[Emily Post-Avant is an ongoing column that answers everything you always wanted to know about poetry but were afraid to ask. Write Emily with your questions, at the Dispatches from the Poetry Wars email, listed at the Masthead. The Editors will forward letters to her.]
Dear Emily Post-Avant,
I was reading the New York Review of Books today (December 7, 2017 issue). Specifically, I am writing about the article therein by Ange Mlinko, who fawningly reviews three recent books about, or by, the venerable poet and translator, W.S. Merwin. At the heart of this article is a major claim by Mlinko: That the greatest achievement of Merwin’s long and meticulously curated career is his “spiritual” and “devotional” service as a translator of poetry. Here is a relevant passage:
Now ninety years old, Merwin is the author of almost fifty volumes of poems and translations as well as eight books of prose fiction and nonfiction. He has maintained his fidelity to this early vision of poetry, bequeathed by Pound and summed up in his famous line from The Spirit of Romance: “All ages are contemporaneous.” Translation has freed Merwin to refuse stultifying academic appointments. It has facilitated his travels—despite the French farmhouse, he led a fairly peripatetic life before settling in Hawaii in the late 1970s. But most of all, translation has provided him with “the literary world. Another plane of existence.” In other words, a grand company continually needing rescue from the abyss, an ennobling endeavor, a way to communicate across time and space.
After those first translations from the Occitan, he went on to the medieval epics The Poem of the Cid and The Song of Roland, specializing in Spanish as well as French—commissions, in the beginning, from the BBC, which hired him to adapt them into radio plays. But translation became a practice verging on spiritual discipline. His third Selected Translations (2013) contains works originally in Sanskrit, Egyptian, Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese; translations from Quechua, Eskimo, native Crow; translations from Russian (Mandelstam, Brodsky, et al.) and German (Nietzsche, Benn, et al.). Greek and Latin are a given, plus Middle English and Welsh. He has translated the entire Purgatorio. (Dante and Villon, he has said, are his “talismans.”) This is only a partial list. Merwin’s introduction to the 2013 Selected Translations reprises his visit with Pound in a condensed memoir of his life as a translator-poet, offering an apologia for an “impossible, unfinishable” art.
That is truly an impressive list of languages from which Merwin has “translated.” And as Mlinko notes, it is only a partial list of what he has rendered into English. “Translations” from thirty-some source languages can be found in Merwin’s Selected Translations, by Copper Canyon (2013).
There’s no doubt that Merwin’s range of sampling from the poetry of other cultures is strikingly singular. No one can argue with the extensiveness of his poetic-ethnographic reach. No other figure in North American poetry can match it.
The problem is that Mlinko has based her claim for Merwin’s greatness as a “translator” on a naive, or at best, overly nebulous characterization of translation, a term she uses unproblematically and without any sense of discrimination. For example, nowhere in the NYRB article does it occur to her that Merwin may actually not be an uncanny, freakish polymath who commands an understanding of all of the languages he claims, by prominent and pervasive authorial signature, to have “translated.” Much less does it seem to occur to her that he likely, in fact, can read no more than a handful of words, if that, in a good number of them. If Merwin, then, does not possess sufficient competence to independently and authoritatively translate many or most of these languages by his own autonomous lights, what location would these necessarily mediated renderings have within his “spiritual” and “devotional” accomplishments in the art of poetry translation? Is something that is paraphrased from a crib, regardless of how ingenious the paraphrase may be, just as sanctified and devotional as a direct, perhaps epiphanic encounter with the strangeness of a foreign text? For whatever reason, questions of the sort seem to not be part of Mlinko’s concern.
That said, it is known that Merwin has good fluency in Spanish, Italian, and French; he also apparently possesses book-proficiency in Provençal/Occitan, some small Latin, maybe a bit less Greek, and a couple other tongues. Likely most of the translations in the particular languages he does know, or partly knows, were done by Merwin alone, working directly from source texts, and in careful, empathic consideration of all dimensions of the poetic function, and of their mutual, complex interactions, across semantic and sonic registers, as he proceeded. Working in direct linguistic interpretation and aesthetic transfer across a group of even half a dozen languages would be quite extraordinary, of course, and more than sufficient to earn him a lasting place in the canon of English-language translation. In that sense, let us grant that he has earned it.
But to return to my point, because the stakes of clarity are high in the matter: Are we to believe, as Mlinko seems to presume we should, that Merwin has labored in that same, standard sense of direct, unmediated translation with his renderings from near-extinct indigenous languages from the Amazon, near-extinct indigenous languages from the Patagonian region, Persian, Sanskrit, ancient Egyptian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Native-American Crow, pre-Columbian Aztec, Quechua, Urdu, Inuit, North-African Berber, sub-Saharan Fon, Romani, and still others. Are we to believe he had no need, with all (or at least most) of the languages on the latter list, to use an informant(s) and to have cribs created for him? Or that in the absence of informants he had no need to work from extant English versions made by scholars of those languages? In the latter case (his riffing from previously translated sources to create versions or imitations, as opposed to actual translations) one wants to know: From which ones and by whom? In the former case (that of informants who would have given him crib texts from which to create paraphrases, as opposed to actual translations), one wants to know: Who are they and where are they acknowledged? What was the actual relationship between them and Merwin in the practice of production? Might one be able to access the original cribs so as to better estimate if Merwin is adhering to principles and measures of fidelity (troubled and contested as that term is), or whether, perhaps, he is producing relatively unfastened versions à la Robert Lowell–or, worse, Ben Belitt-like ones—in these cases? Is Mlinko–in her credulity that anything touched by the master turns to translational gold–unaware there is a well-known coinage within translation circles for “translators” who take too-easy liberties with languages they don’t properly know? The term, look it up, is “Merwinism.” A bit more skepticism and less adulation may be called for.
Free translation is its own mode, and its value, when done well, must be defended. Its tradition goes back to the Renaissance. And the Renaissance (and us, now) would be much less without it. There is absolutely no ethical problem with free and improvisatory forms of interpretation, so long as these are presented with some degree of transparency. But would it have been so difficult for Mlinko, in an article largely about translation, to make mention of the well-known, red-shifted spectrum of the art? Would it have been so hard, in the spirit of grateful credit, and even if only in the anonymous sense, to make mention of the occluded presence of the other-cultured collaborators who have made Merwin’s storied career and present reputation significantly possible?
These are not persnickety questions. Matters of translation practice and theory are increasingly studied, pondered, and debated, and it is more than surprising that the NYRB, which has recently launched a series of poetry collections in translation, would print an article that bandied the term about in such vague, even intellectually irresponsible fashion. Especially when the very thesis of Mlinko’s argument for Merwin’s canonical status is his “spiritual discipline” as a “translator”? Where do the contours of “spiritual discipline” in translation, for Mlinko, begin and end? But that would be a question to postpone for now. Because there is no evidence that Mlinko is the least bit familiar with even rudimentary theoretical questions and categories in translation studies.
I thought I would write you and get the annoyance off my chest.
–Annoyed in Ithaca
Dear Annoyed in Ithaca,
You might not believe it, but you have taken the words right out of my mouth. I was asking myself the very same questions after reading that piece in the NYRB. Thanks for writing. I’ll just let your letter speak for itself. I don’t have anything to add. Perhaps the lapsed, reformed experimentalist Ms. Mlinko, who seems to be doing anything she can these days to climb the ladder of the Beaux Arts poetry establishment, would like to respond?
Dear Emily Post-Avant,
I am a student at Lake Woods Community College, in Lake Woods, near Chicago, which is a college for people who don’t want or need to waste their time and go to full-time college for four or ten years. I am taking Introduction to Poetry 101 for Non-English Majors (I have just started in the Waste Disposal Management Sciences program). I have fifteen more credits at the same time and I work at Walgreens so I am a pretty busy guy. I was wondering if you could help me with a question because I have to write a paper and since English is not my major maybe you could give me some stuff I could use for the paper because 1) I am running out of time and 2) It’s not like I am ever going to use poetry in my life, and 3) My teacher Mr. Archambot is a really tough grader especially for people who are in Waste Disposal Management Sciences just ask anyone, it is some kind of psychological thing with him, like there is a joke going around that he’s secretly afraid Literature is really for shit deep down and that we scientists will figure out how to flush it into the sewage plant just north of here. Plus I don’t think he liked it when he asked me to take my Make America Great Again hat off in class and I said Well, show me the rule that says a man can’t wear a baseball hat in a classroom, and everyone started laughing. Therefore if you could help me and please excuse my punctuation as English is not my thing. OK, then so the other day, our teacher, Mr. Archambot, had us read the poem “Poetry” I think it was called by Marianne More, a famous lady poet with a hat on her head too (he showed us a Power Point of pictures of her at a zoo, she’s not a very good-looking woman). In this poem, right in the first line Mrs. More says she doesn’t like poetry either! It was weird to read that right when I was sort of ready to listen to what she had to say. My question is Why would Mrs. More say that? Because that is the question my teacher wants us to answer, explaining why we think she said she doesn’t like it as if anyone trying to actually build and run things would care. One other reason for this letter is that I got a ‘D-’ on my paper about Ezra Pound so I could use some help. Thank you.
–Poetry 101 Student Studying Hard to Keep the Crap Out of Sight and Out of Mind
Dear Poetry 101 Student Studying Hard to Keep the Crap Out of Sight and Out of Mind,
Make sure you spell her name correctly in the paper. It’s Moore, not More.
Marianne Moore “dislikes it” because she’s a great poet. Great poets, as opposed to average ones, dislike poetry intensely. Or, at best, they have an unstable and volatile love-hate relationship with it. So, these great poets adopt an agonistic stance towards the “poetic” that has been handed down to them, and they set out, in gestures of anti-poetry, to counter and disrupt what they don’t like. You could say they do this because they want to make poetry great again, which is not to say their desire has anything to do with your baseball cap. They do their disrupting in a variety of ways: sometimes in subtle, ironic ways (like Ms. Moore); sometimes with foam at the corners of the mouth (like Ezra Pound). Inevitably, however, these “anti-poetic” gestures themselves become normalized and accepted, so other poets from a generation or three later will come along to dislike and challenge the new normal, in turn. This is how poetry advances, actually, and only poets who have taken the whole long tradition with seriousness are able to do the challenging. The rest, who are the majority, merely imitate, and they are the ones most likely to have success and recognition in their time. By the way, another word for this agonistic “dislike” I am talking about is dialectics, and your teacher might give you props for using that word in a paper. The thing to understand, though it may seem paradoxical, is that Moore’s “dislike” is, in fact, a deep-history, dark-energy kind of love and faith in Poetry writ large. That dark, deep love and faith is Hegelian in its essence, even as it is (this is also paradoxical) not in any way teleological. Teleology is for fools. Tell Mr. Archambot I told you to say that. Good luck, and thanks for taking care of other people’s bowel movements. What you do is certainly very important.