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

Looking at that skin lying inert on the floor, we seek to imagine that way that it (the poem, the animal) moved when it was alive, and we might even manage to picture something of the context in which it existed. Still, the question that Ryan poses in her last line always lingers: can one ever truly know whether the images brought to mind are accurate? Does the animal move anything like the way that it moved on the steppe?

Those of course are questions that readers must ask themselves. And what about translators? Well, maybe we translators are merely taxidermists, but at least we can grant readers a precious glimpse of the unusual creatures that live outside of English. We make them come to life as best we can. Sure, Google Translate can give readers some sense of the contours of a poem's skin (sometimes, sort of), but can it make that skin stalk and pounce? Making the animal move is the tricky part.

Speaking of Ryan, the July/August issue of Poetry includes a send-up by Jason Guriel of her clever, compact poems and their popularity. The piece takes the form of a review written in 2035—a time when Ryan has come to dominate the poetry scene—of a future collected poems no longer called The Best of It, but now All of It.


  1. translators as taxidermists...interesting.

    Jeff Birkenstein

  2. Something about the taxidermy metaphor has been bothering me since posting this entry. If translators-as-taxidermists make the animal move, as I say above, doesn't that mean that they pull the pelt onto themselves and maneuver their own bodies beneath it? Morbid. And misleading. I'm liking this metaphor less and less...