The SKILL of a translator poet is tested by STRICTURES.
There is as much freedom in a close version
as in a free one,
for English syntax is boundless
and likes to be challenged to change its ways,
and welcomes writers who abuse it with taste
A close rendition requires the greater imagination
yet in staying close the poet is easily seduced
by the facile surface of literality.
In close translation you soar into cloud waves
to compensate for wading in the brook’s ripples.
To be close hug the sky.
The translator poet is obliged to wear a good space suit,
have extraordinary fingers, and use them well in flight
or get ready to splash.
Robert Fitzgerald soared out of Greek dactyls into
yet flowed intimately nimble with sense
and never tumbled back onto an ugly page.
In describing the way of great Tang poets
the Chinese say they are dancing in chains.
A TRANSLATING poet must be a translator poet
with an ABC degree in the art of translatio.
In rendering poetry from nothing into something,
the translator is a poet caught in the act.
If the translator happens to be a grand poet,
like the grand Mary Herbert, Hölderlin, Pasternak, Rilke, Lowell, Marianne Moore, Pound, Pope, Quasimodo, and Elizabeth Bishop,
we are lucky.
But as Octavio Paz says: Good poets have not necessarily learned to be good poet translators.
After August 18th, 1936, when Federico García Lorca,
handcuffed to an anarchist bullfighter and a
fell to the bullets of the Black Squad at Ainadamar,
“The Fountain of Tears,”
his literary voice abroad has depended on translators,
who in giving him speech are poets
who have also mastered the art of being interlingual carriers
who experience the second of conversion.
Through them Lorca’s black moon, the cry of eclipse
from valley to valley,
his boy eating oranges on a balcony,
or dead man lying in the street whose open eyes no
one could look into
come alive in any tongue.
Translation is also an art to be learned, also by poets.
Critical for the poem is when it jumps tongues,
that second of translation truth when fire and
commingle and create.
In that second birth, in that flash of the second,
the poem becomes everything or nothing.
1 A translator operates in the UNWISE.
2 To choose the UNKNOWN path risks loss, and often gain.
The translator must gamble on gains to balance losses.
3 Clichés in the original are often fresh in the new tongue,
so give literal clichés a new printing life,
especially those from the exotic languages.
4 Indulge in literal translation of a worn cliché
so it will shine anew, and beware of a safe equivalent,
and especially a safe abstraction,
that will persist in tedious dimness.
5 Choice is also a venture against loss.
The translator begins with the advantage of selecting
the poem that welcomes translation. Her choice is a
6 In the end, with her gains she may not only come
out even but bring in Freud to wipe out her progenitor poet,
and, after the unforeseen literary genocide, without a trace
prosper in fresh freedom.
7 Yes, Shakespeare lifts his Alexandrian play from Plutarch’s Lives.
The theft is guiltless and his panoramic Antony and Cleopatra,
by unfriendly comparison, suffers in the original.
Socrates and a rabbi called Yeshua ben Yosef are playing
Weary of VIRTUE, their blood is like an empty mountain
on which hungry rain is falling.
In the desert these cynics, Socrates and Yeshua, find rain
and they translate their late night into dawn,
sun comes almost with the shock of snow,
and their witty chat is still overheard by kibitzers,
who record them
and convert talk into philosophy and religion.
This Greek and Jew leave the card table, slaphappy
sleepwalkers still in dream. Odysseus the picaro,
after shipwreck, spices in Egypt, and imprisonment
by tyrant kingdoms, preferred escape and survival,
but these wise fellows do not try to save themselves.
Socrates and the rabbi write nothing of their ventures.
They talk and are overheard. The translation is done by others
and they wander where their vagabond souls lead them.
How curiously sensational! After nights of wine and poker,
a life of lazy vagrancy and foreseen public deaths
of hemlock and cross,
the voyage of the philosopher and rabbi magician
and every fragment of their chitchat are converted
into dialogues and gospels in post-Babelean times.
Who cares how we get them,
who the copyists, who the vulgar translators?
Beautiful and imperfect,
their talk sneaks into the world’s tongues.