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An excerpt from Sympathy for the Traitor by Mark Polizzotti

Chapter 7: Verse and Controverse

“For a poet, translating is like devouring one's own brains,” wrote Anna Akhmatova.1 Though her terms might have been more ghoulish than most, she was expressing a common attitude: that for many poets, translation is the great bane. They dread that some clunky wordsmith will either run roughshod over their meter and rhyme or else adhere to them so doggedly that the airborne original becomes a leaden, earthbound thing. If the Bible provided scholarly translation with the primary battleground for its holy wars, for many years now the bone of contention among humanists has been verse. Poetry—precisely “what gets lost in translation,” according to Robert Frost's pithy, much-misquoted gibe2—remains for many the ultimate test of a translator's mettle, not only because its technical features and concision leave little room for error but also because the genre has long held an unassailable position at the crest of the literary hill. (Until the seventeenth century, those spoiling for a fight about translation had as their choices the sacred texts and classical poetry; literary prose in the modern sense barely existed, and in any case was strictly infra dig.)

“The prose writer, the novelist, the philosopher, can be translated, and often are, without too much damage,” Paul Valéry advanced rather snottily, but “a true poet is strictly untranslatable.” And yet it has often been true poets themselves who have produced the most beautiful and enduring translations of verse, in some cases renderings so intensely personal as to break through the constraints that would limit them.* “The great translations,” observed Kenneth Rexroth, “survive into our time because … the translator's act of identification was so complete that he spoke with the veridical force of his own utterance, conscious of communicating directly to his own audience.” Such translations soar beyond strict considerations of form—considerations that have long dominated the debate over whether poetry is or is not translatable, and that ultimately mire it in technicalities.3

The reason why technicalities enter into the debate so readily is no mystery: more than with any other type of literature, the substance of poetry is tightly bound with its formal properties, regardless of how “free” the verse purports to be. (The rhythms and cadences of Walt Whitman, or e. e. cummings, are no less considered and purposeful than those of Milton.) And this immediately embroils the translator in a unique set of questions regarding rhyme, meter, and genre, as well as what those genres mean, rhetorically and culturally, between two languages. When translating a sonnet from French to English, should you retain the twelve syllables per line common in French prosody, or transpose to the more familiar ten of the English tradition? What to do about the deployment of “masculine” and “feminine” rhymes, or indeed about rhyme at all? Some translators retain at least some sort of rhyme scheme, even if the meaning has to be altered somewhat, while others find blank or free verse a less compromising medium in the target. In my own case, I've had the disorienting experience, when translating poems by Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Proust, of starting out in free verse and having the English text, like the planchette on a Ouija board, move me inexorably toward at least some use of rhyme.

(That said, let's not lean too heavily on the distinction between poetry and prose, or their relative levels of stylistic difficulty. When Flaubert rhapsodized about inventing a writing style “as rhythmical as verse and as precise as science,” he meant merely that he wanted to infuse prose with the same values as those traditionally ascribed to poetry. “As soon as a novel becomes as well written as poetry,” writes Adam Thirlwell, “as soon as style is everything, then the translation of a novel becomes not a peripheral problem, but a central one”4—becomes, in other words, just as thorny for fiction as for a sonnet. We'll leave aside for the moment that no translation of a literary text is ever a peripheral problem.)

The writer and critic Edouard Roditi, who translated Yaşar Kemal's Memed, My Hawk, wrote that “the spirit of poetry resides entirely in its body; the more carefully a translator observes all the linguistic, grammatical, rhetorical and narrative details of a poem, the more truly he renders its spirit when he meticulously reconstructs its body in another language.” This is, on the surface of it, an honorable proposition, one that would respect the integrity of form and content. Very often, however, it leads to wooden re-creations of a lively original, and W. S. Merwin is no doubt closer to the truth when he cautions that the formal elements of poetry “are embedded in the original language. … You can suggest, you can torment your own language into repeating them, but even if you do, you're not going to get the form doing in your language what it did in the original.” Language changes, usage changes, and so do readers' ways of receiving a text. The classical meters of old, if reproduced in the modern context, quickly lose their stateliness to become merely, in Yves Bonnefoy's words, “faked or dispirited regularity.” Merwin again: “I have to feel that I have a sense of what makes that poem exciting in the original. I don't want to mislead about the real meaning of the poem. But I want it to be a poem that has that same kind of—I don't know—drama, that same kind of … urgency. It won't be exactly the urgency. But if it doesn't have any urgency, if it's flat, it doesn't matter whether it rhymes or has meter or anything. You've lost the poem.”5

To some extent, the argument can be situated between translators (or poets who translate) and poets who consider themselves exclusively “source” authors, for whom the exact characteristics of their poems are not to be tampered with. The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky expressed this intransigence to Merwin when he declared that “Russian poetry is sacred,” meaning that meter and rhyme must be scrupulously preserved in translation. (“Oh sure, just like all other poetry,” replied Merwin, unimpressed.) Without revisiting what I've already said about giving translations voice and flavor, I'll simply add that this seems to go double for poetry, where the very concentration and formalism of the genre demands even greater investment of poetic sensibility to keep the work alive. The translator Clarence Brown noted that translators of “poetic distinction” ultimately translate not into the target language but into a language of their own. “Mandelstam … translated Petrarch not into Russian, but into Mandelstam. … [Robert] Lowell does not translate into English, but into Lowell.”6


In 1992, the scholar Douglas Robinson, reaching back to the ur-debate between saints, traced out two distinct lineages: an “impersonal, perfectionist, and systematic” one descended from Augustine, and a series of “mavericks”—such as Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell, and Vladimir Nabokov—descended from Jerome. As Robinson noted of the latter group, “one of the great temptations of mainstream Western translatology” has been to eliminate these “quirky, crotchety hotheads” from the gene pool.7

Pound would no doubt top pretty much anyone's list of quirky hotheads. Deeply rooted in American “kulchur” and its idioms, he nonetheless did more than almost any other poet of his time to incorporate vast swaths of lyrical tradition from myriad languages and epochs into the grand current of modern American verse, revitalizing that current as he went. Like Goethe, he believed in the power of translation to energize the target culture, arguing that “a great age of literature is perhaps always a great age of translations; or follows it.”8 And just as Pound, a prodigious mimic, drew on snippets of world literature to shape and inform his own work, the epic Cantos being the most notable example, so he combed through vast literary resources for his translations, at times adapting archaic English phrasings to convey the archaisms of Italian poets such as Cavalcanti, at others adopting a neutral modern diction to suggest antiquity through timelessness.

No doubt one of Pound's most contentious translation efforts remains his versions of classical Chinese poems, published in the 1915 volume Cathay. According to the subtitle, the collection was adapted for the Most Part from the Chinese of Rihaku [Li Po], from the Notes of the Late Ernest Fenollosa, and the Decipherings of the Professors Mori and Ariga. The fact that Pound knew “less than nothing of Chinese” (in the words of Kenneth Rexroth, who nevertheless deemed Cathay Pound's finest work),9 and relied instead on Fenollosa's scholarship and his own instincts, has drawn scornful harrumphs from a century's worth of critics, but no doubt it also accounts largely for the moving delicacy of his renderings. Let the pedants yowl: many are they who feel Pound captured the spirit of Li Po and Confucius far more closely and gracefully than the rows of professors hewing to their ideograms. Indeed, one of the celebrated paradoxes of translation is that these free adaptations in some ways ended up being more literal than many learned versions; at least one scholar has demonstrated that, despite Pound's lack of Chinese, he “intuitively corrected mistakes in the Fenollosa manuscript.”10

Let's put this intuition to the test. One of the most celebrated poems in Cathay is “The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter.” Before considering Pound's translation of the poem, and a few other, more “faithful,” ones, we'll start with his source, the crib by Fenollosa:

My hair was at first covering my brows

Breaking flower branches I was frolicking in front of our gate.

When you came riding on bamboo stilts

And going about my seat, you played with the blue plums.

Together we dwelt in the same Chokan village.

And we two little ones had neither mutual dislike or suspicion. (no evil thoughts or bashfulness)

At fourteen I became your wife—

Bashful I never opened my face (I never laughed)

but lowering my head I always faced toward a dark wall ashamed to see anybody—she sat in dark corners

And though a thousand times called, not once did I look around …

At fifteen I first opened my brows

(i.e., I first knew what married life meant now she opens her eyebrows.

i.e.. smooths out the wrinkles between her brows. She now began to understand love, and to be happy.)

And so I desired to live and die with you even after death, I wish to be with you even as dust, and even as ashes—partially together.

I always had in me the faith of holding to pillars

And why should I think of climbing the husband looking out terrace.

At 16, however, you had to go far away.

(both yen & yo are adj. expressing form of water passing over hidden rocks)

(towards Shoku passing through the difficult place of Yentotai at Kuto.)

The ship must be careful of them in May.

Monkeys cry sorrowful above heaven.

Your footsteps, made by your reluctant departure, in front of our gate one by one have been grown up into green moss.

These mosses have grown so deep that it is difficult to wipe them away.

And the fallen leaves indicate autumn wind which (to my thought only) appears to come earlier than usual.

It being already August, the butterflies are yellow.

And yellow as they are, they fly in pairs on the western garden grass.

Affected by this, (absence) my heart pains.

The longer the absence lasts, the deeper I mourn, my early fine pink face, will pass to oldness, to my great regret.

If you be coming down as far as the Three Narrows sooner or later,

Please let me know by writing

For I will go out to meet, not saying that the way be far,

And will directly come to Chofusha.

From these notes, Pound made this:

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead

I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.

You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,

You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.

And we went on living in the village of Chōkan:

Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.

I never laughed, being bashful.

Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.

Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,

I desired my dust to be mingled with yours

Forever and forever, and forever.

Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed

You went into far Ku-tō-en, by the river of swirling eddies,

And you have been gone five months.

The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.

By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,

Too deep to clear them away!

The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.

The paired butterflies are already yellow with August

Over the grass in the West garden;

They hurt me. I grow older.

If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,

Please let me know beforehand,

And I will come out to meet you

As far as Chō-fū-Sa.

Limiting ourselves to the final lines of the poem, here is a version by the poet Witter Bynner from 1929:

And now, in the Eighth-month, yellowing butterflies

Hover, two by two, in our west-garden grasses. …

And, because of all this, my heart is breaking

And I fear for my bright cheeks, lest they fade.

Oh, at last, when you return through the three Pa districts,

Send me a message home ahead!

And I will come and meet you and will never mind the distance,

All the way to Chang-fêng Sha.

and a more recent one (1976) by Wai-lim Yip, who numbers the stanzas as if they were mathematical propositions:

23. In the eighth month, butterflies come

24. In pairs over the grass in the West Garden.

25. These smite my heart.

26. I sit down worrying and youth passes away.

27. When eventually you would come down from the Three Gorges.

28. Please let me know ahead of time.

29. I will meet you, no matter how far,

30. Even all the way to Long Wind Sand.

While it is hardly making it new to say that Pound's is more expressive, more like the letter that a pining young wife would, in fact, write to her absent husband, there are two notable facts that emerge from comparing these versions. One has to do with economy, how much more Pound says with less, and how this affects the reading experience. Rather than spell out the distance the merchant's wife is willing to travel for a brief reunion (Bynner's never mind the distance, Yip's no matter how far), Pound simply lets the phrase As far as Chō-fū-Sa spell it out for him. Western readers likely don't know how far Chō-fū-Sa actually is, but we know that it's far enough, and by keeping it simple, Pound invites us into the intimacy of that shared knowledge. The second has to do with the use of place-names. As with Patrick Modiano's precise enumerations of obscure Parisian sites, Pound here creates a sense of “Chineseness” that makes no untoward demands of finely crafted English usage—unlike Yip, whose slightly stilted syntax and artificially translated locales makes the poem feel more foreign and distant, and therefore less impactful, because less real: we can believe that a place in China is called Chō-fū-Sa, but not Long Wind Sand (just as in France, one might visit the town of Eaubonne, but not Goodwater). Taking our cue from George Steiner, we can say that Pound created not the more accurate rendition but the better illusion, one that adheres more closely than other versions to our Western conception of what Chinese poetry is. Writes Steiner, “Pound can imitate and persuade with utmost economy not because he or his reader knows so much but because both concur in knowing so little”11—recalling Eliot's famous characterization of Pound as “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time.”

Pound himself made no claim to fidelity—we are, after all, talking about the man who named a Confucian protagonist “Hep-Cat Chung” and gave Sextus Propertius a Frigidaire—preferring instead to concentrate not on “what a man sez, but wot he means … the implication of the word.”12 In this regard, “The River Merchant's Wife” certainly contains its share of liberties and insertions—in the first two stanzas alone, comparing Pound's version with his source notes, we can highlight still cut straight, pulling flowers, playing horse, My Lord you—but each of these helps create a linguistic world both reminiscent of the one evoked by Li Po and emitting a freshness all its own. As with Mandelstam and Lowell in Clarence Brown's example, Pound ultimately translated into Pound.

An equally controversial book is Lowell's Imitations, which has been dividing readers since its publication sixty years ago. Stating from the outset that he has “dropped lines, moved lines, moved stanzas, changed images and altered meter and intent,” Lowell defended his approach to translation on the grounds that what he dismissively called the “reliable” method “gets the literal meaning but misses the tone, and … in poetry tone is of course everything.” In this, Lowell was echoing translators such as Edward FitzGerald and the seventeenth-century English poet Abraham Cowley, who prefaced his translations of Pindar by noting, “I have left out, and added what I please; nor make it so much my aim to let the reader know precisely what [Pindar] spake, as what was his way and manner of speaking.”13

Not surprisingly, what the critic D. S. Carne-Ross called Lowell's propensity to “take possession of the original and dominate it” attracted its share of critics. One commentator railed against Lowell for having, in one translation, made Anna Akhmatova “say things profoundly offensive to her memory” and, in another, turned François Villon into “Mickey Spillane.” Lowell himself, however, viewed his work more as a way of honoring the creative possibilities inherent in translation, and his own remarks suggest respect rather than domination. “The whole point of translating,” he told Carne-Ross, “is to bring into English something that didn't exist in English before.”14

As it happens, both Lowell and Pound had a go at Arthur Rimbaud's poem “Au cabaret vert,” and it is enlightening to compare the results. First, in a more literal version (by Wallace Fowlie, whose translations epitomize the “reliable” sort Lowell kicks against), the poem reads:

For a week my boots had been torn

By the pebbles on the roads. I was getting into Charleroi.

—At the Cabaret-Vert: I asked for bread

And butter, and for ham that would be half chilled.

Happy, I stretched out my legs under the green

Table. I looked at the very naïve subjects

Of the wallpaper.—And it was lovely,

When the girl with huge tits and lively eyes,

—She's not one to be afraid of a kiss!—

Laughing brought me bread and butter,

Warm ham, in a colored plate.

Lowell, less concerned with scene setting than with Rimbaud's youthful bravado—his tone—strikes a more casual note by introducing bits of slang not found in the original:

For eight days I had been knocking my boots

on the road stones. I was entering Charleroi.

At the Green Cabaret, I called for ham,

half cold, and a large helping of tartines.

Happy, I kicked my shoes off, cooled my feet

under the table, green like the room, and laughed

at the naïve Belgian pictures on the wall.

But it was terrific when the house-girl

with her earth-mother tits and come-on eyes—

no Snow Queen having cat-fits at a kiss—

brought me tarts and ham on a colored plate.

Pound, finally, emphasizes Rimbaud's teenage impatience by stripping the poem to its essentials, while nonetheless preserving flashes of a rhyme scheme:

Wearing out my shoes, 8th day

On the bad roads, I got into Charleroi.

Bread, butter, at the Green Cabaret

And the ham half cold.

Got my legs stretched out

And was looking at the simple tapestries,

Very nice when the gal with the big bubs

And lively eyes,

Not one to be scared of a kiss and more,

Brought the butter and bread with a grin

And the luke-warm ham on a colored plate.

By shedding syllables like so much scurf, Pound's version stresses the sense of urgency, even in repose, that characterizes Rimbaud's road songs. The language here is reduced almost to shorthand—a far cry from the original's alexandrines, and yet appropriate: if Rimbaud were alive today, he might very well write rock songs (think Jim Carroll or Patti Smith) instead of sonnets.


But is it translation? At the other end of the spectrum waits the glowering visage of the self-styled “Vladimir Adamant Nabokov,” the dean of nondeviationists, swishing his Augustinian hick'ry stick at rascally Hieronymites like Pound and Lowell. “We must dismiss, once and for all the conventional notion that a translation ‘should read smoothly’ and ‘should not sound like a translation,’ ” he wrote. “In point of fact, any translation that does not sound like a translation is bound to be inexact upon inspection; while, on the other hand, the only virtue of a good translation is faithfulness and completeness.” In the frequently cited opening of his poem “On Translating Eugene Onegin” (1954), Nabokov skewered “this pathetic business of translating”:

What is translation? On a platter

A poet's pale and glaring head,

A parrot's screech, a monkey's chatter,

And profanation of the dead.

Earlier, he identified the three deadly sins of translation: ignorance, omission, and, worst of all, “vilely beautifying” a masterpiece to suit public taste—“a crime, to be punished by the stocks, as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.”15


*Indeed, Alexander Tytler believed that “none but a poet can translate a poet.” A very short shortlist of such poets—limiting the scope to twentieth- and twenty-first-century Anglophones, and leaving out those already mentioned in the introduction—would include David Antin, Mary Jo Bang, Paul Blackburn, Robert Bly, Anne Carson, John Ciardi, James Dickey, Robert Duncan, David Gascoyne, Donald Hall, Seamus Heaney, Richard Howard, Galway Kinnell, Kenneth Koch, Stanley Kunitz, Rika Lesser, Denise Levertov, James Merrill, W. S. Merwin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ron Padgett, Robert Pinsky, Adrienne Rich, May Sarton, Charles Simic, May Swenson, Nathaniel Tarn, Allen Tate, Charles Tomlinson, Eliot Weinberger, Richard Wilbur, W. C. and C. K. Williams …

1. Anna Akhmatova, quoted in Hanne, “Metaphors,” 217.

2. The actual quote is: “I like to say, guardedly, that I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.” Robert Frost, Conversations on the Craft of Poetry (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1961), 7.

3. Paul Valéry, “A Solemn Address,” quoted by Jackson Mathews, “Third Thoughts on Translating Poetry,” in Brower, On Translation, 74; Rexroth, “Poet as Translator,” 171.

4. Thirlwell, Delighted States, 5.

5. Edouard Roditi, “The Poetics of Translation,” Poetry 60 (1942), 33; W. S. Merwin, interview by Christopher Merrill (2001), in TTP, 466–467; Yves Bonnefoy, “On the Translation of Form in Poetry,” ibid., 468.

6. Merwin, interview with Merrill, 466–467; Clarence Brown, introduction to Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, in TTP., 464–465.

7. Douglas Robinson, “The Ascetic Foundations of Western Translatology,” in TTP, 537–538.

8. Ezra Pound, “Notes on Elizabethan Classicists,” in TTP, 275. See also 274.

9. Rexroth, “Poet as Translator,” 187.

10. Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (Kingston, RI: Asphodel, 1987), 9. See the entire volume for a fascinating glimpse of the many translations one can derive from a single Chinese poem. In a review of David Hinton's Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology, Adam Kirsch shows that some of Hinton's more scholarly renderings are “not very different from Pound's” (“Disturbances of Peace,” New Republic, May 20, 2009, accessed May 27, 2017, For the different versions of Li Po's poem in the following paragraphs, see “Other Translations of ‘A River Merchant's Wife,’ ” Modern American Poetry, accessed April 2, 2017,

11. Steiner, After Babel, 359.

12. Ezra Pound, letter to W. H. D. Rouse (1935), in TTP, 281.

13. Robert Lowell, introduction to Imitations (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1961), xi–xii; Abraham Cowley, “Preface to ‘Pindarique Odes’ ” (1656), quoted by Nida, Toward a Science, 17.

14. Robert Lowell, interview with D. S. Carne Ross, quoted in TTP, 352; “things profoundly offensive”: Guy Daniels, “The Tyranny of Free Translation,” Translation 1, no. 1 (winter 1973), 17–18.

15. “We must dismiss”: Vladimir Nabokov, foreword to A Hero of Our Time, in TTP, 382; “a crime”: Nabokov, “Art of Translation,” 3.