Translating Poetry (2001)

Alistair Paterson, ed.: Poetry NZ 23 (September 2001)

Translating Poetry

“Poetry is what gets left out in translation.”
– Robert Frost

Translating poetry is impossible. Sure, verse forms can be echoed, as can images and conceits, but the essence of any poem is bound up as much with sound as sense. There’s no obvious way of reproducing that in a foreign language.

What is translation? On a platter
A poet’s pale and glaring head,
A parrot’s speech, a monkey’s chatter,
And profanation of the dead.[1]

Having said that, even if a perfect reproduction is an impossibility, then so is a perfect poem. No piece of poetry works for all readers – none stands above all possible criticism. If that’s what you want, then you’ve missed the point.

T.S. Eliot reminds us what we should be looking for instead:

I suspect that every age has had, and will have, the same illusion concerning translations … When a foreign poet is successfully done into the idiom of our own time, we believe that he has been ‘translated’; we believe that through this translation we really at last get the original.[2]

Actually what we are getting is an addition to our own poetic tradition in the guise of a translation: “I predict in three hundred years Pound’s Cathay … will be called (and justly) a ‘magnificent specimen of XXth Century poetry’ rather than a ‘translation’. Each generation must translate for itself.” Put that way, poetic translation begins to sound respectable after all.

Be interesting … Dullness and tameness are the only irreparable faults,” said Sir Walter Scott.[3] Ezra Pound – whether working from Provençal, Latin, or Chinese – is famously inaccurate, but he isn’t dull. He adapts the poems he translates to his own purposes, and that’s what gives them life.

So, whether you call it translation, adaptation, or imitation, it appears we do have something to discuss after all. In this essay I have decided to limit myself to three examples – three extremes, each represented by one curious-if-uncanonical example.

I begin with Louis Zukofsky’s Catullus (1969), which I’ve dubbed a phonic translation. This is followed by some transcripts of Sextus Propertius from Kathy Acker’s novel Blood and Guts in High School (1978): syntactic seems the best description here. I finish by comparing an impressionistic version of Montale’s “Portami il girasole” by Kendrick Smithyman with various other translations.

Odi et amo, quare id faciam, fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

O th’hate I move love. Quarry it fact I am, for that’s so re queries.
Nescience, say th’ fiery scent I owe whets crookeder.[4]

What the …? Does this version of Catullus’s Elegy LXXXV convey any meaning whatever to the unwary reader? Louis Zukofsky explained, a little disingenuously, in his introductory note: “This translation of Catullus follows the sound, rhythm, and syntax of his Latin – tries, as is said, to breathe the ‘literal’ meaning with him.” Well might the word “literal” be put in inverted commas!

Ōdī ět ămō” – three long syllables and two short ones – has become “O th’hate I move love” – the dipthong “hate” standing in for the pure vowels “ī ět” in the Latin. I don’t quite see where “move love” comes from: it echoes the single syllable “” in the original, but perhaps Zukofsky lets the long vowel excuse this repetition – dictated, I suspect, more by sense than sound (for once). And so it continues: “quārē ĭd făcĭăm, fŏrtăssě rěquīrĭs” is echoed by the splendidly lucid “Quarry it fact I am, for that’s so re queries.”

“This way madness lies,” muttered Zukofsky’s first readers. Was it some kind of joke? The immense scale on which the enterprise had been conducted forbade them to think so: thousands and thousands of lines, every one that Catullus wrote, English’d in this bizarre fashion. One or two samples could be a jeu d’esprit. This was serious.

Nor could accusations of ignorance or inaccuracy be easily substantiated. On the back cover of the book a page of notes on Elegy LXXXV was displayed, with a perfectly competent crib (by Celia Zukofsky, the poet’s long-suffering wife), comments on grammar and accidence, and even a selection from earlier translations:

Ōdī ět ămō, quārē ĭd făcĭăm, fŏrtăssě rěquīrĭs.
I detest and I love. Why that I may do, perhaps you ask.
Nĕscĭō sěd fĭěrī sěntĭŏ ět ěxcrŭcĭŏr.
I do not know, but to become I sense and I am tortured.

I hate and love; would’st thou the reason know?
I know not, but I burn, and feel it so. [Lovelace]

I hate and love. Why? You may ask but
It beats me. I feel it done to me, and ache. [Pound]

I hate and love – ask why – I can’t explain;
I feel ’tis so, and feel it racking pain. [Lamb]

Clearly, on one level, the point of Zukofsky’s enterprise was to suggest that his reproduction of the sound of the original was no more of a paradox than these rhyming and non-rhyming versions, turning a quantitative Latin elegiac couplet (hexameter plus pentameter) into an accentual English heroic couplet.

Was it just a mind-game, though? The more one stares at Zukofsky’s English, the more strange meanings seem to swim up from underneath the syntax. “O th’hate I move love.” Is “hate” the accusative of “move,” or is it in the vocative case, the subject of the poet’s peroration? “Quarry it fact I am” sounds like compressed Elizabethan word order for “believe it to be a fact that I am [implied: moving love]” – dig out this meaning from my actions – “for that’s so re queries:” that’s the case, and that’s what I’ll reply to questions. “Nescience, say th’ fiery scent I owe whets crookeder” is a little more baffling, but we might say that the speaker’s unknowing (“nescience”) shapes (“whets”) his ends in ever more perverse directions (“crookeder”), in pursuit of the “fiery scent” to which he “owes” allegiance (presumably, his erring Lesbia). Alternatively, if we read “owe” as “own” – a Shakespearean usage – the fiery scent could be his, the spoor left behind by his simultaneous “moves” towards love and hate.

It isn’t precisely clear, but neither is it entirely unclear or beyond conjecture. It is the genius (or the curse) of English syntax to allow multiple ambiguities, and the Russian-born Zukofsky exploits this ability to the full.

The more one examines Zukofsky’s Catullus, the more admirable seem its originality and cleverness, but so majestic a disregard for readers’ sensibilities and prejudices is still a bit disturbing. It lacks, should we say, immediate sensory appeal. Not so our next author, less well-known as a poet than she deserves to be: the late, lamented Kathy Acker.

Days or months or years. At one point Janey fell in love with the Persian slave trader because she had nothing else to feel. She had to write poetry to him.
Since she had no idea how to write poetry, she copied down all she could remember every pukey bit by the Latin poet Sextus Propertius which she had been forced to translate in high school.

On the desire for love

Slave Trader first with his lousy me imprisoned eyes
diseased by no before wants.
Then my strong he threw down the drain individuality
and head forced into the dust LOVE’S feet,
until me he had taught undiseased to be evil,
him evil, and without to live plan.[5]

Kathy’s heroine, Janey, after a series of graphically described (and pictured) sexual adventures, has been sold into white slavery and is living in an apartment in New York, being trained simultaneously in the Persian language and the arts of prostitution. Janey’s choice of Sextus Propertius as a model presumably echoes her creator’s own poetic dependence on Ezra Pound. For a twentieth-century English poet intent on innovation, where else is there to start? Nor is (implicitly) comparing the old Fascist with a Persian slave trader entirely coincidental either, one fears.

To see what she’s done with this rather unpromising material, let’s look at one of the poems in more detail:

To Slave trader

Are you really crazy, doesn’t you my love mean anything to?
Do you think I’m than icy more frigid Illyria?
To you so valuable, whoever she is, does that girl seem
That without me controlled by the winds to go you want?
You hear can the raging of oceans under bridges,
brave? on hard cold floor how to sleep you can know?
You, delicate and scared, survive chills and frost
you can, not used to the slightest snow? (105)

Tunc igitur demens? nec te mea cura moratur?
Are you really crazy, doesn’t you my love mean anything to?
An tibi sum gelida vilior Illyria?
Do you think I’m than icy more frigid Illyria?
Et tibi jam tanti, quicunque est iste, videtur,
To you so valuable, whoever she is, does that girl seem
Ut sine me vento quolibet ire velis?
That without me controlled by the winds to go you want?
Tunc audire potes vesani murmura ponti,
You hear can the raging of oceans under bridges,
Fortis et in dura nave jacere potes?
brave? on hard cold floor how to sleep you can know?
Tu pedibus teneris positas calcare pruinas,
You, delicate and scared, survive chills and frost
Tu potes insolitas, Cynthia, ferre nives?[6]
you can, not used to the slightest snow?

Yes, it’s as simple as that. Those splendid shipboard ll.5-8, so reminiscent of Pound’s “The Seafarer” (1912): “… Coldly afflicted, / My feet were by frost benumbed. / Chill its chains are …/…I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea …” are the serendipitous result of imitating the word order of the original Latin. “You hear can the raging of oceans under bridges, / brave? on hard cold floor how to sleep you can know?” There is something Anglo-Saxon about it, something simultaneously disturbing and satisfying to the jaded modern ear. It’s a little like those gnomic early Auden invocations: “Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle;” “To ask the hard question is simple.” Of course, it’s also a bit hit-and-miss:

Nam me non ullae poterunt corrumpere [tædæ,]
Me no one will take away from you
Quin ego, vita, tuo limine acerba querar.
but I, life, in front of your house bitter puss will keep screaming
Nec me deficiet nautas rogitare citatos;
and not I may fail every sailor to ask passing-by,
Dicite, quo portu clausa puella mea est?
‘Tell me, in what port in prison my boy is?’
Et dicam: Licet Atraciis considat in oris,
and I will cry, ‘It’s possible on Atracian he’s set down shores
Et licet Eleis, illa futura mea est.
or it’s possible in Hylaeia , he my future is.’

“Me no one will take away from you” is pretty limp, but Kathy sees that too – why else that lovely “bitter puss” for “acerba” (“crabbed fellows” is Lewis and Short’s suggestion for the masculine plural[7])? The litany of strange names, too: Atracian shores, Hylaeia, frigid Illyria, all assist her in her clear aim to systematically derange our senses (and tenses) – any and all familiar expectations, really. Pound’s Propertius was an anti-imperialist; Kathy Acker’s is a bisexual rebel (even the name of her character “Janey” is meant to recall Jean Genet).

Is this a legitimate form of translation, of poetry? What other criterion of judgment can one admit but success? Kathy Acker’s Slave Trader poems have moments of profound poetic seriousness, however disturbing their means of production.

Portami il girasole ch’io lo trapianti
Bring me the sunflower so that I can transplant it
nel mio terreno bruciato dal salino,
in my soil burnt by salt air,
e mostri tutto il giorno agli azzurri specchianti
and show all day to the mirroring blues
del cielo l’ansietà del suo volto giallino.
of the sky the anxiety of its yellow face.

Tendono alla chiarità le cose oscure,
Dark things tend towards clarity,
si esauriscono i corpi in un fluire
bodies consume themselves in a flowing
di tinte: queste in musiche. Svanire
of colours: these in music. Vanishing
è dunque la ventura delle venture.
is thus the chance of chances.

Portami tu la pianta che conduce
Bring me the plant that leads
dove sorgono bionde trasparenze
where blonde transparencies rise
e vapora la vita quale essenza;
and life evaporates like spirit;
portami il girasole impazzito di luce.[8]
bring me the sunflower crazed with the light.

This celebrated anthology piece from Ossi di Seppia [Cuttlefish Bones] (1925), Eugenio Montale’s first book of poems, has been translated a good many times. I fear that I’ll have to look at no fewer than three of these in order to make my point. The first is by George Kay:

Bring me the sunflower for me to transplant
to my own ground burnt by the spray of sea,
and show all day to the imaging blues
of sky that golden-faced anxiety.

Things hid in darkness lean towards the clear,
bodies consume themselves in a flowing
of shades: and they in varied music – showing
the chance of chances is to disappear.

So bring me the plant that takes you right
where the blond hazes shimmering rise
and life fumes to air as spirit does;
bring me the sunflower crazy with the light.[9]

The first thing to note is that Kay tries to preserve the rhyme scheme of the original in all but the first stanza, which explains some of his infelicities of syntax: “spray of sea” in l.2. is not really acceptable under that old Poundian rule (“nothing that you couldn’t, … in the stress of some emotion, actually say[10]). There are also too many lines like l.5: “Things hid in darkness lean towards the clear.” A more idiomatic English would insist on using “hidden” and “clarity” here, just as it would refuse to admit “takes you right / where” in ll.9-10 – a redundant expression supplied purely for the rhyme.

The second consideration concerns the actual meaning of the poem – what is it about? Montale seems to be saying that the “anxiety” of the sunflower’s face mirrors a general tendency in things to seek non-existence: “Svanire / è dunque la ventura di venture.” Kay’s poem says that dark things seek to expose themselves to “the clear,” bodies to turn into shades, shades into music – a series of Ovidian metamorphoses which remind one more of photosynthesis than non-entity. Generally, it’s a more cheerful piece, without the unsettling sense of instability which undermines the original.

Are these just quibbles? Let’s look at another English translation, this one by Kendrick Smithyman, whose knowledge of Italian came mainly from cribs:


Bring me the sunflower so I can plant it
in my ground burnt as may be with sea salt,
that all day it display to the blue mirror-
wise sky anxious concern of its yellow face.

Obscure things are impelled towards clarity,
bodies exhaust themselves in fluent change
of shades; these, in music. To disappear
is then the chanciest of chances.

Bring me the plant which may lead us
where the fair rise and are translucent,
where life delivers itself into finest spirit:
bring me the sunflower crazed with light.[11]

It was a wise choice to ignore the rhymes, I think. Certainly the diction here is far less strained and distorted. Oddities and departures may therefore be examined on their own merits: “burnt as may be by sea salt” – in the original it is burnt; there is no doubt about the fact. Ah, but of course the mirroring is conditional upon its being transplanted, so perhaps Kendrick means to bring in that conditional tense a little early. Certainly the relentless enjambment of the lines makes us a little “anxious” about their ability to resolve the syntactic pattern.

What else? “To disappear / is then the chanciest of chances.” This is a crux: if we read it “chance of chances” (like Kay), we are seeing it as good luck; if we read it as “venture of ventures” (like Arrowsmith below) we are seeing it as a thrilling enterprise; if (like Kendrick) we read it “chanciest of chances,” we are seeing it as a terrible risk. And so the flower, for him, becomes something which may lead us – not does lead us – to that happy land where “the fair rise and are translucent.” This may not be Montale’s poem exactly, but it is a poem: an edgy, anxious poem, a little dubious about its quest for clarity and, ultimately, disappearance (non-being, even).

Finally, we come to a translation by the doyen of English-language Montale scholars, William Arrowsmith:

Bring me the sunflower, I’ll plant it here
in my patch of ground scorched by salt spume,
where all day long it will lift the craving
of its golden face to the mirroring blue.

Dark things are drawn to brighter,
bodies languish in a flowing
of colors, colors in musics. To vanish,
then, is the venture of ventures.

Bring me the flower that leads us out
where blond transparencies rise
and life evaporates as essence.
Bring me the sunflower crazed with light.[12]

“To die must be an awfully big adventure.” This is Montale as Peter Pan. The sunflower’s face is now “craving,” not made anxious by, the blue sky, and “to vanish” is the “venture of ventures.” You’ve always wanted to meet a nice, transparent blond? Well, just follow the yellow crazed flower.

Yes, I know that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, and I do see that Arrowsmith’s is a nice clean translation, with fewer awkwardnesses of diction or syntax than either of his two predecessors, but it seems to me profoundly false to the spirit of Montale’s poem. There’s no “anxiety,” no problems left – the salt-sown garden now seems positively fertilised by “spume,” and the “mirroring blue” has become a goal, not a threat.

Walter Benjamin’s view of the translator [was] one who elicits, who conjures up by virtue of unplanned echo a language nearer to the primal unity of speech than is either the original text or the tongue into which he is translating … this is why, says Benjamin, ‘the question of the translatability of certain works would remain open even if they were untranslatable for man’.[13]

The point I am trying to make about these three versions of Montale is that even the most trivial choices of words have clear implications on the English poems which result. George Kay’s is perhaps too clumsy to justify his decision to reproduce the poem’s form so closely, but I would suggest that it also fails to interpret the “transplanted” imagery for us in any clear way. “Things hid in darkness lean towards the clear” should apply to his poem as much as to Montale’s sunflower. To be sure, the original is not an easy poem, but Kay’s translation is no more interpretative than the crib he supplied for The Penguin Book of Italian Verse (1958).

Smithyman, on the other hand, preempts the poem to his own purposes from the start. “Bodies exhaust themselves in fluent / change of shades; these, in music” is a lovely way of expressing the idea of dying into richer life, things exhausting themselves to achieve fluency.

Arrowsmith’s poem is clear enough, but resolves things singly and simply where it should suggest complexities. A sunflower is, after all, a pretty hackneyed image if the poet isn’t going to do anything more interesting with it than that.

Walter Benjamin’s essay on translation concludes by suggesting that the translator, in the act of lifting a work from one set of wording to another, can inhabit momentarily the transcendent realm between languages, repairing the ancient rift of Babel. This may seem a trifle fanciful, but what Zuk, Kathy and Kendrick all have in common is a sense of where their primary duty lies: to their own poem, not to some fancied ideal of fidelity or literalism.

Are they accordingly traitors to the originals they purport to translate? No, because (as Walter Benjamin reminds us), in the process of translation those poems have had to revisit the zone beyond language where creation begins. Like our thoughts, our dreams, poems are translated into language rather than originating in it. Kathy Acker’s Janey learns how to write poetry by imitating Propertius as blindly as possible – Zukofsky achieves the strangeness and dislocation he seeks by defamiliarising the sound-systems we so complacently inhabit – Smithyman works through Montale’s meaning to express what he himself would mean were he to write such a poem. Each, in the process, is forced to construct a new self … or significantly enlarge the old one.


1. Vladimir Nabokov, “On Translating ‘Eugene Onegin,’” Poems and Problems, 1970 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1972) 175.
2. T. S. Eliot, Introduction to Ezra Pound, Selected Poems, 1928 (London: Faber, 1971) 14.
3. Edgar Johnson, Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown, 2 vols (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1970) 1: 403.
4. Celia and Louis Zukofsky, trans., Catullus (Gai Valeri Catulli Veronensis Liber) (London: Cape Goliard, 1969) n.p.
5. Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School, 1978 (London: Picador, 1984) 101.
6. Sex. Aurelii Propertii, Elegiarum, I: VIII. – Ad Cynthiam; 1-26, in Gulielmus Sidney Walker, ed., Corpus Poetarum Latinorum, 1827 (Londini: Apud C. Knight, 1835) 210.
7. Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary; Founded on Andrews’ Edition of Freund’s Latin Dictionary, 1879 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975) 21.
8. Eugenio Montale, Tutte le Poesie, a cura di Giorgio Zampa, 1984 (Milano: Mondadori, 1991) 34.
9. Eugenio Montale, Selected Poems, trans. George Kay, 1964, Penguin Modern European Poets (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969) 25.
10. The Letters of Ezra Pound: 1907-1941, ed. D. D. Paige (London: Faber, 1951) 91. [My italics].
11. Kendrick Smithyman, Versions from Italian: Campana to Montale (1993) [unpublished].
12. Eugenio Montale, Cuttlefish Bones, trans. William Arrowsmith (New York: Norton, 1992) 51.
13. George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1976) 318.


Poetry NZ 23 (2001): 125-34.

[3406 wds]

Poetry NZ 23 (2001)

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