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Edward Foster: Do poets trust translation, or do the make up their own versions as they read?

Anselm Hollo: I can't speak for anyone else, but I trust translations-of poetry from other languages-by poets, especially by poets whose work I like: e.g. Beckett's and Padgett's translations of Apollinaire over Anne Hyde Greet's or William Meredith's. It occurs to me that it really isn't a question of trust in these instances so much as a matter of enjoyment: I can read Apollinaire's French.
     Only in cases where the source language is one I don't know, it's also a matter of trust-as with, say, Peter Dale Scott's and Czeslaw Milosz's translations of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. They are terrific poems in English, and given Milosz's participation, I feel confident that they are as faithful to the original Polish as can be. When translated poems are terrific poems in English, I don't feel any urge to improve on them.

EF: In your introduction to Saarikoski's Poems, you quote (translate) him as saying, "Translating, I do not cram sentences into any mid-linguistic limbo. I write Finnish-language sentences over them-so they'll disappear." Which apparently means that translation erases the original text. Is that what happens when you translate Saaikoski? And if that's the case, what is it that you want from the original?

AH: Translation does not erase the original text-quite literally, as far as the presumably monoglot reader is concerned. Growing up in a culture of which subtitled American, German, Italian, French movies are a big part, Saarikoski may have been particularly aware of this-movie subtitles are not true translations, they do not "erase" the original sound. By "mid-linguistic limbo" I think Saarikoski meant what is also called "Translatese"-the language in which many poor English translations of (particularly) French literature seem to be composed (and particularly the older ones, say, late nineteenth century translations of Balzac, Dumas, etc.). When I translate Saarikoski, I want him to sound as good and vivid as any of his contemporaries writing in American English.
     What do I "want from the original"? Not sure I quite understand the question….When the task of translation is a matter of choice, not merely a job, I do, of course, want the original to be terrific, inspiring, exciting, even "difficult" in certain ways-all the things I like in any writing…

     Catching the tone of poetry written in a foreign language is an important part of the interpretive task, and it requires a sophisticated passive knowledge of that language: by "passive" I mean an understanding of the language and culture (in the particular time and place of the work in question), not (necessarily) any kind of active fluency in it. This would seem to be the reason why we rarely find good literary translators into more than one language-since they would have to divide their entire lives into separate linguistic spheres, giving absolutely equal time to each one. Samuel Beckett, of course, is the one shining example of a completely and convincingly bi-lingual author (and translator of his own work).
     In many ways, translation, and translation of poetry and drama in particular, is related to acting. The translator has to try to "become" the poet, in the target language, the way Mallarmé "became" Poe (and a much more elegant Poe!) in French. I remember some words by Paul Blackburn to that effect-that when you are "in" a translation, working on it, you put yourself in a trance, an active (actor's) trance.

EF: I recently interviewed Rosmarie Waldrop and mention was made of the fact that Benjamin thought translation, like philosophy, didn't have a muse. Perhaps philosophy doesn't have a muse, but without one, I can't imagine that poetry could really be translated.

AH: I suspect that philosophy needs all the muses it can get-and the translation of poetry is, in the best-case scenario, presided over by a committee of at least six: Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Polyhymnia, and Thalia (eloquence / epic, history, lyric / amatory, music, sacred-song, and acting). The ancient Greeks were, of course, terrible chauvinists-people, including poets, who didn't know and use their language were barbarians, and translation was simply appropriation. I guess Ares presided over that.

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