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.

understanding my connection to Shez’s poetry

As I’ve been doing final (for now) edits on my translations of Shez’s poems, I keep feeling a kind of haunting—some of her words could be my own; I could definitely interweave the translations and my poems into a single, unified text. Sometimes I even dream about having my work translated into Hebrew and then doing a combined work in both languages, of letting our voices flow together like that.

The project, after all, is definitely the same—to replace the silence of the terrified girl with words that are strong, forceful, even violent enough to break the choke hold that sexual terrorism imposed on her. Which is why, even as I struggle with most of the subtleties of her Hebrew, I understand the poems, feel them deeply inside of myself, and know how to give them new voice in English.

With this always in my thoughts these days, I started reading Edith Grossman’s why translation matters, and came upon this quotation from a letter William Carlos Williams wrote to Nicolas Calas:

If I do original work all well and good. But if I can say it (the matter of form I mean) by translating the work of others that also is valuable. What difference does it make?

There is a silence that must be ended. At the end of my long sequence of poems called “Wanting a Gun” I declare: “I am writing, writing, writing.” In a poem addressed to her father, Shez declares, “You will not erase me off the page.”

The difference that is made is that now I know Shez. And soon all of you can know her, too. And hey, my hard work has made that difference. Rare enough that I let myself celebrate my own work, but today, after a couple of weeks of being trapped in some dank and musty emotional cave, I’m feeling celebratory.

a few thoughts on translating, from Walter Benjamin

drawn from Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator,” written in 1923. This version was translated into English in 1968 by Harry Zohn.

1. “In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful.” Art, Benjamin says (and I’m leaving all his original gender markers here), “posits man’s physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response.” [Note: Reader Response theory would come along a few years after this, so stick with him for the sake of the argument]. So therefore the point is not perfect understanding on the part of the reader, but that the artist creates and the reader experiences. Given this, how can a translation claim to be for readers who don’t understand the original? Only inferior translations seek to explain, and they are inferior exactly in the way they miss the transmission of art’s “inessential content.” Translation, therefore, should serve the art, not the reader.

But do we not generally regard as the essential substance of a literary work what it contains in addition to information—the unfathomable, the mysterious, the “poetic,” something that a translator can reproduce only if he is also a poet?

2. Translation is a kind of afterlife, a transformation and renewal of something living, and in the process the original itself undergoes a change. Translation is not the sterile equation of one language to another, but is a literary form “charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own.”

3. The transfer of all of a poem into another language can never be total, but what can carry is that elements in a translation which goes beyond transmittal of subject matter.”

Even when all the surface content has been extracted and transmitted, the primary concern of the genuine translator remains elusive. Unlike the words of the original, it is not translatable, because the relationship between content and language is quite different in the original and the translation. While content and language form a certain unity in the original, like a fruit and its skin, the language of the translation envelops its content like a royal robe with ample folds.

4. The task of the translator consists in finding the intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original. This is a feature of translation which basically differentiates it from the poet’s work, because the effort of the latter is never directed at the language as such, but solely and immediately at specific linguistic contextual aspects. [note: with the advent of language poetry, this may no longer true]

5. Sparks of Light—Benjamin used the Kabbalistic metaphor of the creation of the world being the breaking of a vessel which released sparks of light into everything. In this understanding, redemption will come when all of these have been found, released and gathered up. Out of this understanding, he writes about a kind of original “pure” language which survives behind the scenes in all resulting, scattered, languages.

In the same way a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel. […] On the other hand, as regards the meaning, the language of a translation can—in fact, must—let itself go, so that it gives voice to the intention of the original not as reproduction but as harmony, as a supplement to the language in which it expresses itself, as its own kind of intention. Therefore it is not the highest praise of a translation, particularly in the age of its origin, to say that it reads as if it had originally been written in that language. Rather, the significance of fidelity as ensured by literalness is that the work reflects the great longing for linguistic completion. A real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not black its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium to shine upon the original all the more fully.

6. The task of the translator

Rather, for the sake of pure language, a free translation [that is, one that isn’t literal] bases the test on its own language. It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language which is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his recreation of that work. For the sake of pure language he breaks through decayed barriers of his own language.

Translating from a Language You Don’t Know

A wonderful interview with sister-poet Rebecca Howell about her translation “Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation”, by Amal al-Jubouri, posted originally at Arabic Literature (In English):
Translating From a Language You Don’t Know

Ben Belitt on translating

Ben Belitt, thoughts on translating from Edward Honig, ed, The Poet’s Other Voice: Conversations on Literary Translation.

the seduction of translating

In this sense, translation takes translators far beyond the genre of their own recognizable styles and idiosyncrasies as poets. One of the disintegrative benefits of translation is that it compels or seduces one into writing poetry other than one’s own…

translation as pleasure

I would say I stumbled on translation simply in the process of trying to find something that was cognate with my experience of having thought about a poet, read him word for word and word by word, and found it hostile or hateful to paraphrase. Let us say I invoked a “pleasure principle” rather than a homiletic one, that my approach was hedonistic rather than Aristotelian, much as Coleridge’s is when he says the “immediate aim of poetry is pleasure not truth.” I would be quite ready to say that the immediate aim of translation is pleasure, not truth.

the sweaty labor of mediation

It’s the Platonism, the Idea of the Perfect Poem, or the Perfect Word, that I think interferes with the sweaty labor of translation, the sweaty empiricism in which everything is an action, a commitment, a deed, a choice, and refuses to exist abstractly in the realm of the Potential […] One has to intrude upon possibility; even the poem speaks in its own right, at its most expressive pitch, as a pure tissue of possibility. The translator provides the possibles, probables, utterances, and then tries to anchor the whole floating realm of epistemological possibility. I insist it’s an epistemological, rather than a semantic or linguistic: What kind of knowledge does poetry involve? What is the thing that translators can know, and how can their language know it? What is the syntax for its survival as either immediate pleasure or eventual truth? The knowledge must never be falsified: it is a confidence, a trust—but there is a human need to take a stand and mediate knowledge. All translation, at its best, is mediation rather than definition.

how does one judge a translation upon reading it?

What is the test […]? There is nothing as blue and red as litmus paper. There are signs, faits accomplis, reassurances: for one thing, volatility; responsibility, for another the certainity that all the elements have been subjected to atomic scrutiny—all the words as they pass from their moorings in the (original language) into the ink of the translation, with no leaps of convenience or deletions such as you might find in the Imitations of Lowell.

Imagination: the most dangerous faculty

Imagination isn’t a phenomenon that can be limited to the poem in its original state. As a translator, it is legitimate, it is imperative, to work imaginatively, joyfully, energetically, ingeniously, patiently, inventively, yourself. Imagination cannot be present in the original only, and absent from the equivalence. [Imagination is the most] risky and most daring, the most desired and mistrusted faculty: the most dangerous. We mistrust it but we can’t renounce it. How can we afford to renounce imagination in the midst of a process we know to be absurd and inimitable? Or avoid saying to ourselves, in the awful solitude of translation, with an upbeat of nausea and wonder: “Well, I don’t know for a fact what the poet knew, but I believe I can imagine how this might sound in my language.” That’s an honest and poignant transaction.

Bly’s 8 Stages of Translation: Stage 8, far more than the back of a rug

from Robert Bly’s Eight Stages of Translation

      Our last stage is making the final draft. We read back over all our earlier drafts—perhaps a half line we said better in one of them. We have to make our final adjustments now. […] During this stage we allow ourselves, at last, the pleasure of examining other people’s translations of the poem. That is fun we can’t deny ourselves after all our work, and we can sympathize with each translator.


      Well, then, after studying once more all our earlier drafts, and making our final sound and rhythm adjustments, and after taking in what we can from other people’s translations and commentaries, we are ready to set down the final draft. We know that we haven’t captured the original: the best translation resembles a Persian rug seen from the back—the pattern is apparent, but not much more.

But I think that Bly’s image of the back of the Persian rug dismisses the accomplishment his own essay reveals. If we attend to syntax and tone and tenor and meter and body rhythm and spoken speech and deep understanding of poetry, and we recreate a poem from one language into our own language, that product is more much than the back of a rug. It is—well, what is it? I need to work on my own concrete image. How’s this? “A well-translated poem is a dish made from an immigrant’s beloved family recipe, using the new local foods—different, but satisfying to the longing soul AND capable of teaching the old and new cuisines about each other’s possibilities.

How’s that working for you?

translating is so much more than this

Bly’s 8 Stages of Translation: Stage 4 “we begin to need the ear”

from Robert Bly’s The Eight Stages of Translation


We translated the poem into English in the third stage. In the fourth stage we translate the poem into American…. that is, if we speak the American language. In England, we would translate it into spoken English. It’s the spoken quality that this stage aims at. The idea that a great poem should be translated every twenty years is rooted in an awareness of how fast the spoken language changes. We need the energy of spoken language as we try to keep a translation alive, just as we need the energy of the written.

[…] The aim is not street language, not slang as such nor the speech rhythms of half-educated people, but rather the desperate living tone or fragrance that tells you a person now alive could have said the phrase. Robert Frost believed in such rhythms and wrote of them brilliantly; he called the fragrance “sentence sound.” Perhaps one in one hundred sentences we hear or read has “sentence sound.” […] it isn’t the rational mind that understands these distinctions but the ear and the ear’s memory.

So during the fourth stage we begin to need the ear. […] Asking the ear about each phrase, asking it, “Have you ever heard this phrase spoken?” is the labor of this draft. The ear will reply with six or seven new phrases, and these act to shake up the translation once more and keep it from solidifying. The language becomes livelier, fresher, lighter. Many translators stop before this stage; some of them have an exalted idea of the poet and think Rilke uses written German; others associate literature with a written language, with written English—many academic translators have this habit—and it never occurs to them to move to the spoken. Nineteenth-century translators in general rarely took this step; it was Whitman, Pound, and William Carlos Williams who sharpened everyone’s sense for spoken English and spoken American. The marvelous translation that is now being done in the United States, work that has been going on for thirty years or more, is partly a gift of these three men and their faith that poetry can be composed in spoken rhythms.