Book Review: Poets Translate Poets


When poets translate poets, both are transformed. Though Robert Frost claimed poetry is what is lost in translation, and Galway Kinnell made the counterclaim that poetry is what is found in translation…

Poets Translate Poets by Mark Jarman

Poets Translate Poets: A Hudson Review Anthology edited by Paula Deitz is a collection of poetry that has appeared in The Hudson Review over the last seven decades. The Hudson Review was founded in 1947 by William Arrowsmith, Joseph Bennett, and George Morgan and is still published today.

I am fairly new to reading and reviewing poetry and as my background is firmly rooted in political science and history, I cannot not help to be amazed by the power of words. From “Workers of the world, unite.” to asking not what your country can do for you, words pass on a powerful message. Poetry takes the same words and amplifies their power several times over. Poetry, much more so than a sound bite, activates our brains, brings vision, feeling, and lasting memory.

The introduction describes the some of the translation methods as well as Erza Pounds contribution to translations. Years ago, reading a collection of French poetry, I wondered how can something from one language be translated to another and keep its flow and imagery. In fiction it is easier. It really doesn’t matter much if it takes ten words in translation to capture the meaning of two words. In poetry it can’t be done that way. How can the rhymes translate so well? What of alliteration? A line in Spanish would not translate to English and remain intact. Do words in Japanese rhyme? These are things I didn’t understand. The introduction helps answer these questions. 

However the translation are done, The Hudson Review seems to capture the original intent. From the opening with “The Cricket” by Bulgarian poet Himmirsky to closing with Vietnam’s Tu Ke Tuong’s “The Painter in the City” the lines read like they were originally written in English. Some works are unbelievably amazing. The excerpt from Pierre Corneille’s “El Cid” is brilliant. The rhymes, the meter, are all perfect; its flawless. It is as much of a tribute to translator Richard Wilbur as to Corneille.

The poems range in complexity from a very visual, but very short “The Cypress Tree” by Palamas and translated by David Mason to the epic like the modern translation of “Beowulf” translated by Alan Sullivan. The poems are grouped by country in alphabetical order. The nations represented go beyond the typical French poets most people know; Germany, Hungary, Macedonia, Persia, Poland, and many others are represented. 

Following the poems is a section cover a short biography of the poets and another section giving a short biography of the translators. Poets Translate Poets is an amazing collection. Far more than just a collection of poetry, it is tribute to those who translate the works. Translation can change the whole meaning of a work. For years, everyone who read Camus’ The Stranger read the cold and distant feeling opening line: “Mother died today.” In 1988 Mathew Ward translated The Stranger and left the original French word “Maman died today” A word more closely resembling “mama” and having a much warmer and personal meaning.* It changes the entire first impression. Translating is serious and difficult work in fiction and one can only imagine that capturing essence and beauty of a poem in a translation is near impossible work. It is done by The Hudson Review and their translators and done amazingly well. 

*Most agree that this is a much better translation using the original French instead of mother. However, there is still debate if it should be read as “Today, Maman died”, following the original French word order.

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