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from the December 2017 issue

“Into English”: A Collection of World Literature That Debunks Age-Old Translation Myths

Reviewed by Kasia Szymanska

Books such as Into English help us to understand how translation transforms our reading and how it changes us, too.

Even though the cooked-up myth of transparent translation has been debunked many times before, anthologies of world literature and Great Books courses haven’t budged a bit.  The standard recipe goes like this: put together their English renderings and read these texts pretending they’ve been originally written in English. Surely, this is often the only way out of the monolingual impasse; otherwise Anglophone readers wouldn’t have the faintest idea that these texts are out there. By the same token, however, it keeps consolidating the belief that the medium of translation is, if not non-existent, then at least of no bearing to our interpretation of works translated from other languages.

Thankfully, this newly-released collection of essays and translated poems does an excellent job of proving otherwise. Edited by Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer, Into English is an impressive and ambitious project featuring original poems that span multiple centuries, languages, traditions and forms; three times as many voices of translators that have bent over backwards to bring the poems across into English; and their respective critics that delve into the intricacies of different tacks and textual weavings. The editors of this volume recently published by Graywolf Press, along with the twenty-five contributors who have commented on twenty-five poems and their respective three (or in one case: four) renderings, demonstrate suavely and with great panache why we should not take translated poetry at its face value. It is a genuine pleasure to read this book from its oblong cover to cover, turning its horizontally stretched pages. As the format facilitates seeing the poem lined up with its three renderings, it visually encompasses the wide spectrum of textual metamorphosis.

The idea of celebrating the multiplicity of translation and ensuing creative transformations amongst an ensemble of writers and translators has been explored in several collaborative projects over the last decades. Whereas some of them revolved around single authors (Daniel Halpern’s Dante’s Inferno, 1993; Michael Hofman and James Lasdun’s After Ovid, 1994; Paul Legault and Sharmila Cohen’s The Sonnets, 2012), others engaged more texts: for instance, in 2012, Adam Thirlwell took the concept to a completely new level in his chain translations of twelve stories by sixty-one writers, entitled Multiples. In comparison with these books, Into English turns the tables: here, it is poets and translators that judge the fruits of their colleagues’ labor as they go on display in a sort of translation slam. This is clearly calling for trouble. If not now, then on what other occasion can translators get away taking a petty revenge and needling fellow translators for their lapses?

In most instances, however, the contributors luckily don’t take this easy route and instead offer us a series of instructive close readings of what they’ve nominated as the three most interesting takes on the original poems. Admittedly, all these essays could equally work as separate case studies attached to editions of single poets. After all, such compilations of canonical writers in multiple translation exist, including Penguin’s Poets in Translation (e.g. Virgil, Dante, Baudelaire in English) or publications with “comparative translations,” as Rebecca Walkowitz calls them, sporadically released by university presses. Here the question arises: to what end are these completely different pieces put together in Into English and what do we gain from their comparative reading? What is the value of this Imaginary Museum of World Poetry in Multiple English Translations other than having convenient access to a fixed suggested reading for university curricula of literary translation courses? The book is advertised as something that “plunges the reader into a translation seminar” and “teaches us about craft.” Does Into English lend itself to a less didactic but more literary reading?

In her introduction, Martha Collins argues that “multiple translations can give us a much better sense of the poem” and refers to translation books such as Eliot Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (1987) and Douglas Hofstadter’s Le ton beau de Marot (1997) to instantiate her remark. While this is all true, both Weinberger and Hofstadter, as well as other editors of similar projects (Rosemarie Waldrop’s Reft and light, 2000) or artists multiplying different translation variants within one work (Caroline Bergvall in VIA, 2000; Sawako Nakayasu in her Promenade cycle, 2011, etc.) usually treat the originals as a starting point to tell us a much bigger story. For Weinberger, Wei’s poem experiences cubist reincarnations analogous to Wallace Stevens’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird; Hofstadter hankers for the idea of the eternal form that outlives the poem in translations (also a poignant reminder of his late wife); numerous takes on Ernst Jandl’s poems in Reft and light become multiplied patterns molding visual poetry in its own right; VIA becomes a life path (“via”), Promenade re-lives the impressionist walk on a promenade, and so on. But what unique story can Into English tell us through these translation triplets of poems by “Sappho, San Juan de la Cruz, Basho, Rilke, Akhmatova, Garcia Lorca, Szymborska, Amichai, and Adonis” written in languages ranging from “Latin to Chinese, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, and Haitian Creole”?

Something that uncannily emerges out of this “chorus in celebration of international poetry and translation” is a range of orchestrated exercises in the style of translation criticism. As we proceed, we can’t help but reflect on how different writing temperaments have left an imprint on these commentaries and to what extent the language of translation criticism becomes invested in the original metaphors and poetics as these essayists get their heads around the multiplicity of renderings. We see some authors coining their titles after original phrases or issues characteristic of the respective originals. In her “Translating Leopardi’s ‘L’infinito’: An Infinite Task,” Susan Stewart envisions translating Giacomo Leopardi’s poem on infinity as an infinite task itself. Ellen Doré Watson’s “Drummond Incommunicado” heralds how the Brazilian author’s poetry will prove “incommunicable” across languages. For J. Kates, Boris Pasternak’s translations become “A Little More than Kin.” Rebecca Seiferle confronts the redundant ornamentation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s translation with the original’s simplicity of a “Black Cactus Open in Reeds.” Johannes Göransson looks at Tomas Tranströmer’s reception and translations that can never grasp from “Behind the Borders” the original poetry written “Between the Lines.”

We see also some of them including their own renderings as personal or visceral responses to the text. Willis Barnstone gives his own translation first as an exemplum of his erotic interpretation of St. John of the Cross, becoming very possessive of the poem and measuring other translations against his passionate reading. Bits from George Kalogeris’ own translation of Cavafy’s poem resound throughout his essay like echoes of “songs replying to songs replying to songs,” blending into the continuum of the poem’s prototypes, etymological layers and renderings. Alexis Levitin weaves his translation of Sophia de Mello Breyner Andersen’s poem towards the end of the essay’s fabric, showing “a pleasure in trying but constantly falling short,” just like the poem’s heroine can only endeavor to spare her mother from “the tissue that death is binding around her.”

In other words, there seems to be more self-reflexiveness going on in this project than perhaps is visible at first glance. That other languages resist a smooth transfer “into English” becomes evident in the unique language the book itself speaks. I mean here, however, something else than occasional misspellings in foreign languages (e.g. Mond for Mohn in Celan’s title and diacritics playing havoc with Polish words)—even though these few glitches do ironically hedge the inter-lingual zone that can never be tamed and smoothly edited into the common denominator of English. But the real fun of this book kicks off elsewhere: it begins when we try matching the collected poems with the poetics of respective essays on their translation triples. We get, for instance, essays arguing for the impenetrable meaning that remains inaccessible in translation while the original poems are already all about mysteries and hidden relation of things. We thus are doomed to be kept in the dark by the translators of Stéphane Mallarmé’s scintillations and Yahya Kemal Beyatlı’s nocturnal poem, just like the originals meant to entrap their readers in a dreamy state and unsettling enigma. On the other side of the spectrum, we also follow more sober readings of the poems that different translators and their critics manage to illuminate in equally sober terms. Perhaps it is Rilke’s own laconism and rigor in German that inevitably calls for an analogously succinct and rigid language of analysis (“a sonnet wants to remain a sonnet”)? Is it Yehuda Amichai’s logical calculus in his approach to life on earth that presupposes the critic’s metaphor of a zero-sum game? Does underscoring the individual aims and personal contingencies of Anna Akhmatova’s translators simply reflect the poet’s own lyrical physiology of trees? After all, to reiterate Joanna Trzeciak Huss’ metaphor, translators are “not just trees, but maples, lindens, elms, oaks, spruces, and poplars . . .”—they all represent distinct species that read differently and speak their unique voices.

And so do their critics, as Into English tells us. While similar translation metaphors can go even further, the very tone of essays in the book also feels like they’ve become imbued with the original poetry. This tone splinters into multiple tunes and chords as we go: it can vary from Carl Philips’ slightly moralistic conclusion about translations of Virgil’s didactic poem, to Arthur Sze’s straightforward calmness in coming to terms with the “untranslability” of Taoist spontaneity and peace of mind, to Cole Swensen’s tongue-in-cheek manner of toying with Baudelaire’s pranksters. But the most palpable record of this mutual kinship is perhaps Alissa Valles’s very somatic reading of Wisława Szymborska’s “Torture(s).” Here, the critic activates all her senses and even rehearses some of the physical descriptions from the poem (“I find myself throwing up my arms as well as my hands”). She also doesn’t shy away from talking about her deeply personal responses (“I feel,” “I favor,” “I prefer”) and aesthetic biases (“rhythmically, I lean toward the latter”). In this respect, as we read along and try to follow suit, we almost feel how translation can truly “get under one’s skin.”

 And here, the question arises: would the originals generate so many interesting senses and responses had it not been for the multiple translators and their commentators? In one of my favorite essays in this volume, Stephen Tapscott argues that it is always the comparative reading of originals and their translations that makes an actual poem come into focus. The case in point is Paul Celan, whose consecutive waves of interpreters flesh out his different facets. It feels like the dynamic of plural renderings “conversing” while also distinguishing themselves from one another could as well illuminate other examples from this book. We get to see tasters of interactions between translations in recorded textual practices: John F. Deane’s translations of Marin Sorescu relied on English trots, not originals; Robin Robertson’s renderings of Tranströmer were based on previous translations; Adam J. Sorkin admits to a twinge of envy for W.D. Snodgrass’s interesting solution but ends up using a different phrase. Maybe it's not exclusively the original that triggers certain translation solutions and, if so, it shouldn’t be the only axis of comparison? When approaching a poem, translators do not only translate the original, but they also often need to “untranslate” other existing renderings. In effect, their versions are entangled in a network of different textual forces.

Tapscott also states, revisiting Walter Benjamin, that translation is inscribed in the original. Like Celan, it keeps calling and asking: “count me in” and “render me bitter.” Only thanks to translation, some hidden senses of the original are salvaged and unexpectedly come to the surface. In Sorescu’s poem “Adam,” the titular hero multiplies his harem of Eves in a surrealist act, which is said to reflect the author’s own actual liking for multiple variations of his poems published in different places.  At the same time, the poem unwittingly anticipates the surrealist technique of Into English at large: Adam’s act of multiplied creation is somewhat extended by the plural translation production of the poem “Adam” and other works in the volume. Translation thus recapitulates original themes and reading problems with greater force. For instance, Hiroaki Sato’s take on Bashō’s translations reinstates the plurality that is already inherent to the original haiku with its many-crow and single-crow versions. In the same vein, translations of Sappho’s poem discussed by Karen Emmerich bridge temporally distant worlds that are actually inscribed in the original verse: two heroines of the poem positioned towards each other within the order of “now and then” may as well comment on the reading practices of Sappho’s fragments and efforts to make sense of her past story by embellishing it nowadays. Similar self-reflexive affinities recur in cases such as César Vallejo, Xu Zhimo, Adonis and Félix Morisseu-Leroy as their translations can only become touchstones of the authors’ original intercultural standing, colonial position, attitude to the West, and attempts to modernize the local tradition in relation to other literatures. And thus, it is also no coincidence that in discussing gestures of inclusivity reflected in pronouns, Danielle Legros Georges symbolically opens the project to as many as four previously unpublished renderings of the Haitian Creole activist Morisseu-Leroy. This generous act of permitting more versions to appear despite the fixed format nicely rounds off the whole book, which itself is also about questioning the common editorial practice of limiting the number of published translation variants.

Though veering off in various directions, all these fascinating cases unchangeably remind us about one crucial thing: that the art of translation starts already within the originals and sinks into us as we engage with them. We need more books such as Into English to understand how translation transforms our reading and how it changes us, too. 

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