which American academic dialect one speaks.  It doesn’t take a linguist to warp and bend my native tongue into something new and strange.  It doesn’t take a Russian to mangle English; a speaker who only knows English can do that just fine.  Neither does it take a Russian to teach me facts about Russia; the human is universal enough that I can ‘get’ Russia through English reporting.  Personalities vary enough within one language, differences are profound in one country, even within one family, that it’s not necessary to seek difference in another tongue.   What seek I in another tongue, then?   Only an advantage to myself, only an advantage to my language, or, if I were going to resettle in another land with another tongue, but now we are in a practical realm far from poetry, or, close to poetry, depending on who my new neighbors are. 

If I could snap my fingers and know all languages, of course I would.  Duh.  But poetry is any language that is good; Pope in English is better than WC Williams in 600 languages.   Let us come right out and say it: poetry is the cream of language, by its very definition, and those who peddle ‘international poetry’ because the product happens to be ‘international,’ when it turns out the poetry itself is pedestrian, are doing good work as a matter of course, but let’s be really honest: in terms of poetry and pedagogy, in terms of real interest in language, contemporary translations of contemporary international poetry is important only in terms of polite diplomacy and in nothing else; in terms of real learning and real poetry it probably does more harm than good, ultimately.   Let these MFA poets who feather their nest with ‘translation’ creds take note: before you vacation in Italy, why not spend some time learning Vietnamese?

Professor Kaminsky struck what seemed to be a mortal blow against his opponent when he said politely, responding to Adam (“wouldn’t you agree there is no such thing as an international poem?”) Kirsch’s wary approach to translation:

“I’m assuming that when you speak about your “persistent doubts about poetry in translation” you aren’t speaking about the classics, from Chapman’s Homer to the King James Bible to Pound’s Cathay.”

I thought, at that point, Kirsch will never get up from that mat.  But he did.  Kirsch said that well-known examples of successful translations are really not so much translations as “reinventions.”  Kirsch delivered a knock-out blow of his own with: “the foreign poem is made to serve the translator, not vice versa.”

The question then comes back to what I said earlier:  Translation from what, to what, for whom, and to what end?

Translation is heated lovemaking, and both lovers, in every successful case of translation, transcend ‘the heated babble’ of the ‘translation debate’ itself.  The rest is a mere lover’s spat by mediocre translators.


  1. thomasbrady said,

    March 7, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    We know the tension is almost unbearable as Scarriet gets ready to announce the 64 best poems by 64 poets, thus illuminating our age through the Best American Poetry lens, with great thanks to David Lehman, series editor, and his 21 guest editors.

    But here’s a light diversion, a sweet babble to take our minds off what must be driving all of you crazy…

    I cannot help but quote the immortal Shelley once more on the subject:

    “A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not. The grammatical forms which express the moods of time, and the difference of persons, and the distinction of place, are convertible with respect to the highest poetry without injuring it as poetry…” —A Defense of Poetry

    If one takes what Shelley says here to heart, and contemplates also the quote at the beginning of the essay above regarding the impossibility of poetic translation, we get the following: Poetry cannot be translated, but translation is not necessary, since a poetry in one language succeeds in the same manner as a poetry in another language. To argue against Shelley’s classical position by asserting poetry succeeds in countless ways is to err by assuming that all reality is fragmented—how could it be? How could there be reason, how could there be beauty, how could there be solidarity and affection, how could there be love, if fragment is the rule?

  2. Christopher Woodman said,

    March 8, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    Tom writes:

    How could there be reason, how could there be beauty, how could there be solidarity and affection, how could there be love, if fragment is the rule?

    But fragment is the rule, Tom, as Relativity, Quantum and Chaos Theory all attest — both in large things and in small, cosmic fields a billion light years across to atomic trifles so tiny they don’t exist!

    In all the activities you mention, reason, beauty, solidarity, affection and love, it’s the centripetal effect of the self-affirming perspective that is in control, and the conclusions are inevitably limited, parochial and subjective. Because all 5 depend on how the conscious observer pulls the outside world together to make sense on the individual level, and that’s where you stop.

    So what did you leave out? What human activity or state or perception did you not include in your list?

    I wouldn’t want to say because words at this level tend to get very fuzzy, and most of the possibilities make me feel a bit sick, they are so easily abused, by me too. I will just say that every single wise person that I have ever encountered, alive or dead, has affirmed that the centripetal tendency in the human being also leads toward solipsism and death. The wise also affirm that it is the ultimate task of the individual to overcome this self-serving tendency in order to embrace a larger, more generous, centrifugal tendency that blows all certainty away — all up away, all down away, all past, all future, all weight even, even hope gets blown right away.

    I’m not a believer either, Tom, but I do admit I’m a broken-hearted apostate. Indeed, I also admit that the reason poetry is so important to me is that it has become the only sacred text I trust. I approach every poem as if it were God’s word, for want of a better word, and though I’m almost always disappointed, 99% of the time, I’d say, occasionally I’m surprised, shocked even, rocketed into another realm way beyond reason, beauty, solidarity, affection and even love.

    You, on the other hand, read poetry to define poetry. For you poetry is a hobby like train spotting, a pleasant pastime when your parameters are in control and the numbers click. Fraudulent when they don’t, you say. Poems pass by like trains on tracks, and you check out where they come from and where they’re going. But you never leap on board, or cry, or shout.


  3. thomasbrady said,

    March 8, 2010 at 3:03 pm


    I follow no priests or bibles, but Shelley is somewhat close to that function for me.

    I’m not that different from you.

    Relativity Theory is actually a unifiying theory, not a fragmenting one. In Relativity there are different observors observing differently but in the context of unity. Science does not support the reality of fragment. The jury is still out. I’m not a scientist and the subject is immense, but I can’t let you disagree with me in such a sweeping manner without saying something.

    Poems are like sausages.

    They are made.

    The hobby is the secret to happiness.

    The average hobbyist is more open-minded than your average professor.

    All the early inventors were hobbyists.


  4. thomasbrady said,

    March 24, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    The Great Translation Debate between Ilya Kaminsky (selling his translation book) and Adam Kirsch (who asked some good tough questions) which can be read on-line at the Poetry Foundation site, elicited only 7 comments: 4 were neutral and 3 were pro-Kaminsky.

    But let’s look closer at the debate. Kaminsky had the easier task, putting out the truism that translation is not perfect but is a worthy ambassador, broadening, etc. Well, sure it is. Hurray.

    Unfortunately (or fortunately) there’s more to it than that, and Kirsch had the thankless task of spoiling the ‘fun’ by asking deeper questions and Kaminsky dodged many of those questions, often by hiding behind questionable scholarship or citing dubious statistics.

    Let’s take the end of the exchange. Kirsch acknowledges translation’s role in literary fecundity, but says, OK, all this translation is available today, more than ever before, but discovering the poetry of another culture involves more than just reading translated work—one should go out and learn the other language. This is not something you normally want to say to the face of someone who has just published a big book of translations. Give Kirsch credit.

    But now listen to Kaminsky’s reply:

    “You speak of the abundance of English translations of poetry available. But the truth is, very little is available: 50% of all the books in translation worldwide are translated from English, but less than 3% are translated into English. And that 3% figure includes all books in translation—in terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7%! (The figures are available at wordswithoutborders.org. My anthology is published in alliance with Words Without Borders, and all the royalties will be donated to keep them alive. They need all the help they can get.) Don’t these figures suggest that we in the us may be looking into the mirror a bit too much? Maybe we should start looking through more windows for a change?” –Kaminsky

    Kaminsky’s pointing out the worldwide demand for books translated from English has nothing to do with Kirsch’s point, nor is the percentage of all the books in the world translated into English relevant. Translations of the English Bible into Korean impacts these numbers, as well as translations of the Koran into French; there’s a whole universe of meaning behind these numbers which have nothing to do with the point Kaminsky is gratuitously trying to make. Looking into the mirror too much? Start looking through more windows? How is reading translations in English looking through “windows,” if looking in the mirror is…writing English works that other cultures want to read…? Kaminsky’s analogy crumbles at the first touch.

    Kaminsky then sort of rambles, avoiding the whole issue which Kirsch raised: learning the language, learning the culture, rather than skimming translations…

    “Opening the window to the world is, in part, the job of a translator.

    I may hope that my own translations are less colonial raids into other languages than subversions of English, injections of new poetic forms, ideas, images, and rhythms into the muscular arm of the language of power.

    That’s Forrest Gander in his recent book of essays, A Faithful Existence, which contains some of the most interesting writing about translation available in English since Pound. Gander is one of many American poets interested in translation, but the abundance is illusory. There are serious gaps in our knowledge of contemporary world poetry. Very few major twentieth-century women poets are available to us in quality translations. Also, while so many acclaimed contemporary American poets translate authors from, say, Paris, very few translate from the rich tradition of French-language poetry from Africa.” –Kaminsky

    How arrogant to think one’s translations into English could be “colonial raids.” Gander is joking, isn’t he? “Subversions of English?” What does this even mean? Bad English? Bad grammar? Attacks on the American way of life? Belittling the Beatles?

    “The realities of the world change. Languages such as Chinese, Spanish, French, and English are no longer confined to their original geographic locations (and some, like Yiddish, exist outside geography), and we certainly—thank God!—no longer live in the world Wyatt knew. That more poets are available to us is a great thing, and there is no reason to assume that people who are serious about contemporary poetry are going to be satisfied with a few anthologies and will abstain from a “good deal of study.” You cite Wyatt and Akhmatova as you say that too much is available: Armenian! Marathi! But as her contemporaries’ memoirs clearly tell us, Akhmatova did read quite a lot of poetry translated from Armenian. If she did, then why in the world shouldn’t we?

    No need to hide behind the large sign “Poetry is lost in translation” and pretend that works of art written elsewhere do not exist or should not be available to us. They exist. The genius of our literature, as you rightly quote Pound, feeds on our interaction with these works, and so there is a clear need for them to be brought over into English, if the genius of our literature is to be sustained.” –Kaminsky

    And so ends the exchange, with Kaminsky getting the last word. But Kaminsky doesn’t answer the question in the least. Yes, we know what translation entails: making other literatures available in English, and hurray for that, but, hey, can you answer the question?

    I know exactly what Kirsch is saying, and I’m certain others do, also: poetry of other lands translated into English which one feels obligated to peruse and peruse and peruse…and all of it is a complete waste of time: boring, tone-deaf, unreadable trash. Kirsch is too polite to say this, but this is what most of us are thinking. Kaminsky can make these great cheerleading gestures for the importance of translation until we are all deaf, but until he really thinks about what Kirsch is asking, I’m not going to listen.

    Kaminsky’s gestures are all terrifically broad, the way a cheerleader’s are, you know, one jumping about with poms poms.

    “You mention Whitman, and one instantly thinks that there could be a whole anthology of poets under his influence (Lorca, Pessoa, Neruda, Mayakovsky, Apollinaire, Yona Wallach, Tristan Tzara, Tomaž Šalamun, Milosz).” –Kaminsky

    So let’s see…if we read an English translation of Lorca, we are certain to be dazzled because Whitman wrote in English. This is actually Kaminsky’s logic. First, this insults Lorca, as if Lorca would not exist but for Whitman. Now since Whitman was influenced by the Bible, shouldn’t we then read the Bible in its original Hebrew, or in its Greek translation, before we read our Lorca in English by way of the Spanish Whitman? And what this all has to do with reading really bad English translations of contemporary Russian poetry someone please tell me. Because it sounds like Kaminsky is trying to sell me a used car.

    Here’s Kaminsky again (I’m reading backwards in the debate, I’m perverse that way):

    “After the seventeenth century, few English authors were able to write verse plays comparable to those of Shakespeare and Webster (though almost every major Romantic tried his hand at them), but poets in other languages, such as Goethe and Pushkin, were able to follow that tradition.” –Kaminsky

    But this bit of literary history ignores 1. Shakespeare still towers over Goethe and Pushkin as a playwright, 2. Latin, Greek, French and Italian were the learned languages of England when Shakespeare was writing his masterpieces in English “with little Latin and less Greek,” 3. Keats and Shelley were dead before they reached the age in which Shakespeare wrote his plays, Coleridge had too many issues into adulthood, Byron also had issues and died young, and Wordsworth wasn’t the playwriting type. Goethe said he was fortunate that Shakespeare was not a German author, otherwise he may never have dared to write; Kaminsky is basically taking this one remark and trying to fashion a whole defense of his book by suppressing all sorts of historical nuances and even this little fact: Shakespeare (or Pope, or the translator (s) of the King James Bible) was an inexplicable genius.

    Again, Kaminsky:

    “Few translations in any century could be called ‘successful reinventions’—or what I would call great translations. But how many great poems are there in any century?” –Kaminsky

    How can someone defend translation in this manner? How can one grant that there are not many good translations, but then say, ‘but how many good poems are there?’ and be taken seriously?

    Here’s a dirty little secret. Let’s say I take a bad poem in German and turn it into a good poem in English. That would make me a good poet, not a good translator. If I take a bad poem in German and turn it into a bad poem in English, I may, or may not be a good translator. Those who don’t know German would be completely at the mercy of my skill as a poet writing in English. The good German poem might be translated into a bad English poem and, as far as my English-only readers know, the German poem is bad. Likewise, the good German poem translated into a good English poem is nothing more than a good poem in English to those who only read English. No ‘translation’ is taking place at all, in fact. If you want to read German poetry, learn German. There’s no other way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: