Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Translation and Where to Find the General Audience

A poet friend recently offered to translate my poetry, and it made me thoughtful about the whole process of translation. Some years ago I attempted translations - really they'd have to be called renderings - of Rilke's sequence of poems in French, "Les Roses." I showed them to another poet friend fluent in French. She verified my suspicion. My process had carried Rilke's poems quite far from what you might term translations. I had wanted to give voice to Rilke's vision, not just the words, in my language. I thought his intent had been to give equal weight to the music as the meaning, and to honor the almost childlike simplicity of the poems, a dimension difficult to bring from one language into another.

My friend and I agreed I should call these "renderings" or even consider them new poems. I've never published them as I've never decided which to call them or how to think about the misty realm between translation and invention.

When I read Don Paterson's comments on translation today on Aditi Machado's blog, the complexity of these issues again sprang to life. Especially this: "a poem can no more be translated than a piece of music." The interdependence of form and content is what, for me, makes poetry. So I will hang up my translator's hat, finding the bar dauntingly high. Writing one's own poetry is hard enough!


Annie Finch has written a thought-provoking and timely article over at Harriet, "Where Are You, General Audience?" The most appealing idea is that poetry can be of service, satisfying a basic human need. That we can as poets serve our communities large and small by giving voice to our common experience. One may or may not aim to write for such audiences - I don't - but the fact of being able to sometimes reach a general audience speaks to the centrality of the poetic impulse in any society.


  1. I agree with all of the concerns and questions about translations. And yet, and yet . . . I love reading translations, maybe in part because I know they are imperfect. I love the idea of looking through a window into another culture, no matter how cloudy or distorted the window might be . . .

  2. Yes, I have a shelf full of them. I can't imagine life without all my versions of Sonnets to Orpheus, of Neruda's odes and Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North. I like comparing translations, which is like many windows on different angles of the landscape. Do you translate, and if so do you work from the original or a literal translation?