Poetry in translation: as good as the originals

William Shakespeare’s plays and poems are widely popular in Russia, not because so many Russians read English, but because of the brilliant translations of Boris Pasternak (1890–1960), author of “Doctor Zhivago” and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Conversely, Pasternak’s novel Zhivago was well served in English with two excellent translations and a pretty fabulous film. (Ah, Julie Christie!)

Translations are an essential part of literature, and although this column is regularly devoted to poets who wrote in English, it proudly includes many of those who have translated works from foreign languages ​​and given them a life of their own. in English.

In England, from the 14e Century, Geoffrey Chaucer translated and relied on French and Italian texts as sources for his own works in English. Among American poets, we can cite Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s significant translation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. And more recently we have had a distinguished group of poet translators including Ezra Pound, WS Merwin, Richard Wilbur, Robert Lowell and John Ciardi.

WS Merwin

Of these, the most prolific is WS Merwin (1927-2019), who wrote translations of poems from many languages. He said that this work was undertaken “with the clear aim of presenting readers with works which they could not read in the original by authors whom they may very well never have heard of, cultures, traditions. and forms with which they had no knowledge ”. Here is his interpretation in English of a poem in Spanish by Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges. The lack of punctuation is intentional.

Have watched from one of your patios
the old stars
from the shadow bank for watching
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no name for
nor their places in the constellations
hearing the water ring in the secret pool
known the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle
the silence of the sleeping bird
the arc of entry humidity
– these very things can be the poem.

Borges once wrote, and I rather like the idea: “I always envisioned Paradise as a kind of library.

* * *

A photo of poet Richard Wilbur.
Richard wilbur

Now here is Richard Wilbur who translates in style the French verse of Molière from the play “Tartuffe”:

Ah, there you go – extravagant like never before!
Why can’t you be rational? You never have
Happens to take the middle course, it seems,
But rather jump between absurd extremes.
You have recognized your recent serious mistake
By being the victim of a false stake;
Now to correct this mistake must you kiss
An even bigger mistake in its place,
And judge our worthy neighbors as a whole
By what you have learned from a corrupt soul?
Be careful in granting admiration,
And cultivate sober moderation.
Do not humor the fraud, but also do not criticize
True piety; this last defect is worse,
And it is better to be wrong, if it is necessary to be wrong,
As you did, on the trust side.

Based on Voltaire, Richard Wilbur also provided the lead lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s musical, “Candide”.

* * *

Looking back through the years, the best-known poetic translation has certainly been Edward Fitzgerald’s English version of Rubáiyát, a Persian poem by Omar Khayyám (1048-1131). TS Eliot said he started writing poetry as a teenager after reading this translation. (See the video link below.) It includes the famous lines:

A book of worms under the twig,
A jug of wine, a loaf of bread – and you
Beside me singing in the desert –
Oh, the desert was pretty heavenly!

A photo of the Rubáiyát manuscript.
The Rubáiyát. Calligraphy by William Morris. Illustration by Edward Burne-Jones.

* * *

Irreverent remark: Renowned Broadway writers Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (“My Fair Lady”) once had a pop hit titled “A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread and Thou, Baby”. He embraced the legend that any piece of poetry could be turned into a hit song just by adding the word “Baby”. Can we consider “To be or not to be, baby” or “Forward the Light Brigade, Baby!” From Tennyson. Just dreaming.

* * *

Never have the translations been more appreciated than during the 17the and 18e centuries when Alexander Pope turned Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” into heroic couplets and John Dryden made golden translations of the Roman poets Virgil and Horace. Considering Horace, it’s hard to imagine the original could surpass the memorable English version of Dryden, including these lines:

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He, who can call his own today:
Whoever, safe inside, can say:
Tomorrow do your worst, because I lived today.

Be fair or dirty or rain or shine
The joys that I have possessed, despite fate, are mine.
Not Heav’n himself over the past has the power,
But what has been, has been and I have had my time.

Pope, anxious to take care of his finances, made his translation “Iliad” after receiving advance subscriptions from 17 dukes, 3 marquises, 49 counts, 7 duchesses and 8 countesses! It was a royal success.

By the way, we must note that there had also been an earlier translation of Homer by the Elizabethan playwright George Chapman, a version not much remembered today except that it inspired John Keats to write one of his best sonnets, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer:”

I have traveled a lot in the realms of gold,
And many good states and kingdoms seen;
I have been around many western islands
What bards loyal to Apollo hold.
Often of a great extent if I had been told
This deep-eyed Homer ruled like his domain;
Yet I never breathed its pure serenity
Until I heard Chapman speak out loud:
Then I felt that I loved a sky watcher
When a new planet swims in its ken;
Or like the stout Cortez with the eagle eyes
He watched the Pacific – and all his men
Were looking at each other with a wacky guess –
Silent, on a peak in Darien.

* * *

You might like to try a translation yourself. This is from the manuscript of Gustav Leberwurst. Please read it aloud. Helpful tip: Jahn is pronounced Yahn.

Jahn Kid Dudel kämmte tauen
Reih “Ding” ohne Bohni.
Stuka Vetter inne satt
Und Kohl Titt ‘mag er roh denies.

* * *

VIDEO. In our video, the first poetry quartet presents three important poems in translation. First, the “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” translated by Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883). Then “The River Merchant’s Wife” by Chinese poet Li-Bo (701-762) translated by Ezra Pound, then “In a Steelworker’s Home” by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933-2017), translated by John Updike. Please note that this poem was written about the events of 1945. It is included here for the power of poetry without necessarily considering politics.

CLICK ON THIS LINK FOR VIDEO: Poetry in translation


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