Why Translate?

from a presentation I did at a panel at the Drew University MFA in Poetry and Poetry in Translation.

Why Translate?
Elliott batTzedek

Translate, because it will make you have to learn everything possible about your own language. Grammar suddenly matters—tracking the difference between reflexive, transitive, intransitive will determine meaning. Knowing how articles function suddenly makes all the difference. This will make you a better poet.

Translator Kenneth Rexroth writes in his essay, “The Poet as Translator:” The writer who can project himself into exultation of another learns more than the craft of words. He learns the stuff of poetry.

Translate, because it will make you think harder about poetry than anything else you’ve ever done. You know those close reading essays we’ve all been assigned to write? Imagine doing the equivalent amount of thinking for each and every poem you translate. This will hone your editing and revising skills more than you thought possible, for all that thinking and analysis goes directly into the writing task in front of you at that exact moment.

Translate poetry, because doing so will force you to understand what makes an arrangement of words a poem, as opposed to a prose sentence, a pop song lyric, or a technical essay. As a poet, I’ve tended towards the too-wordy, too-explanatory, the over-thought. After a year of translating poetry, my own writing is going through huge changes, letting go of all that extra, becoming unafraid of being open to multiple meanings, confusion, uncertainty.

Yang Wan-Li, a Chinese poet, once wrote about poetry and translation: If you say it is a matter of words, I will say a good poet gets rid of words. If you say it is a matter of meaning, I will say a good poet gets rid of meaning. ‘But,’ you ask ‘without words and without meaning, where is the poetry?’ To this I reply: ‘get rid of words and get rid of meaning, and still there is poetry.’ It is that intangible that is left that is the object, I suggest, of good translation.

Octavio Paz says:
After all, poetry is not merely the text. The text produces the poem: a sense of sensations and meanings….With different means, but playing a similar role, you can produce similar results. I say similar, but not identical: translation is an art of analogy, the art of finding correspondences. An art of shadows and echoes….of producing, with a different text, a poem similar to the original.

Translation is good for the ego—your hard work, the hair you’ll tear out, the obsessing over syntax, the search for exactly the right sound, right word, right line—these are all in service of someone else’s poetic vision. I’ve found that this makes revising so much easier—separated from the original power of the creative urge, and the ways we cling to word choices, the goal of revision becomes very clear: making the best line and best poem possible. The poem is not a child I’ve birthed and am afraid to change or challenge too much, but a creative task I set myself to perfecting. This experience has made me a much better reviser of my own poems, because it is truly the poem that matters.

Translation is good for the ego—promoting the work, selling the work, become so much easier. Maybe some of you have no problems promoting your own work, but it is, for me, a special kind of hell. But promoting the translations is so easy, since what I feel like I’m saying is, “Hey, here’s the amazing poet you don’t know yet and you’ll love her!” While this hasn’t (yet) made it this easy for me to talk up my own poetry, it has greatly increased my confidence in talking about poetry in general.

Translating is intimate. Taking up residence in someone else’s vision, words, beating heart, feels like friendship, love, even sex, for there is kind of breathing together, moving together, a patterned, ritual courtship dance. Understanding the original poem, its form and its duende, takes a combination of intellect and heart, but creating that poem anew must grow out of the wise animal that is your own body.

Translating is a moral obligation, is what we with access to social, economic, educational, and verbal privilege owe to those without. I know that much of what is currently translated is work that is also of relatively high verbal privilege, but it doesn’t have to be that way. As Audre Lorde repeatedly challenged us throughout her life, “You must use whatever privilege you have in the service of what you say you believe.”

Translating is fun. It’s exhilarating, it’s winning the chess match AND finishing the marathon AND dancing the tango.

Translating is the opposite of war. It is the open mind, the outspread hand, the risk of going outside your comfort zone, of aiming above your skill level. Translating takes a village. A village with a shelf of really good dictionaries, and people willing to help for the sake of the writing. I’ve walked around all year with questions saved up in my head to fling anyone I met who might have answers. I was very lucky to meet Mai Schwartz, my primary informant, who is bilingual and bi-cultural, but even then there were moments, passages, that remained obscure. I’d go to dictionaries, struggle with using Google Translate to find websites in Hebrew about Hebrew idioms, and Mai would call her mother and between all of that we’d come, collectively, to some kind of resolution. And Ellen was a much bigger part of the process than mentors helping me with MY writing. She kept the same thick files of revisions I kept, was engaged with these poems as if they were translations she was doing herself. The voice that comes through in English is a combination of her sensibility and mine, and they are the better for it.

Translating is magic. Serious, real, transformation of energy. Words that were unknown, unknowable, open up. Original, outside-of-our-ken ways of understanding the world come in through our front doors, as welcome strangers, long-lost cousins. Writing poetry is the work we do to make our human experience part of a collective story; translating is the work we do to actively enlarge that collective.

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