Teaching in Translation: Poet as Translator

By Malena Morling

Editor's note: This essay was delivered at the panel “Teaching Translation in the Workshop,” organized by Douglas Unger and with presentations by Jason Grunebaum, Becka McKay, Malena Morling, and Douglas Unger, at the Associated Writing Programs conference, March 2, 2012. Other panelists' presentations will follow.

Translation is an art of analogy, the art of finding correspondences. An art of shadows and echoes… Baudelaire said poetry is essentially analogy. The idea of universal correspondence comes from the idea that language is a microcosmos, a double of the universe. Between the language of the universe and the universe of language, there is a bridge, a link: poetry. The poet, says Baudelaire, is the translator.

—Octavio Paz

For a number of years now, I have taught a course called “Poet as Translator” with the primary intention of providing my students with the opportunity to find new ways to generate original poems in English. In this course, we read multiple translations of single poems and examine the choices and strategies of translation. We read and discuss books such as William Gass’s Reading Rilke: Reflections On the Problem of Translation and Eliot Weinberger’s and Octavio Paz’s Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, in which nineteen different translations of a single four-line poem by the Tang Dynasty poet Wang Wei are presented alongside a commentary. We also read numerous essays on the art of translation, as well as interviews with various literary translators. In addition, the students provide weekly contributions of their own translations of given poems. And these translations serve as a focal point for the larger subject of translation. We read Swedish, German, French, Italian, Turkish, Hungarian, Romanian, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese poets. Knowledge of a second language is not a requirement for this course, but it is, of course, welcome. And inevitably each time I have taught this course, there are a handful of students who are native speakers of languages other than English. I tend to adjust the reading list according to the languages we have represented. The students who have an expertise in a second language provide the rest of the class with literal versions of the original poems and present those to the class as a way to prepare everyone for translating poems.

I urge my students to provide several more or less faithful versions of the poems that they are translating. The first version is generally an “auditory” version that is done in class—we listen repeatedly to a poem read out loud in a language we don’t know and translate it strictly based on its sound. I believe that it is essential to become familiar with the original sound, music, rhythm, and tone of a given poem before attempting to produce a more faithful version of it in English. Aside from asking my students to provide a more faithful version, I also ask them to provide subsequent versions that they might call, if you will, “imitations,” or poems that are in conversation with other poems. They may entitle them “After Rilke,” “After Amichai” or, for a reverse effect, “Before Szymborska,” “Before Jimenez” etc. We also allow certain poems to travel for a while from one language to another throughout the semester. One may begin as a poem in English, get translated into Spanish, then German, and then Russian and French, then again back into English. Afterward, we look at its ongoing transformation to learn how it may have evolved into an entirely different poem, or to what degree it might still be the same poem. In addition, we also translate each other’s poems—the students each anonymously submit a poem to me and I distribute them randomly to the class and ask them to translate the poem into how they would have written it if it originally was theirs—so in a sense, it is a translation from English to English.

Does translating a poem have anything in common with editing or revising a poem? Is it possible to approach a revision the way one would a translation? How does one transform a poem without destroying its urgency and original spirit? How do you arrive at a poem in its ultimate form and visionary realization?

We also translate dreams, photographs, drawings, and paintings into poems as well as pieces of music. Also objects: a camera, a stone, a dishtowel, a ruby necklace, a bedroom, a bird, a gust of wind, etc. Jim Jarmusch's fifth “golden rule” of directing applies here:

Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.” 1

Anything we do in this course is intended to awaken the spirit of writing and to create opportunities. As Ilya Kaminsky so beautifully said, in his introduction to The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry:

We learn something new about the English language each time we confront another syntax, another grammar, another musical way of organizing silences in a mouth. By translating, we learn how the limits of our English speaking minds can be stretched to accommodate the foreign, and how thereby we are able to make our own language more beautiful—to awaken it.

I like to think of translating as a kind of catalyst for new and inventive ways of writing, as an indirect or sideways approach to the direct experience of writing poems. I like to think of it as analogous to the Taoist approach to happiness: if you move directly toward the target, you will miss it. Perhaps it is possible that our minds move too directly to our writing and therefore we often miss our poem in its utmost compelling state.

The Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer has said about translation, “A poem is a manifestation of an invisible poem that exists beyond the conventional languages. Therefore, a translation of a poem into a new language is an opportunity to attempt to realize the original (invisible) poem.”2 If that were the case, what would it mean? Would it mean that every moment of our lives here on Earth held a poem that we would be able to retrieve or translate into existence if we could only remain open enough and receptive enough to its presence?

This possibility suggests a fundamental kind of exchange, an exchange of gifts so to speak, poems as gifts, the giving and receiving of the world of images, and things, that is, in some ways at the heart of translation. As Pablo Neruda said in his memoirs:

One day, while hunting behind my house for the tiny objects and miniscule beings of my world, I discovered a hole in one of the fence boards. I looked through the opening and saw a patch of land just like ours, untended and wild. I drew back a few steps, because I had a vague feeling that something was about to happen. Suddenly a hand came through. It was the small hand of a boy my own age. When I moved closer, the hand was gone and in its place was a little white sheep.

It was a sheep made of wool that had faded. The wheels on which it had glided were gone. I had never seen such a lovely sheep. I went into my house and came back with a gift, which I left in the same place: a pinecone, partly open, fragrant and resinous, and very precious to me. I never saw the boy’s hand again. I have never again seen a little sheep like that one. I lost it in a fire. And even today, when I go past a toyshop, I look in the windows furtively. But it is no use. A sheep like that one was never made again.3

Paz is quoted in Edward Honig, The Poet's Other Voice: Conversations on Literary Translation (Amherst, Mass.:University of Massachusetts Press, 1985), p. 157.

1. Jim Jarmusch, “Jim Jarmusch's Golden Rules,” Web site of MovieMaker, January 24, 2004, moviemaker.com/directing/article/jim_jarmusch_2972/January 24, 2004.

2. Tomas Tranströmer Tolkningar, ed. Niklas Schiöler (Stockholm: Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1999). The translation is mine.

3. Neruda, Memoirs, trans. Hardie St. Martin (New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1977).


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