I have translated, then, for perhaps the most selfish of motives: simple greed. There were poems I wanted to read, but they lived in another tongue.
Poetry’s task is to increase the available stock of reality, R.P. Blackmur said. It does this by reflecting for us our many human faces, our animal faces, our face of insect wings, our face of ocean and cliff. The world is large and, like Caiban’s island, full of noises; a true poem reflects this, whether in the original or in translation. To try to encompass such knowledge, to be willing to fail, to prepare as fully as possible for the work of poetry, to make the attempt in the recognition that any understanding is one among many – this is all we can do, as translators or as readers.
Jane Hirshfield, from “The World is Large and Full of Noises”
Even the physical embodiment of a sacred text is numinous: it is wrapped in leather or silk, stored in a cupboard used for no other purpose, copied over only by special scribes. It may be raised in both hands as an offering before being opened; it may itself be offered fragrant incense and sweet milk. All written work retains some trace, however faint, of this initial sanctity of the Word: the inhabiting Logos and the breath of inspiration are the same, each bringing new life into the empty places of earth. It is no wonder, then that many different cultural traditions share an ancient prohibition against translation. As George Steiner has pointed out in After Babel, if a sacred text has been given to us directly by its divine source, surely it must remain exactly as it first appeared, each word preserved intact for the meaning it may hold. Whether in a sacred text or a contemporary poem, any alteration risks unwittingly discarding some mystery not yet penetrated.
Jane Hirshfield, “The World Is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation”
from “The World is Large and Full of Noises: Thoughts on Translation” by Jane Hirshfield
Knowledge is erotic. We see this not only in the Bible’s dual use of the term “to know,” but also, as classicist Anne Carson has pointed out, in the Homeric verb mnaomai, which means both “to hold in attention” and “to woo.” What we regard must seduce us, and we it, if we are to continue looking. A great poem creates in its readers the desire to know it more thoroughly, to live with it in intimacy, to join its speaking to their own as fully as possible. We memorize it, recite it over and over, reawaken it with tongue and mind and heart. Many translators describe their first encounter with their chosen authors as a helpless falling in love: a glimpse of a few translated fragments can lead to years of language study in order to hear directly the work’s own voice. And in matters of art, it seems, Eros is generous rather than possessive: the translator wants to reciprocate this gift received, to pass the new love on to others—and thus the work of translation begins.
Translation is one way of learning what delicate clockwork causes a poem to keep accurate faith with music, meaning, and time.
from “The World is Large and Full of Noise: Thoughts on Translation” by Jane Hirshfield
A hand is not four fingers and a thumb. Nor is it palm and knuckles, not ligaments or the fat’s yellow pillow, not tendons, star of the wristbone, meander of veins. A hand is not the thick thatch of its lines with their infinite dramas, nor what it has written, not on the page, not on the ecstatic body. Nor is the hand its meadows of holding, of shaping— not sponge of rising yeast-bread, not rotor pin’s smoothness, not ink. The maple’s green hands do not cup the proliferant rain. What empties itself falls into the place that is open. A hand turned upward holds only a single, transparent question. Unanswerable, humming like bees, it rises, swarms, departs.
In every instant, two gates.
One opens to fragrant paradise, one to hell.
Mostly we go through neither.
Mostly we nod to our neighbor,
lean down to pick up the paper,
go back into the house.
But the faint cries–ecstasy? horror?
Or did you think it the sound
of distant bees,
making only the thick honey of this good life?
“Bees” by Jane Hirshfield from The Lives of the Heart. © Harper Perennial, 1997.