May 31, 2019KR BlogEnthusiamsLiteratureUncategorizedWriting

Why American Poets Ought to Translate More Poems

As literary translators go, I am mostly a fraud, and thus beset by a fear that all frauds—from TV psychics to reality TV presidents—share: to be exposed by those who can actually do what I say, or am told, or purport to do. It’s said that I translate poems. I’ve won awards for these translations, presented at translation conferences, and called myself a translator in job letters and author’s notes. And yet in both of the languages I work with—Latin and Russian—the title’s only half-true.

From Latin I’ve written “adaptations,” using a method more indebted to Pound’s “Homage to Sextus Propertius” (1919) or Robert Lowell’s Imitations (1961) than, say, the works of David Ferry, our 95-year-old maestro of the classical world. From Medieval, Jesuit, and Neo-Latin poets, I’ve sought “one voice run[ning] through many personalities, contrasts, and repetitions” (Imitations ix). Whatever voice I produce is at least 60% mine. In The Ego and the Empiricist, my chapbook of such work, I write that the poems should “not to be read as translations.” In Latin I’m more traditore than traduttore, more interested in distorting my dead authors than deferring to them.

In Russian I work exclusively with my wife, Anne O. Fisher, an acclaimed translator of Russian prose. We split the translator’s task between us—she covers semantic sense; I tackle a poem’s form and sound—and our marriage, miraculously, lives to tell the tale. But I’d no more translate a Russian poem on my own than invite a Muscovite, in his or her native language, to dinner. I’ve tried both; both ended disastrously. I can still hear the laughter that erupted when, in my politest Russian, I began «когда ты будешь в американкe» (“The next time you’re in an American woman”) instead of «когда ты будешь в Америке» (“The next time you’re in America”).

This is all to say that whatever I know about translation came to me obliquely or collaboratively. Translation is an altruistic act, a pledge of hours and expertise to another writer’s work. I’m not all that altruistic, and I entered this art as Randall Jarrell did—at a time when I was stymied by my own poems.  Still, translation lifts me, and I often find myself rising to its defense or proselytizing for its growth. What follows are my reasons why. What follows are the ways it benefits my own poems and how I see it enriching American poetry, were it only practiced more widely.

First, translation is the art of wearing a mask. To translate a poem is, in essence, to write a dramatic monologue. Translators build a voice, becoming, for the length of their project, someone else. When successful, they pass into the party unnoticed, masqueraders mistaken for any other guest. There’s pleasure in any successful act of deception; this deception just might tempt you to redo it on your own terms. A few years after I started ventriloquizing Jesuits, I found myself ventriloquizing other, less individualized figures: a bolt of lightning, a glacier, an identity thief replying to his or her mark. Translation expanded my range of rhetorical forms. It helped to shatter, once and for all, that tired workshop cliché: find your voice. It taught me to steal other voices instead.

Translation also expanded my ideas about composition. Translators, I’ve been told, are friendly people—friendlier than poets, but really, that’s setting the bar low. Their work is grounded in literary relationships. They correspond with living writers; they acquire rights; they spread the good word (and words) of someone other than themselves. In this way they work against the myth of the poet as solitary genius, relying on communities of native speakers, subject specialists, and trusted friends to complete their work. Translation presupposes a literary community, built as it is on a trio (poet, translator, reader) in lieu of a pair (poet and reader).

This is the second lesson translation taught me: to reimagine the act of writing as potentially collaborative. This followed after my own translations became collaborative, but it deepened at a recent American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference, where I presented on collaborative translation with new (to me) translator permutations: student and professor, author and writer, friend and friend. A poet doesn’t need to learn a new language, or salvage an old one, to translate, at least not collaboratively. She need only befriend someone who has. I went a step further and married that person. No need to go that far, but ask your friends, consult your coworkers: I bet you know someone who reads poems you can’t.

Third, translation strengthens a poet’s critical chops. You need a little literary history to translate. You need to close read. At a moment when young American poets—born of workshops, embroiled in Tweet critiques—lack both, translation can help build lost skills. It does so without appearing to do so. It does so while being “like writing”—this is Robert Pinsky’s apt phrase; translation is “like writing”—and young poets want, justifiably, to be writing. I would love to see more poets translating. It would improve American literary criticism; it would be a service to the world.

One might argue that literary history is for scholars and critics, not poets. One might claim that close reading in your non-native language is like watching a film through cracked glass. The New Critics—those practitioners and promoters of close reading—were mostly Americans, writing in English, translating little. (Allen Tate dabbled, not well.) Still, their tools are essential to translators: attention to connotation, an ear for sound, the interplay between content and form. Roman Jakobson, very much not a New Critic, famously writes that in poetry “phonemic similarity is sensed as semantic relationship.” A good poetry translator must find their way to the practical application of that phrase. Anything less will result in a crib, a trot, a draft—not a poem.

I’m advocating here for translation as treatment for an illness that some might not consider an illness. I’m asking poets to be better students of their own art. As my friend Jason Koo writes in his long poem, “No Longer See,” too many poets “have a freshman’s knowledge” of poetry. I see the same gaps in reviews of new books, where superlatives pop up with no thought for the last 50—let alone the 150—years of verse. Social media has done wonders for “po-biz”; it connects poets laterally; it promotes marginalized voices. But it lets poets off with listening to their contemporaries far more than their forbearers. Translation will deepen one’s reading, diversify it, and bring in another group of marginalized voices—those of the world’s 6000+ tongues.

The fourth benefit is perhaps my favorite: foraging in foreign poems for materials that will benefit the poet’s own work. Sometimes, foraging isn’t even necessary. Influence can be accidental; it can be a deliberate raid. Whatever the case, it’s inevitable, but only if the poet decides to translate at all. Doing so turns on translation’s two-way radio; the translator and translated can both change. Readers can reasonably assume that there’s some Jane Kenyon in Kenyon’s Akhmatova, but how much Akhmatova is there in Jane Kenyon? And did Kenyon reconnoiter the poems she translated for her own work? Did she ask herself: what can I drag and drop, what can I adopt and amend?

In the course of Anglophone poetic history, the answers to this question have been both monumental and miniature. English translators brought us the sonnet (from Italian courts, circa the 13thcentury) and the ghazal (from Urdu, Persian, and Turkish poems, circa the 1990s). Translation motivated (in large part) the Deep Imagists of the 1960s and (to a lesser extent) the Imagists of the early 20th century. From subject matter to sonic play, fixed forms to rhetorical modes, translation is the means by which the world’s poetries evolve, inspire, and inform each other as they develop, separately and in sync. Translators are the cultural ambassadors of the line.

That’s the monumental. Here’s the miniature, drawn from my own poems. In a recent long poem, “Colloquy with St. Mary of Egypt,” I spend 300+ lines chatting up a desert saint. I met Mary through Jacob Balde, a 17th century Jesuit Latin poet. I met Balde through translation. Translation gave me the subject for my most ambitious project to date. Meanwhile, in writing as Balde, I found myself—an atheist—overwhelmed by prayer’s rapturous imbalance. I loved talking to God, even if I didn’t believe. But Mary of Egypt, a prostitute turned penitent? She seemed like an equally worthy addressee, and translation had already offered me a voice. The voice, as I’d devised it, even came with a form: a snaking, enjambment-rich octave. Translation gave me that too.

This all reminds me of the etymology for “stanza.” The word entered English in the 16th century, borrowed from the Italian for “room.” We might imagine translators as wandering around strangers’ houses. They are part general contractor, part thief. They are tasked with relocating the building to a new county or town, knowing all the while that they’ll need to re-vent some duct work, turn some windows into doors. In the process, they’ll discover what holds the house together, where the struts run, and which walls bear the roof’s weight. They might copy the blueprints into a sketchbook. They might walk off with a vase.

I want to close with a final benefit available to the poet-translator, and one that returns us to my first: rhetorical forms. In my latest book, The Identity Thief, there are two poems that serve as a meta-poetic pair: “To Assemble This Poem Properly” and “To Translate This Poem Properly.” They’re tongue-in-cheek instruction manuals. They’re also familiar (and less familiar) rhetorical forms. The first is an ars poetica, a poem about poetry. One frequently taught example is Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” (1909). The second form, let’s call it an ars translatio, is less common: a poem about the art of translation. The best example that comes to mind? Mark Strand’s book-length poem, The Monument (1978).

In an ars translatio the poet can think creatively about an act that is mysterious, appropriative, and generous all at once. One can do so in prose—as I’ve done here—or attempt it in a poem. They former can be accomplished by any critic-translator, but the latter, an original poem about translation, is only available to the poet-translator. Here’s mine:

To Translate This Poem Properly


pass briskly through the door left ajar.

We thank you for your instincts.


This is not a through street, but your walking

relieves us of the need to do so


on our own. See now how silhouettes fill

the poem’s many windows? Feel that glass flex


like a TV left mute. You strum the bannister

till the staircase is humming. The poem


warms in the air adjoining two floors.

Its dimensions are certain; its quiets you can’t touch.


And we who were the poem’s former tenants

eavesdrop from a neighbor’s backyard.


We authored all that unhelpful graffiti.

Our Christmas lights still stretch from the roof


to the moon. We’ve chased your echo

to this unremarkable crevice and will soon


trail the tail of your tape measure home.

Let us listen now as you root


through the poem’s cellar, shaking

its shoeboxes and jars. We’ll meet you


in a nearby bathroom, blank as a police lineup.

Your silences leave us salivating like hounds.


(A early version of this essay was delivered at the 2019 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Portland, Oregon.)