On Poetry in Translation

By Susan Harris

The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry has been out for a couple of weeks now, and as we await the critical response, I think of the most satisfying poetry review I read last year: Jon Stallworthy, writing in the TLS of December 4, 2009, on Clare Cavanagh's translation of Adam Zagajewski's Eternal Enemies. Stallworthy draws an ingenious parallel between the authority and urgency of Zagajewski's "Try to Praise the Mutilated World" and Auden's "Musée des Beaux Art"--exactly the sorts of "correspondences in the air" that Ilya describes in his introduction to the anthology--and notes the poems' common vocabularies and variable line-lengths. And then the critic, wonderfully, observes, "One cannot pay Clare Cavanagh a greater compliment than to say her English poem does not suffer by comparison with Auden's." It is not the heady praise here that I find so gratifying, but the description of what's being compared: the translator's poem--not her translation, not Zagajewski's poem, but her poem. Stallworthy has not only foregrounded Cavanagh's work, but is also addressing what very few reviewers seem to recognize, let alone acknowledge: the translation as a new work in itself, rather than a transcription of the original.  The review ends with an appreciation of "the translator's English free verse, in its happy marriage to the poet's European themes."  To which I respond by saluting this reviewer's sensibility, in its happy coupling with its subject.



Congratulations on the anthology, which I have ordered. Other poetries, whether translated as they are, or recreated as they are to be, expand our understanding.


I’m about halfway through the Ecco anthology, and one of the things I’m struck by is how many of the translators are world-class poets themselves: Czeslaw Milosz, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell… I believe Milosz has more work included than any other poet (don’t have my notes with me) and he’s brought some other Polish poets with him. I was also pleased to see some of Robert Lowell’s free translations or “imitations.”

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