There is a widely held view that the translation of poetry is doomed from the beginning. Frost left us his famous line that poetry is what is lost in the translation, and Hannah Arendt wrote of Auden that she knew he was a great poet because his work did not translate. While both Frost and Arendt are deities for me, I disagree with them on this issue. When Pound translated Li Po’s “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” he could not reproduce or even approximate the formal qualities of classic Chinese poetry. Instead, he chose to use cadenced verse with irregular lines, suggesting a kind of transparency of meaning. This suggestion may or may not be an illusion, but I am concerned here with what kind of poem it produced. Here is Pound’s version of Li Po:
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chōkan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever, and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?
At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-tō-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Chō-fū-Sa.
It’s certainly possible to claim that such cadenced verse is not poetry, only prose cut into lines, but that misses the obvious point that over a hundred years of readers have read it as poetry. Certainly, something is going on, and it is that “something” I find most interesting. It is also possible to respond that the readers are receiving Pound, not Li Po. I am not particularly troubled by this objection because it applies to every translation, even ones where various formal qualities of the original text can be approximated.
It is also important here to note that the formal qualities of Pound’s cadences in the Cathay translations do not bear much resemblance to Whitman’s cadenced lines or other examples in English of earlier poets who eschewed regular meter and rhyme. He was doing something new that changed what readers perceived as poetry. He was locating what was “poetic” about his translations of Chinese poetry in something more subtle than a regular pattern of sounds with minor variations. This is not to say he was any clearer about what he was doing than we are now, trying to figure it out. His definition of an image is a good example: “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” In that definition, he avoids the common and traditional sense of the image merely as a visual representation of something, a picture. It’s fair for us to ask why.
Clearly, Pound believed he was translating a poem, that he was bringing over a verbal construction in Chinese that compressed and conveyed ideas and feelings into an equivalent construction in English. While it was impossible to approximate the formal qualities of the poem, approximating the pictorial aspects of the representation was a possibility. This leaves open the question whether the pictorial aspects meant the same thing to the original readers. Pound seems to have believed they did. Even if he failed on this or that specific, something is being conveyed from one language to another, and that something continues to move many of his readers. The “something” is the poetic. The problem is that it remains elusive.
Pound’s Imagist period only lasted a few years. While he may have blamed Amy Lowell’s takeover of the movement, he was probably already chaffing at its limitations. Whatever it is that makes a poem a poem is broader in scope than an image, even if images form a large part of the poem and are highly suggestive of ideas and feelings.
In a poem’s original language, the qualities of sound are often responsible for the effect of the poem. In Tennyson’s “Tithonus,” Tithonus watches the dawn slowly emerge from his goddess lover:
Once more the old mysterious glimmer steals
From thy pure brows, and from thy shoulders pure,
And bosom beating with a heart renew’d.
Thy cheek begins to redden thro’ the gloom,
Thy sweet eyes brighten slowly close to mine,
Ere yet they blind the stars, and the wild team
Which love thee, yearning for thy yoke, arise,
And shake the darkness from their loosen’d manes,
And beat the twilight into flakes of fire.
I doubt that translations of these lines would convey their poem-ness very well, but the poetic is certainly found here. It is not simply that the noise of the poem is beautiful and filled with longing and awe. The sounds of the line are instrumental in generating the poem’s reality. We believe them and are drawn into the moment because of them. Frost and Arendt may be right when it comes to translating this type of poem, but Pound’s belief in the capability of the poetic to be translated is also correct.
A good friend of mine was once criticized in graduate school for believing that when he asked a question that he was supposed to answer it. Like my friend, I think it’s important at least to try. To the extent that we perceive or respond to translations of poetry as poems, similar to our response to poems in our own language, we know “the poetic” is present even if unlocated. To me, the poet who seems to translate best is Cavafy. I write this without the slightest knowledge of modern Greek, but I know that I have never come across a translation of Cavafy into English that did not affect me. That includes prose translations. Some of his translators, of course, are better than others, but his treatment of the subject matter in his work, whether the poems are set contemporaneously or in the Hellenic past, survives regardless. This may seem odd because I’m told that he utilizes both meter and a blend of katharevousa and demotic forms of Greek that would probably defy English translation.
I can’t write about Cavafy without an example. In “The God Abandons Antony,” he has a set piece that doesn’t seem promising. Yet, it works. For my purposes, I will choose the very understated translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
Like Pound’s image, this poem is “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” Cavafy does not tell us who is speaking to Antony, urging him, a worshipper of Bacchus, to a tragic nobility that rises above his ending. The speaker doesn’t disparage the sensual world in which Antony has lived and does not mention his military exploits. What the speaker says to Antony could be said to anyone. It is the reverse of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” with its “There is no part that does not see you. You must change your life.” It is too late for Antony to change anything. All he can do is affirm the choices he’s made. The speaker, for the fiction of the poem, is Antony’s own voice, speaking to himself. It is also Cavafy speaking to himself.
The poem here, which survives translation and the stripping away of whatever poetic devices it had in Greek, is located in the moment of reality created by the speaker’s voice. Think of it as an intersection between the setting of the fictional moment or, more simply, the story, the interior monologue, which is the voice, and the recognition this intersection summons in our minds as we read: this is how we speak, or should speak, to ourselves.
I am not suggesting that this is the only kind of poem that survives translation, but more generally, what survives translation in poems that move us is the reality of an experience or moment recreated in the receiving language. The poetic as an entity exists. It doesn’t require the formal elements we associate with poetry, although those elements may generate or define the structure of the poem and in some cases are essential to our understanding of the poem.
As readers in the 21st century, we are distrustful of voice and of language itself. We have been taught that voice is artifice, a construct, not a true expression of the consciousness of a person. I don’t want to argue with that, only to say that it’s irrelevant. All that we make is artifice. What is significant is the effect that what we make creates. That is the transmission of the poetic. We are moved, made to feel and see differently, by what appears real to us. For sure, it is a constructed reality, but one that must be true to our own sense of the world or we will reject it.
Even if we take a nominalist position and say that the poetic does not exist as an entity but only as various instances of experience, the experience of the poem happens nonetheless, and we have to account for it. Translation proves to us that something is being transmitted that is independent, at least to some extent, from its linguistic origins. Some poems are capable of bringing over to another language a reality that moves us. We believe the voices they create, and it is in the presence of such voices and in the consciousnesses they imply that we find the poem.