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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Translation Wars. Go!

Posted by Lawrence LaRiviere White on 03/20/08 at 11:33 AM

Translation is impossible, of course. & that’s the good news. Someone will always be unhappy. Talk about job security. Well, if you can figure out how to get paid for it.

Anyway, I found, via Silliman, an Eliot Weinberger review iof a new translation of the Psalms. & tWeinberger doesn’t like it. But it reminded me of something I’ve thought about Ezra Pound & translation. Pound of course is, in the the translation wars, the Napoleon of the activist camp. But there’s something about his strategy that is not fully appreciated, as far as I can tell. Pound’s principle of translation might be summed up thus: if the poem is a good, or even great, poem in its original language, then a proper translation of it must be a good, or even great, poem in the target language.

I think this is a principle often neglected. As you’re looking through a journal, & you come across some translated poem, ask yourself, if this wasn’t a translation, but an original poem in English, would it be any good? Most times, no. The poem isn’t propelled by its language. Instead, it’s the idea of the poem that makes it interesting, w/the usual exoticism often present. Always present is the other poem, the original, which can serve as an excuse for any infelicities in what you have before you.

But my judgment could well be impaired. I started doing poetry workshops in the Bay Area in the early 80’s, & Charles Simic & Mark Strand’s Another Republic had, dare I say, biblical domination over the local poet’s imaginations. & from there to Berkeley, where Milosz was virtually Pope, w/Cardinals Hass & Pinsky at his right & left hand (in that order, BTW).

So what? you ask. Well, people like to blame the excesses, or rather the shortcomings, of academic free verse of the 70’s & beyond, the kind of stuff that’s filled year after year of APR, on those seminaries of poetic orthodoxy, the MFA programs, & the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in particular. You know the poem, the slack-versed celebration of the poet’s self-regard. Whatever sins MFA programs may have committed, the popularity of translation also had something to do w/it. Too often American poets were not taking the original as the model, but the translation. & the translations were not good models, because they were not good poems on their own.

Not that that was the only problem. American poets were also mimicking the existential dramas of the original, which came off as mawkish given the translation of the drama from the concrete dangers of Lodz or San Salvador to the more abstract dangers of Borinda, California. But this was to be expected. There had to be some drama outside the poem, in the life of the poet, because there was so little drama in the words of the poem. Say what you want about LangPo (an American poetry phenomenon exactly contemporary w/this so-called Iowa stuff), but at least there was something going on on the page, even if it seemed a trainwreck.

Was that bellicose enough for you? In the next installment, I’d like to make an (of course) belated response to Bill’s post on Pevear and Volokhonsky. & I don’t like them either.

P.S. Weinberger talks some about modern poets and the psalms, but does not mention Celan. Felstiner makes a persuasive case for the persistent, if indirect, presence of the psalms in Celan’s work.


"As you’re looking through a journal, & you come across some translated poem, ask yourself, if this wasn’t a translation, but an original poem in English, would it be any good? Most times, no.”

Oh, no.  This sentence could be exactly the same with the reference to translations taken out.  How much poetry is actually “any good”?  Less than 1%?

I’m working on an aesthetic theory of total acceptance at the moment.  Not unwillingness to judge—but total Whitmanesque acceptance of the poem of the bag lady or for that matter even the academic as being part of nature’s great unwashed poetry ecosystem and therefore worthy although bad, as are we all.

By on 03/20/08 at 02:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, you’re completely right about the odds of finding a decent poem in a journal in any language.

But I know what Lawrence is talking about too.  I remember hearing others in my undergrad creative writing program swoon over Symborska’s work after she won the Nobel.  I bought her translated selected volume, and I simply couldn’t see what people were talking about.  If you bracketed off the seriousness of life in Soviet Russia, you didn’t have much else of literary interest. 

I contrast that with Fagles’s translations of Sophocles and Anne Carson’s recent translations of Euripedes.  I know no Greek, and I don’t know to what extent they alter the original.  In any case, those plays are stunning in English.  I’d argue they could stand next to nearly any poetic drama in English.

In prose, I find Anthea Bell’s translation of Sebald’s *Austerlitz* profoundly moving and surprising at even a phrasal and sentential level.  She worked closely with Sebald, and Sebald was beginning to write in English, so it’s not surprising that the result was a work that keeps a deep effect in translation.

But right now, I’m teaching both *MacBeth* and *Julius Caesar*, and I cannot conceive how anyone could translate Shakespeare into another language and preserve anything but isolated effects and brief moments of the language’s power.  (The Shakespeare Made Easy series screws up even the English to English translations.)

By on 03/20/08 at 02:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(Can I also add that Weinberger’s review is, in the end, an excellent essay on the Psalms?  And that the New Oxford Annotated Bible has strong translations of the Psalms [disclaimer: I had one of its consulting editors as a professor as an undergrad].)

By on 03/20/08 at 03:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To the extent that people don’t tolerate bad poetry (and we know that many people do tolerate it), there is a lower standard for translations.  The translator always has an “out”:  it’s only a translation and translation is difficult, etc… The reader extends credit:  “I’m sure it’s better in the original.” I find myself doing that too.

By on 03/20/08 at 03:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"But I know what Lawrence is talking about too.”

Sure, but it’s incomplete, in that just about every poem has a reason why it “must be good” that has little to do with the poem qua poem.  If it’s by an academic, it must be good because academics have studied poetry.  If it’s by a non-academic, it must be good to have come to your attention despite that, so it must be by a gritty, cool outsider artist.  If it’s langpo, it must be avant garde.  If it’s nature poetry, it must draw on a rich tradition in English.  If it’s political, well then people should be at this time.  If it’s anti-political, it’s a brave rejection of trendiness in favor of aesthetics.  The point is that there are a host of poetry miniframes of which “translated poetry must be good because it’s exotic” is only one.

I’m just not sure that the poem of “the slack-versed celebration of the poet’s self-regard” (wonderful phrase, Lawrence, btw) really has anything to do with taking translations as models.  I’d say that at its most elemental level it has to do with the amount of history that poetry in English has accumulated at this point.

By on 03/20/08 at 03:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And many people don’t even tolerate great poetry, alas.

Rather peripheral, but the canonical Protestant French translator of the Psalms was (and may still be) Clement Marot, who is better known for graceful, witty and often smutty light verse and who also edited Villon. (He was actually prosecuted for Psalm-translation.) Protestantism could be fun up until about 1540.

In Chinese poetry translation there are now two non-overlapping schools, the Poundian and the Schaferian. Edward Schafer at Berkeley bragged about the ugliness of his literal translations, and in general scholarly translators of Chinese verse are punished for any attempt to make their translations readable.

Schafer was a student of Boodberg, who was trained in pre-Revolutionary Petrograd, and a passing dig by Kenneth Rexroth (a fine translator of the Poundian school) leads me to believe that Rexroth and Boodberg had an unfriendly encounter sometime before 1960.

By John Emerson on 03/20/08 at 05:24 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But Rich, the point is that, in a certain subset of translations, the poetry really is quite great in its original language and quite dull in translation. 

Sure, there are plenty of ways in which people like things for the wrong reasons.  But I thought Lawrence was getting at a more specific issue.

That’s why I wonder how translations of Shakespeare come across.  I bet there are plenty of people who have picked up a translation of *King Lear* and thought, “This is the greatest poet in the English language?”

By on 03/20/08 at 06:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

German translations of Shakespeare had a powerful influence during the XIXc.

I divide translations into two classes: cribs for people who read the original, but not well (Schaferian translations) and attempts to actually write something good in English. I tend not to read literary translations of languages I can read, even just a little. I’ve read a number of powerful translations from languages I can’t read, though: Cavafy, Mandelstam, and Attila Joszef come immediately to mind.

By John Emerson on 03/20/08 at 07:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The bottom of the barrel is rhymed translations trying to duplicate the form of the original. I don’t think that I’ve ever read a good one (into English). They all, without exception, break the “Don’t translate a great poem into an utterly horrible poem” rule.

By John Emerson on 03/20/08 at 07:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As someone with an MFA from Iowa (1980, the height of the “translation problem"), I hesitate to comment. I think there was definitely an influence on American poetry from Russian & Eastern European models. Some of the translations read by my generation of poets were of course better than others. At the time, I was particularly moved & influenced by translations of Tadeusz Rozewicz’s poems, by various hands (Adam Czerniawski sets the standard now). I think that even in the late 1970s there was a sense among those of us who cared about poetry that the confessional lyric was pretty tired out & we were looking around for other ways of writing, thus the interest in translations from various places. I think the admiration was sincere, even if it didn’t lead to a revolution in American poetry. Maybe we just weren’t ready.

In any case, and somewhat tangentially, I recently dealt with another issue of modern translation—what I’d call the “tourist translator”—on my weblog. If the tone sounds a little aggrieved it is because, well, I was aggrieved when I wrote it.

By on 03/20/08 at 08:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Robert Bly put enormous effort into promoting translation from “The Sixties” onwards.

By John Emerson on 03/20/08 at 09:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, some would say that Bly is largely responsible for the flat voice in American poetry that emerges in the 1960s, perhaps as a result of his emphasis on translation. His Transtromer translations have always left me cold. Bly also favored “surrealist” poets for translation, wherever they came from—at least when translated, poets like Cesar Vallejo appear to fit into Bly’s “deep image” poetics.

By on 03/21/08 at 08:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Bly was sort of an odd translator, rather flat and seemingly literal, but often enough he took liberties too.

A lot of his effort was to get people to read more widely, and to get American poetry out of the rut it was around 1960, with the New Criticism type of academic poets squabbling with the beat descendants of Pound and Williams. By and large I think he had a good effect. He introduced me to quite a lot of interesting stuff.

The Jungian stuff was a dealbreaker for me, though.

By John Emerson on 03/21/08 at 08:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I agree with your assessment of Bly. I remember the sense of surprise I experienced—still in high school and just starting to think about poetry—when I came across “Silence in the Snowy Fields” in the Renton, WA public library. I’d grown up on my mother’s Robert Frost, Edna Milay, etc., so this was an entirely new mode to me. Liberating.

With Bly, the dealbreaker for me was all that “men’s liberation” & find-your-inner-warrior crap from the 80s & 90s.

By on 03/21/08 at 09:15 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"But Rich, the point is that, in a certain subset of translations, the poetry really is quite great in its original language and quite dull in translation.”

This is the intention argument all over again, I think.  Lawrence really seemed to me to be saying something about reception, not about whether there existed somewhere a good poem in another language that corresponded to the bad poem in this one.  If any individual reader could read the language that the poem was translated from, they presumably wouldn’t be fooled by a bad translation—they’d be motivated to look at the original and they’d notice the difference.  So what Lawrence wrote only seems to make sense for readers for whom the original is effectively not available.

By on 03/21/08 at 09:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Since I mentioned Transtromer, here is a link to what strikes me as a good translation, if by good we mean a good poem in English.

By on 03/21/08 at 10:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I remember hearing others in my undergrad creative writing program swoon over Symborska’s [sic] work after she won the Nobel.  I bought her translated selected volume, and I simply couldn’t see what people were talking about.  If you bracketed off the seriousness of life in Soviet Russia, you didn’t have much else of literary interest.

Maybe less than you think, since Szymborska is from Poland, not Russia.

I love Szymborska, but with her as much as anyone I’ve read, the translation makes a huge difference.  One edition (my favorite is View With a Grain of Sand) will give her ironic viewpoint lightness and power, while another just sounds like a clunky collection of ideas.  So I’d be curious to know which Luther read.

By tomemos on 03/21/08 at 10:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: I’m not sure what the argument is between you & Luther. My thought is that there are translations that would not elicit any interest if they were only poems in English. My theory is that the hidden original poem (& I do have in mind readers who do not have access to the original) somehow sanctions the translated version. I’m a bit dull this morning, because it seems to me that you & Luther agree on this point. Could you explain where the difference is?

As for your aesthetics of acceptance, I have in the past been hostile to such an approach. But I’ve only heard it from cultural studies types, those who deliberately eschew (gesundheit!) aesthetics. Note how my feelings here are rife w/prejudices. Nonetheless, you are doing something else. But I don’t think I could do it. I’ve held to an idea I was told was in Johnson, & I’ve read in Adorno, that the poorly formed artwork is not an artwork at all. Now this is an attitude, not an empirical fact. It’s a way of making sense of the plethora (a numerically sublime, as in panic inducing, plethora) of artworks. So it could very well be a symptom of my aesthetic weakness.

However, for sometime now I’ve been listening to this small AM station that plays lots of 78’s, some standards but a lot of non-standards, songs that for all I know were never hits. & it’s been interesting trying to hear the difference between the songs that click & the songs that don’t. I think it’s related to how some songwriters keep writing songs past their prime, for example, Paul McCartney or Black Francis/Frank Black/Charles Thompson.

Finally I would like to thank Joseph D. for his gracious responding to my intemperate post. I too am an Iowa MFA of slightly newer vintage & have written more than my share of wingey celebrations of what exquisite melancholy it is to be me.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 03/21/08 at 12:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Lawrence, to take your second comment paragraph above first, the aesthetics of acceptance is in part a reaction to the plethora of artworks, in part a necessary reconciliation between my aesthetic sense and a subcultural loyalty to what poetry is at my time and place.  “The poorly formed artwork is not an artwork at all” is a good standard to have if you are perhaps one of about ten poets in each century in English—really, those are the approximate number who, with hindsight, have produced work that is consistently good.  If not, most of what one writes is bad.  And one has friends who call themselves poets who, if one is honest, have never written anything good in their lives.  It’s not necessary to lie about this; that would involve doing violence to one’s aesthetic sense.  It’s merely necessary to accept that the number of artworks is effectively infinite in number compared to one’s reading time, that the percentage of them that are good is small, and that after a certain point it’s better to accept whatever comes than continue to search for the good ones.  “Poetry” then becomes more of a social activity than a set of texts.

Academic poets have trouble with this, I think, because the idea of journal after journal filled with bad poetry is depressing.  So they tend to hold to some sort of belief in modernist concision of some kind, or as you alternatively phrase it, a sense that artistic quality is primarily determined by form, which would have the happy result of making poetic quality produceable through experience and study.  In my limited experience, and I don’t mean to say anything about you personally, that tends to correlate with lack of understanding of the forms of poetry that people outside academia actually like.

Going back to your first paragraph, I agree with you that the hidden original sanctions the bad translation in the reader’s mind.  I just went on to point out that this is only a special case of a more general syndrome: there are all sorts of things outside the text that sanction bad poems in the minds of readers, and it’s not clearly to me that the poem being a translation is a particularly important one of these.

To Luther, it’s important that a good poem in another language actually exists.  To me, for the purposes of describing this syndrome, it isn’t.  After all, you could announce that you were bringing out a translation of an important, exotic poem that didn’t actually exist, and your readers would still excuse your bad poem on the grounds that it was purportedly a translation of something important and exotic that they had no other access to.  The actual existence of the original poem isn’t really necessary—that is the analogy that I’m making with the intention of the author.

By on 03/21/08 at 02:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My range for poetry goes from “great”, through “good”, “interesting”, “well done, nothing special” and “mediocre” to “crap”. Few translations rank higher than “interesting-plus”, but the best give you a strong feeling “I wish I could have read that poem in the original.”

By John Emerson on 03/21/08 at 02:34 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I remember when Christopher Reid’s Katerina Brac came out in the 80s.  I thought it was an excellent idea: Brac is a fictional Eastern European poet whom Reid has supposedly translated into English.  The book purports to be a collection of her poems.  Unfortunately it just isn’t very good.  Exactly what you might think: various pared down iron-Curtain Soviet-inflected gloom touched here and there, like bluebells amongst the rubble, with delicate observational material.

By Adam Roberts on 03/21/08 at 02:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Saved too soon at 2:34:

In short, my readings are less binary than Rich’s. Translating a great or good poem with an interesting or nothing special poem is the norm. But I have whole books of crap translations.

Beyond that, some poems are intrinsically interesting enough that unpoetic “content” translations (or prose paraphrases) still can interest or move you.

By John Emerson on 03/21/08 at 02:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

We all have huge libraries of crap translations.  It’s the nature of the beast.  I still think there is a fundamental difference in standards.  Of course, there are bad books of poetry that people buy for other reasons, but one assumes that at least somebody thinks that poetry is good.  The difference is that if you are reading Walcott, and don’t think it’s very good, you are at least reading words Walcott wrote.  If you are reading Milosz in English, you are not reading words that Milosz wrote.

By on 03/21/08 at 02:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s not that I’m especially conscious of a hidden binary in which ten poets per century produce work that is “good” while everything else is “bad”.  I’m able to sense aesthetic gradiations of some sort beyond that.  But the difference between those ten or so and everyone else is so great that if people in the “everyone else” group want to think of themselves as writing good poetry, in some sense I think they’re fooling themselves.

So I say embrace bad poetry.  Isn’t there some Central or South American country in which, stereotypically, everyone writes poetry?  I heard about it once but forgot which country it was supposed to be—at any rate, in the New England college town in which I live, that happy state is approached.  The handyman and firefighter exchange poems with the bag lady and the babysitter and nurse and the teenage kids and the retired old woman reads her nature poem to the hip-hop aficionado… in these conditions talking about whether the poetry is good or not is not, exactly, beside the point.  Everyone wants to write something good, or, at least, better than what they are currently writing.  But it’s like talking about whether the air is good.  If it isn’t, particularly, you don’t stop breathing it.

By on 03/21/08 at 03:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich: thank you for the further explanation of the acceptance thing. It makes a lot of sense. As I thought, it’s quite different from the aloof cultural studies voyeurism. & to be honest, I’ve thought in such terms about my own writing, w/this twist: I’m not sure if any of my poems have been good enough, but I do know that my attempts to write poetry have left me w/a much better understanding of extent good enough poems that I would otherwise have had. Not that it’s the only way to learn something, but it’s not a bad way.

In grad school I heard a story about a Bulgarian student who couldn’t get into art history in Bulgaria because he couldn’t pass the drawing test. So he ended up at U of Chicago. The teller of this story thought (the Bulgarian’s sister)
thought this an example of a stupid policy of her home country. However, it sounded like a good idea to me. I’m sure there are plenty of good reasons
against it, but it seemed to me that some of my fellow students could have used a more hands-on experience w/the materials.

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 03/21/08 at 05:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A poem’s web is woven between the explicit ideas and the development of its sounds and music. To the extent that translating something like Les Fleurs du Mal requires abandoning Baudelaire’s rhyme scheme, the result still captures the powerful idea, but loses the musical elaboration of that idea. You have something, but less than the whole, and if you look at the original and have even the slightest notion of that language, you can feel the loss. It doesn’t devalue the translation to feel that pang; actually, to do anything less would be to deny the intimacy of the poet with her chosen language.

Lawrence, following your link to that review entirely convinced me not to buy Alter’s Psalms, for which my bank account thanks you.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 03/21/08 at 05:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

. . . if you are perhaps one of about ten poets in each century in English—really, those are the approximate number who, with hindsight, have produced work that is consistently good.  If not, most of what one writes is bad.  And one has friends who call themselves poets who, if one is honest, have never written anything good in their lives.

Could we play a little word replacement game with these sentences? Try replacing “poet” with “economist” or “historian” or what have you. Most cultural production is “crap,” of course. But there is, as I read you, Rich, an underlying double standard. Is it OK if I apply your proposed “aesthetic” standard to non-poetic works of scholarship in the Humanities & Social Sciences? (We’ll leave the sciences out of it for the moment, though I’m not opposed in principle to having that argument.) This isn’t just snark—I think there is a serious point here about the devaluation of the arts— most of what economists write, to pick an easy target, “is bad, “ not just stylistically (aesthetically) but as a matter of fact. Whole depressing rows & rows of journals filled with the stuff. Now, wasn’t that your point about poetry?

By on 03/21/08 at 08:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph D.,

Honestly, none of us are required to agree that only ten poets per century produce consistently interesting work. (With no offense meant to Rich’s interesting and provocative point about accepting bad work, which has been in process for some time now.)

Eliot, O’Hara, Berryman, Pound, Bishop, Plath, HD, Williams, Snyder, Auden, Millay.

That’s eleven, all writing in English; as of 5:36pm PST, I have not broken a sweat.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 03/21/08 at 08:37 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If I could be compared with any of the top 100 of the 20th century I would be very happy.  I wouldn’t write at all if I didn’t think that I could at least approach 99 on a good day, (however unrealistic that might be.) Think of how good the 25th best tenor sax of all time is.  Damned good.  Maybe Illinois Jacquett good, or Flip Phillips good.  Which is kind of the point:  there aren’t just 10 elite poets and the rest of them crap, (so learn to embrace your inner crappiness!) I find that a profoundly self-defeating attitude. 

The Mexican thing of every well educated youth published a book of poetry (or so it seems), is something else, I think.

By on 03/21/08 at 08:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph K., I’m relatively new to these discussions & wasn’t aware that Rich has been developing this “theory” over an extended period of cogitation. I think Rich just doesn’t like poetry, which is fine, of course. But I take it you are responding to a certain irritated tone in my post, to which I’d say that irritation perhaps appropriate when someone consigns one to the outer darkness. (God knows the darkness will descend soon enough.)

By on 03/21/08 at 09:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I don’t really understand what your beef is in this argument.  I agree with you that no matter how good the original is, the translation needs to be judged on its own merit.  And I agree with you that too often, poetry communities seem to like poetry because it has been sanctioned by the community and not because they really like it.

But I won’t assume a poet like Szymborska (or Symborska, as it’s also spelled in English, FYI) isn’t a fine poet simply because I didn’t like the translations or simply because I don’t like her fans. 

Finally, the “ten great poets per century” theory is simply wrong.  First, I look for great poems, not great poets.  Otherwise half-rate or bad poets are capable of producing one brilliant poem, and that one poem must be cherished.  (And in the end, even a Keats is reduced, in most readers’ minds, to a handful of poems.) Second, there are great poems for certain moments.  e e cummings isn’t a lasting poet in my mind, but I find that I can turn to his poetry for simple pleasures in the same way I can turn to a Joyce Carol Oates short story and expect certain basic pleasures.

By on 03/21/08 at 10:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Joseph D: “Is it OK if I apply your proposed “aesthetic” standard to non-poetic works of scholarship in the Humanities & Social Sciences?”

I don’t understand how the comparison would be valid.  The social sciences, and scholarship within the humanities, is supposed to be an accretional process.  No matter how mediocre a scholar may be, their work is still supposed to add to the store of human knowledge and potentially be something that someone else can build on.  But poetry doesn’t work that way.

Luther, I’m not saying that anyone isn’t a fine poet because they’ve been translated badly.  I just think that the focus on bad translations being validated by the presence of a presumed great original is a bit of a red herring.  There are many other reasons why bad poems are validated by their antecedents.  If you accept that the worth of a translation tells you little about the worth of the original—if the syndrome of it’s-a-translation-so-it’s-all-right-if-it’s-bad would work even if, for the sake of argument, the original poem didn’t even exist—then the exoticism of the translation is really no different from any of the other examples that I gave, which I think are more common and more important.

Joseph D again: “I think Rich just doesn’t like poetry, which is fine, of course.” Oh no, that’s a misreading.  I’m not really interested in defending the “ten great poets per century” theory—that would quickly get into list-making, and who’s in, who’s out, and who’s great according to whom.  Let me see if I can explain this another way.

Lawrence is quite right, I think, that trying to write poetry is probably a good way to learn about poetry.  But that’s not really the basis of the MFA program or the poetry-academic subset or the workshop subculture.  The premise there is pretty clearly that study and guided practice will make you a better poet—and, additionally, that on average the MFA grad will be a better poet than the poet who is not.  Lawrence’s original example concerned looking through a journal, coming across a translated poem, and asking yourself whether if it was an original, would it be any good.  The assumption there is that the default poem in the journal is good, otherwise the badness of the translation would need no explanation.  I think that this assumption needs to be questioned, frankly.

And I’m not trying for a particularly anti-academic screed.  Well, in part, I do think that academics tend to have this strange idea that good poetry can be distinguished from bad according to certain guidelines.  But really, a look at the top of the poetry pyramid, which is what I was trying with the ten-per-century bit, is sometimes instructive.  You can either keep climbing that pyramid, and hope to be 100th as Jonathan Mayhew wrote, and therefore tell the person working for 1000th to give up, or you can radically level the whole thing—not by denying its existence, but by revaluing it.

My basic loyalties are with the people who are never going to be 100th on the pyramid, or if they think they’re working towards that, they’re deluded.  The poetry of those people is important.

By on 03/21/08 at 11:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The academic view, indeed the human view, recognizes gradations between the genius and the rank amateur, in any human endeavour from cooking to athletics.  It is pretty realistic to think that study and guided reading will make you a better poet--whatever one’s opinion of MFA programs as they actually exist.  Usually, the mediocre poem that gets accepted is better than the lousy one that’s rejected from the same journal.  I really don’t see value or importance in the poetry of bad poets.  If it’s important for them to write it, that’s fine, but I don’t see why the rest of us should bother with it.  It has the value of an intramural softball game that nobody wants to watch who isn’t a friend of someone on the team.

By on 03/22/08 at 12:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Just to throw out some ideas.

Look at the influence of translations from Greek, Latin, and Hebrew which are always much worse and usually much, much different than the originals. But think of the influence of Psalms, which brought something new into English.

second, a lot of poems are uninteresting because “That’s been done”. A poet might be regarded as a weak version of some other poet, or as a precursor, and for that reason regarded as second rate. And yet for someone who has not read the other poet, his poems might be powerful.

Likewise, poems also tend to cluster in types, and most people eventually will only want to read a few of the best poems of a given type—often somewhat atypical ones which are for that reason more interesting. Examples include symbolist poems, troubador poems, Renaissance sonnets, and blues lyrics. Usually you listen to a few and quit, even though hundreds or thousands exist.  This does not really mean that the thousands of forgotten poems are no good. It’s just that an enormous communal effort has thrown up a few champions. (And some people will, in fact, become “buffs” and try to listen to every blues singer who ever lived, for example, and love every minute of it.) And if we didn’t have the champions we have, we would probably have a different group.

So anyway, the championship anthology we all have in our heads is just a sort of an artifact of time management, and not really a critical judgement.

As far as bad poems go, I’m sympathetic to Rich’s point to a slight degree. I remember reading Steven Crane’s poems in an anthology once, and they were both interesting and, in many respects, bad. I’ve had that experience with untrained amateur poets I’ve read, the ones that don’t just produce inept attempts at something else, and I could see reading a lot of that stuff just for a good line here and there. The homeless newspaper in Portland Oregon publishes homeless poems every month, and a moderate proportion of them are more affecting or more interesting than a generic Iowa workshop poem.

By John Emerson on 03/22/08 at 10:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s an admirably concise statement of exactly what I disagree with, Jonathan M.  Study and guided reading is, of course, valuable, because it teaches you about poetry.  And practice makes you more able to do certain techniques.  But the ability to write a good poem is not really a skill to be learned.  The mediocre poems that get accepted are better than the bad ones that don’t in the sense that they successfully follow the prevailing fashion for what poems are supposed to be; that doesn’t mean that anyone really wants to read them.  Given the volume of this production, it’s impossible for anyone to really read more than a representative sample even if they wanted to.

To continue your analogy, the vast majority of professional poets—which means academics, in contemporary society—are like players in the minor leagues.  Sure, they can look down on intramural softball games, and tell themselves that they are almost as good as people in the majors.  But their chance of making it to the majors is where the analogy breaks down, because very few do.  In the meantime, sure, there’s always a small group of fans who watch minor league games, a group proportional in relation to the size of the production to the number of people who watch intramural softball.

By on 03/22/08 at 10:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Some of what Rich is talking about is the way academic poetry-writing has been methodologized according to enforced bureaucratic paradigms, like everything else in the post-WWII university. It coincides with the dwindling of the poetry audience. These precesses were even more fatal for academicized classical music.

By John Emerson on 03/22/08 at 10:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, you’re simply ignoring the fact that the point of certain translations is expressly *not* to be “great poems” in their own right.  The Loeb Classical Library is not full of famous translations, to the best of my knowledge.  Instead, they are full of useful, scholarly translations that convey the sense of the originals, to be used along with originals for study purposes.  Some translations of poetry, as Weinberger points out in his psalms essay, do the same: provide a fairly literal account of what the poem is “about,” often including notes about things like rhythm, rhyme, puns, connotations, etc., that are lost in translation. 

And the problem with the baseball analogy is that you can only enter the major leagues of poetry after you’re dead.  Anyone who thinks that Sharon Olds will be read 100 years from now is a fool, even if she seemed like a major poet of her time.  Instead, I’d be willing to bet that Bob Perelman will be seen as a truly great poet of our time. 

In the end, Rich, you seem so certain that poetry today is so determined by fashion and rigid academic standards that you fail to acknowledge that there probably was never a period in world history when poetry showed more variety.  Sure there are norms, but there are also countless communities with their own poetic norms.  Doesn’t mean there are more good poems than ever before, but let’s not pretend that poets are somehow more conformist than in, say, the time when Southey was the Party Boss of poetry.

By on 03/22/08 at 10:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Rich, you’re simply ignoring the fact that the point of certain translations is expressly *not* to be “great poems” in their own right.”

But that’s not what Lawrence was writing about.  He imagined looking through a journal, not the Loeb Classical Library.

“In the end, Rich, you seem so certain that poetry today is so determined by fashion and rigid academic standards that you fail to acknowledge that there probably was never a period in world history when poetry showed more variety.”

No, that’s not what I’m saying at all.  Academic poetry follows academic standards, yes. Academic poetry is by no means all of poetry.  A problem—a sort of side problem, not my main concern—is that academics get used to evaluating all poetry by the standards of academic poetry.

I agree with John Emerson to an extent, except in regard to “the dwindling of the poetry audience”.  I don’t think that it has actually dwindled.  I think that a great part of it is simply not interested in the kind of poetry in the journals.  The median poet that I know reads, and reads to, a local subculture of some kind, the kind of thing that Jonathan M. refers to as intramural softball.

By on 03/22/08 at 12:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Getting back to translation, I think the very act of a verse translation implies a certain value in the original.  The kind of questions we want to ask about the translation and its adequacy simply wouldn’t make sense without this imputation of value.  That’s the first move in George Steiner’s four part break-down of translation.  I think he calls it faith or trust.  So the translation that is obviously inferior to our imagination of what the original must have been, the translation that’s below average for the mediocre journal in which it appears, does pose a problem.  I mean, you have to be practically a Nobel prize winner to even get translated into English in the first place.  The bar is not that high, but almost. 

On another point, the audience for poetry did not dwindle, but increased after WWII, pretty much, mostly between about 57 and 80 or so.  I think Plath, Ashbery, Lowell, Ginsberg have sold a lot of books.  Neruda has been a big seller in translation from the 70s on.  Rilke too.  The pre-war audience, in the 30s say, was miniscule in comparison.  That’s my understanding at least.

By on 03/22/08 at 03:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rich, I think I’m understanding your position a bit better now.  I was focused more on the beginning of Lawrence’s post, dealing with translations of poetry such as The Psalms.

But I’m not sure that we can just say “Journals aren’t the Loeb Classical Library.” As J Emerson pointed out, there are [at least] two schools of translation, and it’s not always clear which translations in which journals favor which mode of translation. 

And I’m still not altogether certain what you mean by “academic poetry.” New Formalists?  Language poets tenured and publishing on university presses?  Lyric poets?  Third wave “fractured lyric” poets?  There is no single set of “academic standards” for poetry.  I’ve had poetry professors who imposed all sorts of criteria on me: Kerouac’s spontaneous writing, Ginsberg’s first thought, best thought, modernist fragmentation, confessionalism, plain languageism, neo-surrealist paadigmatic substitutionism, etc. 

I find that the local amature poetry scene is generally governed by a much more limited sense of poetics: a mixture of Elbow expressivism and plain-language backyard philosophy.  And that’s not *that* different from the standards of many MFA programs.  I’d be interested to know more about your experience with grassroots poetics.  What aesthetic principles do they follow, and how to they differ from academic poetry?

By on 03/22/08 at 03:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think that the dwindling has been recent. Poetry approached popularity around 1970.

So did avant-garde jazz, come to think of it.

By John Emerson on 03/22/08 at 04:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Oddly (or rather, perhaps, understandably) enough, the issues surrounding translations of literature seem to be the hobgoblin of the English/Comp Lit/Rhetoric department minds. The U.S. foreign language faculty I know rarely deal with the translations of their specialties into English or other languages (and when they do, they are often appalled at what they read—translators have been known to change the endings of plays, for example—and a famous disputed translation is that of Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”, er, I mean “Le Deuxieme Sexe").

Indeed, “lit in trans” has been a terrain of dispute between English and foreign language faculty in the past couple of decades—as the fight for FTE becomes the coin of survival in the academic budget wars.

What does seem to be problematic is the general failure of English/American/"World English” faculty to promote multi-lingualism in the American student. The human condition is multi-lingual and our students are not well-served by thinking that a translation, no matter how poetic, is ever a true “capture” of the thought incarnated in another language and culture.

By on 03/23/08 at 03:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Donald Davie wrote a book about Milosz without being able to read Polish.  The arrogance of English departments.  I think it has to do with translation as tourism / colonialism, as mentioned by J. Duemer in a comment earlier in this thread.

By on 03/23/08 at 04:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And yet, I am grateful for many translations.

By on 03/23/08 at 06:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A German-American dual-national colleague told me of his visit to his child’s kindergarten class in a local urban school, where there were children from many lands and many ethnic backgrounds, native speakers of many languages.

The school encouraged parents to visit the class to talk about their heritage and teach some phrases of their language. Tourism, perhaps; colonialism, not.

I cannot imagine this happening in an American college or university English composition/writing class, let alone a literature/poetry class. Yet, essentially monolingual English professors (how many doctoral programs even have a foreign language requirement any more?) profess to know a good translation when they read one and insist they are experts in teaching literature in translation, fighting language departments for control of that “specialty”....

Ah, the arrogance of English departments, indeed. But the cost to us as a nation which sustains their arrogance is greater still....

By on 03/24/08 at 12:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"I’d be interested to know more about your experience with grassroots poetics.  What aesthetic principles do they follow, and how to they differ from academic poetry?”

That’s ... not a question that really has an answer.  The aesthetic principles of a spoken word freestyler simply aren’t the same as those of a retired nature poet or those of an MFA student / teacher, and all of those types exist within the same scene.  But I can answer a different, related question, which is “What conditions of distribution put bounds on the poetry produced?”

Poetry of this type is shared within certain classic settings, among them being the open mike and the group reading.  In a typical open mike, each person has 5 minutes to read whatever they want to read.  Group readings typically have 10-20 people who will each read one of their other poems in turn, so the others can comment on it—there are written copies, but usually not enough for everyone.  And sometimes a group of poets will have a more usual reading in which each poet reads their work for 15 minutes or so to the audience.  Plus there are occasional slams.

These conditions of production don’t favor most of what I’m going to persist in referring to as the academic styles.  First, too much concision or certain kinds of avant-garde experimentation typically leads to a poem that people can’t follow, because it’s not really a writer-to-reader situation, it’s speaker-to-hearer.  Second, it’s important that there be something there *to* follow; unlike a journal publication, in which you can’t see people flipping past your poem, you can actually see the bored faces of your audience.  Third, obviously, poems have to be relatively short, usually a page or two.  Fourth, there’s something of a punk DIY ethos that means that there aren’t really many or even any long-term audience members—everyone in the “audience” generally ends up presenting their own work.  Lastly, people don’t generally bother to publish in journals, even when the quality of their work would permit them to.  I mean, some of the MFA students do, but most people figure why bother: no one that they know reads them, they don’t pay anything, and there isn’t any professional poetry-reputation at stake.  Instead, the typical form of publication is the chapbook, generally in “print runs” of 50 or so.

By on 03/24/08 at 04:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

And, aside from the occasional borrowings of form from other languages (e.g. the haiku), what are some of the experiences of the “grassroots poetics” (pl.) of “world Englishes”?

In this country, the nightly news, for example, will actually give sub-titles for the English of non-American native-speakers of English (e.g. an Indian interviewee). While there are accentual differences, of course, there are also syntactic and semantic differences—even with British Englishes.

How do the different poetic traditions of “world Englishes” affect the MFA class, especially when non-American native speakers and/or non-native speakers of English are participants?

P.S. These questions are in the forefront of the experiences of our colleagues in other departments, e.g. Spanish, French, etc. where American advanced degree programs integrate Latin American poetics (pl.), francophone poetics (pl.) of Canada and African nations, etc.

(Uh, “Translation Wars. Go!")


By on 03/24/08 at 05:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Grassroots poetics was really booming 35 years ago, in hippieish circles. Some of the poets made it into the literary world. People still write a lot of that stuff, though it tends to drift into singer-songwriter folk music. The homeless newspaper in Portland publishes poetry every month, and there’s always something interesting there, along with other stuff.

By John Emerson on 03/24/08 at 07:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Not sure if that last post was meant to be a response to mine, but mine was meant to be a response to the one that preceded it—where MFA students were mentioned, etc.

As the Germans say, “na ja....”

By on 03/24/08 at 08:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"what are some of the experiences of the “grassroots poetics” (pl.) of “world Englishes”?”

That is meant to lead up to a number of rhetorical questions, right?  But on the chance that it’s a question that anecdotes can help answer, it’s pretty standard for people to use whatever their cultural background is.  For instance, around where I live, Lenelle Moise released a spoken word CD, and she uses a lot of Haitian slang.

“People still write a lot of that stuff, though it tends to drift into singer-songwriter folk music.”

Just as likely to be hip-hop these days.

By on 03/24/08 at 10:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you, RP, for your direct reply.

I’m very interested in what I would call the “English as a foreign language to other English speakers” phenomenon aka “world Englishes” and how they affect the writing (and the teaching of the writing) of poetry and other literature in English. The Haitian example is very interesting (thank you for the reference, BTW) but not exactly what I am trying to ferret out.

However, what I am looking for is, in my estimation, rarely discussed in the MFA or other English writing classroom. I was just simply hoping that someone might prove me wrong....

By on 03/24/08 at 11:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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