Monday, August 16, 2010

Ryan on Translation

Image courtesy of Jeff Birkenstein

As I was leafing through Kay Ryan's The Best of It again this morning, I rediscovered a little poem of hers that offers a metaphor on poetic translation which seems to me neither dismissive of the endeavor nor blind to its faults. In the poem, fittingly enough called "Poetry in Translation," Ryan describes an animal skin spread on the floor in such a way that it comes out shaped like the U.S.:

     One meditates
     upon a
     Florida-like flap—
     a forward leg
     which ran
     the Russian steppe

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Translation and the Laureateship

W. S. Merwin / Image courtesy of inkywretch

As I learned last week (perhaps belatedly) from the Poetry Foundation’s podcast Poetry Off the Shelf, W.S. Merwin has been named as the next U.S. Poet Laureate. He’ll take up the post this fall. At one point in the interview portion of the podcast, Merwin says that poetry is something we should naturally enjoy reading and hearing:
I really believe … that everybody really loves poetry. And if they don’t think they do, it’s because something has happened to deprive them of it. I think that just as children love to draw and to dance and to sing and do all those things, they also love poetry.
I hope he’s right. In fact, that hope is what keeps me teaching and translating poetry. And students who take my poetry courses often tell me they are pleasantly surprised that studying poetry isn’t as painful as they expected it would be. So there’s reason to be hopeful.

American readers of Russian poetry also know Merwin through the translations of Osip Mandelstam that he produced in the early 1970s with Clarence Brown. Like most Russian poets, even those writing nowadays, Mandelstam wrote formal poetry, but Brown and Merwin translated his poems into free verse. As a translator myself, I probably wouldn’t have made the same choice, but I don’t see it as an error. On the contrary, their versions of Mandelstam are marvelous. Brown and Merwin’s free verse (and I suspect we can credit Merwin alone with the sound of the poems) comes alive in English in a completely singular way. As an example, consider the last few lines of Mandelstam’s  1915 poem “Insomnia. Homer. Taut sails…” Бессонница...»), whose literal meaning would be something like this:
… And behold, Homer is silent,
and the Black Sea, orating, groans
and with a terrible din approaches the headboard.
(… И вот, Гомер молчит, / И море черное, витийствуя, шумит / И с тяжким грохотом подxодит к изголовью.)