[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,
(Regarding the letter that responds to Angle Mlinko’s NYRB essay)
I have only two Merwin volumes of translation at hand, our Cambridge, UK, shelves being limited; but both run directly against the imputations of your correspondent.
(1) W. S. Merwin and Takato Lento, Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson (Copper Canyon, 2013). Merwin’s co-translator is acknowledged on the title page, and the prefatory “Note from the Translators” details the method of their collaboration (pp. xvi-xvii).
(2) W. S, Merwin, Selected Translations, 1948-2011 (Copper Canyon, 2013). The foreword explains his methods of translating languages he didn’t know (e.g., French versions for the Welsh and Irish, a gallimaufry of other translations for the Persius, and elsewhere crediting specific translators where he required direct aid).
I can’t remark on the other books, but at least here he seems to have made a full breast of it.
–Constructively Critical in Cambridge
Dear Constructively Critical in Cambridge,
Thank you for writing. Yes, I am aware of this, and I suspect the sender of the previous letter (“Annoyed in Ithaca”) is, too.
But the points made in relation to Ange Mlinko’s article still very much hold. The problem is not so much with Merwin; the problem is that Mlinko, with not a shred of qualification, stages the eminent man as the polymathic translator of dozens of far-flung languages, when, in fact, he has not a whit of competency in the great majority of them. Unaccountably, she doesn’t bother to note any difference in kind between his true, esteemed translations out of the roughly four languages he knows, and his outpouring of creative paraphrases and imitations from the dozens more he doesn’t. For her, these fundamentally distinct modes of practice would seem to count equally as translations originating from Merwin’s linguistic, interpretative powers and his “spiritual devotion” to some ontological mystery of “translation.” In providing such misleading impression, Mlinko not only fails to acknowledge those many and crucial “others” (many of them native informants) whose labors have played a significant role in fostering Merwin’s literary reputation, she totally passes over their existence. For Mlinko, whose article verges on sycophancy, it is all Merwin, all the time. She seems to believe he has diamonds of the soles of his shoes (see the related Paul Simon video on the front page of Dispatches). Her article, unfortunately, which purports to be much about translation as a “spiritual” discipline, suggests she has very little knowledge about, or respect for, the practice and art of it.
Dear Emily Post-Avant,
Busted up Merwin, NYBR, and a sycophant all in one.
It’s always curious to me how poets who claim to come out of the traditions of Pound and Olson and Duncan manage so little invective–I remember Pound saying somewhere, ‘Hatred’–meaning for him something between “righteous indignation” and attacking those who’ve blasphemed the Temple–‘can be a kind of purifying force.’
This benign pattycakes most of the poets these days is not only a road to mediocre, general, diluted poems, but also, as a stance (as especially in Creative Writing classes) that involves either delusion (if the poet isn’t aware of the complications in any attempted community of art)/self-deception, or outright fakery. There always needs to be a Nietzschean, Poundian, Blakean (and for that matter a ‘fire-and-sword-wielding’ Christ) impulse or check, almost warlike but never from ignorance, in the ‘poetry world’ (what’s that?). To wit: Duncan’s take-down of Watten on LZ, or as when he blasted Hayden Carruth for his–and this is appropriate given the attack on a total lack of translation theory as re: Merwin–total misunderstanding of what Charles Tomlinson’s use and re-newing of WC Williams’ stepped foot.
What do you of Tom Meyer’s daode jing? He translated it using only a dictionary and a grammar, not knowing the original fluently. He calls his a translation–but his technique and sincerity, on examination, justifies this approach. Same as LZ with CZ in the Catullus poems. Or, more cosmic, Yeats and Georgie Yeats/the Ghosts (Martians?).
–Delighted and Deep in Bartram’s Tree
Dear Delighted and Deep in Bartram’s Tree,
Thank you for this letter! Yes, indeed, it’s mostly careful, correct pattycakes in poetry these days. (In relation to what gets spoken and what not and why, see the most recent Dispatch on the front page.)
I love Tom Meyer. And I have not a cake crumb of a problem with his version of the daode jing! I am all for creative modes of translation. Long live the Renaissance. (For what the actual objection/problem is, see my above response to Constructively Critical in Cambridge.)
And long live Jonathan Williams, too, young poet.