The Poet as Translator

When discussing the poet as translator, from time immemorial it has been the custom to start out by quoting Dryden. I shan’t, but I will try to illustrate Dryden’s main thesis — that the translation of poetry into poetry is an act of sympathy — the identification of another person with oneself, the transference of his utterance to one’s own utterance. The ideal translator, as we all know well, is not engaged in matching the words of a text with the words of his own language. He is hardly even a proxy, but rather an all-out advocate. His job is one of the most extreme examples of special pleading. So the prime criterion of successful poetic translation is assimilability. Does it get across to the jury?

If we approach the great historic translations this way it is easy to understand why they are great. It is obvious on the most general survey of English literature that the classic translations of the classics accompany the classics of English, occur in the periods of highest productivity and greatest social — what shall we say? cohesion? euphoria? Tudor, Jacobean, Caroline, Augustan or Victorian, many of the translations are themselves among the major English works of their time. Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, North’s Plutarch, Pope’s Homer — and, of course, the King James Bible. All the great translations survive into our time because they were so completely of their own time. This means simply that the translator’s act of identification was so complete that he spoke with the veridical force of his own utterance, conscious of communicating directly to his own audience.

Of course, many such translations are ethnocentric to a degree — sometimes to the degree that they have turned the original into something totally different. This is not true of many of the greatest translations but it is true of some. Is FitzGerald a translation of Omar? Here the two cultures are so radically different, all that can be said is that FitzGerald was probably all of medieval Persia that Victorian England was prepared to assimilate. The only real problem is Urquhart. It is hard to imagine anything less like the benign humanism of Rabelais than this crabbed and cracked provincial euphuism. The point of Rabelais is that he was the opposite of eccentric — he was profoundly, utterly normal. Urquhart produced a Scottish classic, and so for Englishmen Rabelais will always be an oddity. This is unfortunate, but then, is Rabelais’ normality normal in the British Isles? I think not. Perhaps his Gallic magnanimity could only cross the Channel tricked out in tartan stripes for a harlequinade.

It is the custom to deride Pope’s Homer. Nothing could be less like Homer. But the eighteenth century certainly didn’t think so — on either side of the Channel. This was the Homer they were prepared to accept. Of course, Pope was a neurasthenic, a dandy in Baudelaire’s sense, or Wallace Stevens’s, a thoroughly urbanized exquisite who had professionalized his nervous system. Whatever his formal commitments (Pope was a Roman Catholic) his real system of values was only a specialized hierarchy of nervous response. Certainly, nothing less like Homer could be imagined. But each age demands its own image. The other eighteenth-century Homers are not Homer either; they are just mediocre or bad. Is Butler Homer? I suppose he is for those of us who are rationalist, utilitarian, humanitarian. He is a fine Reform Club Homer. I still prefer Butler to Butcher and Lang or William Morris, let alone T.E. Lawrence. However, it is simply not true that the Butcher and Lang version is any more false to the text than Butler. Butcher and Lang is Homer for the readers of The Idylls of the King.

I am not proposing to dissolve all questions of authenticity in some sort of vulgar pragmatism. The text is always there as a control. The recent hair-raising performance of Robert Graves, for instance, both violates the text and fails to transmit anything resembling Homer. This is not Homer for the readers of Punch; it is the invasion of the text of Homer by the text of Punch. Here we have passed the limits of eccentricity. Pope’s whole age was eccentric, as was Urquhart’s. But theirs was a viable eccentricity; Graves’s is not. It is an unpleasant eccentric eccentricity.

The first question must be: is this as much of Homer, or whomever, as can be conveyed on these terms to this audience? Second, of course: is it good in itself? Lord Derby or T.E. Lawrence are simply not good enough English. Graves is simply in bad taste, and the Heroic Age, by definition, was before bad taste was invented. It is possible, of course, that a given audience cannot assimilate enough of the original to justify the effort to achieve a significant resemblance. How much of Les Liaisons Dangereuses could be translated into the world of William Law? How much does Proust mean to a Chinese collective farmer and vice versa? Imagine Dante translated by Dorothy Parker or Shakespeare by Tristan Tzara. You don’t have to imagine. Dante has recently been translated by someone not too unlike Dorothy Parker. Read it.

As time goes on all translations become dated. Before the language changes the society changes. The Butcher and Lang Homer is repugnant to us because society has changed, but has not changed so much that it has become strange to us. Pope, on the other hand, speaks a language that, considered purely linguistically, seems closer to our own, but his world has receded so far that we read him for his special and extraordinary insights and distortions. At length language changes so much that it becomes liturgical. This is a natural thing and can never be imitated. The nineteenth century made the mistake of thinking it could. Nothing sounds less like liturgical English than William Morris trying to imitate it. This led to terrible waste — I doubt if Morris’s wonderful Saga Library was ever readable by anybody, and there the great sagas are, locked up in that ridiculous language. On the other hand, we never think of the Prophets as speaking like a committee of Jacobean Bishops; we think of the Jacobean Bishops as speaking like the Prophets. At last the language becomes really foreign. Chaucer’s wonderful rendering of the Consolation of Boethius sounds splendid to us, and certainly seems by far the best ever made in any language. It didn’t sound that way to generations closer to Chaucer, not even as far away as Dryden and Pope. They read Chaucer as still in their own language. We do not, but in another that we have no difficulty translating as we go along. Of course, there is here the special factor: Chaucer was an incomparably finer poet than his original.

What I have been trying to convey indirectly is what the poet does in the living relationship of translation, the actual act. Or at least what I think he does and what I presume I do myself. Although it is not itself a translation, consider such a poem as H.D.’s “Heliodora.” It may seem dated to those who are not old enough to have mellowed to H.D.’s enthusiasms, to those who are not young enough to have never heard of her. Its language is very much the argot of Bloomsbury aestheticism with a strong lacing of the Chautauqua Circuit. Still, I think it does convey, all allowances being made, the excitement of translation of great poetry. It certainly does recall very vividly to me my own experience — my first translation from the Greek, a whole evening till after midnight spent in the continuously exalted discussion of one small Sapphic fragment with a friend who was then an undergraduate student of Paul Shorey’s.

Here is the H.D.:


He and I sought together,
over the spattered table,
rhymes and flowers,
gifts for a name.

He said, among others,
“I will bring”
(and the phrase was just and good,
but not as good as mine,)
“the narcissus that loves the rain.”

We strove for a name,
while the light of the lamps burnt thin
and the outer dawn came in,
a ghost, the last at the feast
or the first,
to sit within
with the two that remained
to quibble in flowers and verse
over a girl’s name.

He said, “the rain-loving,”
I said, “the narcissus, drunk,
drunk with the rain.
Yet I had lost
for he said,
“the rose, the lover’s gift,
is loved-of-love,”
he said it,

I waited, even as he spoke,
to see the room filled with a light,
as when in winter,
the embers catch in a wind
when a room is dank;
so it would be filled, I thought,
our room with a light
when he said,
(and he said it first,)
“the rose, the lover’s delight,
is loved-of-love,”
but the light was the same.

Then he caught,
seeing the fire in my eyes,
my fire, my fever, perhaps,
for he leaned
with the purple wine
stained on his sleeve,
and said this:
“did you ever think
a girl’s mouth,
caught in a kiss,
is a lily that laughs?”

I had not.
I saw it now
as men must see it forever afterwards;
no poet could write again,
“the red lily,
a girl’s laugh caught in a kiss”;
it was his to pour in the vat
from which all poets dip and quaff,
for poets are brothers in this.

So I saw the fire in his eyes,
it was almost my fire,
(he was younger,)
I saw the face so white,
my heart beat,
it was almost my phrase;
I said, “surprise the muses,
take them by surprise;
it is late,
those ladies sleep, the nine,
our own king’s mistresses.”

A name to rhyme,
flowers to bring to a name,
what was one girl faint and shy,
with eyes like the myrtle,
(I said: “her underlids
are rather like myrtle,”)
to vie with the nine?

Let him take the name,
he had the rhymes,
“the rose, loved-of-love,
the lily, a mouth that laughs,”
he had the gift,
“the scented crocus,
the purple hyacinth,”
what was one girl to the nine?

He said:
“I will make her a wreath”;
he said:
“I will write it thus:

I will bring you the lily that laughs,
I will twine
with soft narcissus, the myrtle,
sweet crocus, white violet,
the purple hyacinth, and last,
the rose, loved-of-love,
that these may drip on your hair
the less soft flowers,
may mingle sweet with the sweet
of Heliodora’s locks,

(He wrote “myrrh-curled,”
I think, the first.)

I said:
“they sleep, the nine,”
when he shouted swift and passionate;
that for the nine!
above the hills,
the sun is about to wake,
and to-day white violets
shine beside white lilies
adrift on the mountain side;
to-day the narcissus opens
that loves the rain.

I watched him to the door,
catching his robe
as the wine-bowl crashed to the floor,
spilling a few wet lees,
(ah, his “purple hyacinth!”)
I saw him out of the door,
I thought:
there will never be a poet
in all the centuries after this,
who will dare write,
after my friend’s verse,
“a girl’s mouth
is a lily kissed.”

What H.D. was doing in this rather precious and somewhat dated little drama was objectifying the story of her own possession by the ghost of Meleager while translating his stephanos, his proem to his anthology. Whatever else she has done, she has conveyed the poignancy of that feeling of possession and the glamour of the beautiful Greek words as they come alive in one’s very own English. Most of the epithets can be found in the lovely 147th Epigram of the 5th Book, and who will ever forget the first time he ever saw them, bright with their old Greek life on the page? That 147th Epigram has been translated by most of those who have taken the Anthology to English, but only H.D. brings over the glamour and excitement of the language.

Now let us look at a selection from the great number of translations of Sappho’s “Orchard,” the poem I translated so long ago under identical emotional circumstances, and finally my own.

. . . And by the cool waterside the breeze rustles amid
the apple-branches, and the quivering leaves shed lethargy.


And round about the cool water gurgles through apple-boughs, and slumber streams from quivering leaves.


And by the cool stream the breeze murmurs through apple branches and slumber pours down from quivering leaves.


Cool waters tumble, singing as they go
Through appled boughs. Softly the leaves are dancing.
Down streams a slumber on the drowsy flow,
      My soul entrancing.


Through orchard-plots with fragrance crowned
The clear cold fountain murmuring flows;
And forest leaves with rustling sound
Invite to soft repose.


All around through branches of apple-orchards
Cool streams call, while down from the leaves a-tremble
      Slumber distilleth.


By the cool water the breeze murmurs, rustling
Through apple branches, while from quivering leaves
      Streams down deep slumber.


. . . about the cool water
the wind sounds through sprays
of apple, and from the quivering leaves
slumber pours down. . . .


I hold no brief for my own translation, but at the time I did it, it was an entirely original experience with me, or rather, I should say, with us, for, as was the case with H.D.’s poem, there were two of us working on it together — and neither of us was familiar with any other English version. That evening was one of the memorable experiences of my life, just because of the completeness of projection into the experience of that great dead Greek woman. On inspection of these various versions it is obvious that what matters most is sympathy — the ability to project into Sappho’s experience and then to transmit it back into one’s own idiom with maximum viability.

There is a special factor here, something that comes up in almost all translations of Sappho from Catullus to our own day. There is a special, vertiginous exaltation in Sappho’s language, not only in the phrases of a poem like the one to Anactoria, which is about such a state, but even in the very few words surviving in some of the fragments. Both H.D. and those two very exalted ladies who called themselves Michael Field not only felt this but they all wrote poems which are expansions of tiny fragments of Sappho, and which in each case attribute to the inspiring fragment precisely this supernatural luster. Is there any basis for this in fact? It is easy to see what an Englishwoman of Sappho’s temperament could do with Fragment 27, optais amme, “you burn me . . .” but is there anything actually inflammatory about Fragment 106: Met’ emoi meli mete melissais, “Neither honey nor bees for me.” Does it bear H.D.’s almost hysterical expansion? I think not. Actually it means, “If I can’t have roses without thorns I won’t have them at all,” and is a proverb quoted by Sappho. Here is a poem by Michael Field which is an expansion of Fragments 109 and 110: Kotharos gar o chrysos io and Dios gar pais est’ o chrysos / kenon ou sees oude kis / dardaptois. o de damnatai / kai phrenon brotean kratiston.

Yea, gold is son of Zeus; no rust
Its timeless light can stain.
The worm that brings men’s flesh to dust
Assaults its strength in vain.
More gold than gold the love I sing,
A hard, inviolable thing.

Men say the passions should grow old
With waning years; my heart
Is incorruptible as gold,
’Tis my immortal part.
Nor is there any god can lay
On love the finger of decay.

This is a rather lovely little poem, perhaps the best in the Michael Field volume of reconstructions of Sappho, Long Ago. But it is not Sappho — it is very specifically the fin de siècle Lesbian sensibility that flourished alongside the poetry of Wilde and his friends. It is part of the same myth as Les Chansons de Bilitis and the poems of Renée Vivien. The amusing thing about it is that the Greek “originals” are not originals at all, but paraphrases in Sappho’s metre from indirect references in Pausanias and a scholiast on Pindar. The Sapphic legend was so powerful that anything was enough to set off her late-born sisters. Here sympathy achieves a kind of translation when the source does not even exist. In a few of the translations of the “Apple Orchard” lack of sympathy leads to ludicrous effects — to words (for instance, “gurgles”) that would never have occurred to anyone who bothered to project himself imaginatively into Sappho’s experience.

Still there is the question of the awesome luster of Sappho’s simplest words. Is it there or do we read it into her fragments? Partly it is a function of attention. If you isolate two sentences of a skillful description of passion or of Nature and say, “Pay attention, these are by the greatest lyric poet who ever lived,” the mind will find values in them which may have been there, but which would normally have been passed over. Prisoners with nothing else to do, their eyes focused on the stained ceilings of their cells for hours, can find more there to look at than they might in the Sistine Chapel. True, Sappho’s apple orchard or her waning moon have all the intensity of Japanese haiku, but so do Frances Densmore’s schematic translations of Chippewa and Teton Sioux poetry — and, we should never forget, so do hundreds of mediocre English translations of Japanese haiku themselves, which transmit none of the special virtues of the originals. I am afraid that I must admit that the supernatural gleam that seems to emanate from the oio polu leukoteron of Fragment 62, “far whiter than an egg,” is a delusion, on a par with the mystical vision which comes with staring too long at an unshaded electric bulb or from taking one of Aldous Huxley’s pharmaceutical nirvana-producers. But, still, in Sappho as in Homer, the simplest sentences do have a wonder, never equaled again in the West and never translated to any other language.

I am going to give you a little anthology of translations, all of them I think successful. They are not all successful for all the same reasons, and one of them is definitely eccentric, but I think they all exemplify a very high degree of imaginative identification with their originals:

The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter

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 Chokan:
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-to-yen, 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 Cho-fu-Sa.



The Shadow of the Orange-Leaves

The young girl who works
all day in her solitary chamber
is moved to tenderness if she
hears of a sudden the sound of
a jade flute.
And she imagines that she
hears the voice of a young boy.

Through the paper of the
windows the shadow of the
orange-leaves enters and sits
on her knees;

And she imagines that some-
body has torn her silken dress.


Lugete, O Veneres Cupidinesque

Weep, weep, ye Loves and Cupids all
And ilka Man o’ decent feelin’:
My lassie’s lost her wee, wee bird,
An that’s a loss ye’ll ken, past healin’.

The lassie lo’ed him like her een:
The darling wee thin lo’ed the ither,
And knew and nestled to her breast,
As ony bairnie to her mither.

Her bosom was his dear, dear haunt —
So dear, he cared no long to leave it;
He’d nae but gang his ain sma’ jaunt,
And flutter piping back bereavit.

The wee thing’s gane the shadowy road
That’s never travelled back by ony:
Out on ye, Shades! ye’re greedy aye
To grab at ought that’s brave and bonny.

Puir, foolish, fondling, bonnie bird,
Ye little ken what wark ye’re leavin’:
Ye’ve gar’d my lassie’s een grow red,
Those bonnie een grow red wi’ grievin.’

Trans. G.S. DAVIES

Me Nive Candenti Petiit Modo Julia

White as her hand fair Julia threw
A ball of silver snow;
The frozen globe fired as it flew,
My bosom felt it glow.

Strange power of love! whose great command
Can thus a snow-ball arm;
When sent, fair Julia, from thine hand
Ev’n ice itself can warm.

How should we then secure our hearts?
Love’s power we all must feel,
Who thus can by strange magic arts
In ice his flames conceal.

’Tis thou alone, fair Julia, know,
Canst quench my fierce desire;
But not with water, ice or snow,
But with an equal fire.


Chorus of Trojan Women

At high-tide,
the sea — they say —
left a deep pool
below the rock-shelf:
in that clear place
where the women dip
their water-jars,
my friend steeped her veils
and spread the scarlet stuff
across the hot ridge
of sun-baked rocks:
she first brought word
of my mistress:
“She lies sick,
faint on her couch
within the palace;
her thin veils
cast a shadow
across her bright locks.
I count three days
since her beautiful lips
touched the fine wheat —
her frail body
disdains nourishment:
she suffers —
some secret hurt
hastens her death.”

Surely, O young queen,
you are possessed
by Pan, by Hecate,
by some spirit
of the Corybantic rites,
or by Cybele
from the hill-rocks!
or have you sinned,
that you suffer thus,
against Artemis?
Have you offered
no sacrificial cakes
to the huntress?
For she walks above earth,
along the sea-coast,
and across the salt trail
of the sea-drift.

Or is it that your lord,
born of Erechtheus,
the king most noble in descent,
neglects you in the palace
and your bride-couch
for another in secret?
Or has some sea-man,
landing at our port,
friendly to ships,
brought sad news from Crete?
or some great hurt
binds you to your couch,
broken in spirit.

Trans. H.D.

An Elegy


O youngest, best-loved daughter of Hsieh,
Who unluckily married this penniless scholar,
You patched my clothes from your own wicker basket,
And I coaxed off your hair pins of gold, to buy wine with;
For dinner we had to pick wild herbs —
And to use dry locust-leaves for our kindling.
. . . Today they are paying me a hundred thousand —
And all that I can bring to you is a temple sacrifice.


We joked, long ago, about one of us dying,
But suddenly, before my eyes, you are gone.
Almost all your clothes have been given away;
Your needlework is sealed, I dare not look at it. . . .
I continue your bounty to our men and our maids —
Sometimes, in a dream, I bring you gifts.
. . . This is a sorrow that all mankind must know —
But not as those know it who have been poor together.


I sit here alone, mourning for us both.
How many years do I lack now of my threescore and ten?
There have been better men than I to whom heaven denied a son,
There was a poet better than I whose dead wife could not hear him.
What have I to hope for in the darkness of our tomb?
You and I had little faith in a meeting after death —
Yet my open eyes can see all night
That lifelong trouble of your brow.


Davies’s Catullus has been put down, by a Sasenach, as a charming trick. Perhaps it is, but it is a moving poem in its own right and makes a comparison made many times before — the Celtic Catullus and the curiously Roman Burns. Also, Englishmen never really believe that Scots speak their own language. I prefer to think that Davies was so deeply moved and identified himself so closely with Catullus that he naturally turned to his most natural idiom — the Doric.

Soame Jenyns, not the curator of the British Museum, but the eighteenth-century churchman, seems to me to have achieved something very rare — a perfect translation of the most untranslatable type of Latin verse — those light lyrics and erotic elegies and little satires which are grouped in the Petroniana and which have otherwise only been captured by Ben Jonson and Herrick, and in their cases have been actually paraphrases. Not only is the English as close as possible to the metric of “Petronius,” but the Latin and the English can both be sung to the same melody, “Phillis why shoulde we delaie?” by Waller with music by Henry Lawes. This can be found in Potter’s Reliquary of English Song, and you can try it yourself if you like. Jenyns catches not only the tone of the original, but he handles language in exactly the same way. The only thing that is missing is the deep hidden undercurrent of ironic disillusion and memory of blood that haunts all these little poems and that led to their being attributed to Petronius in the first place.

Euripides was certainly a neurasthenic, always in quest of a new shudder of hyperaesthesia, and H.D. of all translators is closest to him in this. It is significant that she was herself so hung up on precisely this entranced intensity of response that she was unable to manage the whole plays — Iphigenia and Hippolytus — that she attempted, but translated only the high spots. They remain, nonetheless, the most Euripidean Euripides in English.

The greatest translators of Chinese — Judith Gautier, Klabund, Pound — knew less than nothing of Chinese when they did their best translations. In fact, Judith Gautier’s lover and informant was a Thai, and himself had only the foggiest notions of the meanings of the Chinese text. Stuart Merrill was America’s greatest poet between the New Englanders and the post-World War I moderns. He is practically unknown in this country because he lived and wrote almost exclusively in French. His English is definitely Edwardian or McKinleyan, and suffers from all the vices of The Yellow Book. Yet who could quarrel with this “translation”? It is a perfect transmission of one of the dominant themes of Chinese poetry and conveys exactly the neurotic lassitude and weakness of the sex-starved girls and deserted concubines who fill Chinese literature.

Pound worked from the notebooks of Fenollosa, who was himself badly informed by a Japanese whose knowledge of Chinese was already out of date, hopelessly Japonified for even the Japan of their day. Nevertheless this is one of the dozen or so major poems to be written by an American in the twentieth century, and still the best single translation from the Chinese.

I have included Witter Bynner’s translation of Yüan Chên’s elegy for his dead wife because I think it is, again, one of the best American poems of this country, incomparably Bynner’s best poem, and, of all these poems, it conveys an overwhelming sense of identification with the situation of the original author. Mistakes, or at least dubious interpretations of a few words have been pointed out since it was made, and Bynner has discarded all the obliquity and literary reference of the original. Still, I think that from every point of view it is the second-ranking single translation from the Chinese out of all we have so far done.

Not only have the best “translators” not known Chinese, there is only one great translator who has, and only one in the second class — Arthur Waley, of course, and Bernhard Karlgren. Waley is a special case. He is a fine poet who has deliberately limited himself, as a kind of rigorous aesthetic discipline — a little like the self-imposed rigors of Paul Valéry — to translation from the Chinese and Japanese. Karlgren must be a special case, too, because he is the only Sinologist in any language who is any good at all as a translator. Possibly this is because he translates not into his own Swedish but into another foreign language — English.

I think this is due to the primitive state of Sinology. Most Sinologists are philologists. They are all too close to the language as such and too fascinated by its special very un-English and yet curiously very English-like problems ever to see the texts as literature. The grammarian takes over in the decadence of the study of a language; but he also takes over — in fact he is essential — in its infancy. Karlgren does as a matter of fact seem to sit very easy to Chinese; you can hear him ordering a meal in Cantonese or bawling out a bureaucrat in the National Language.

A bit of the GI approach to language — Où est, les cigarettes, les girls, le restaurant, le W.C.? — would be a great help to contemporary Sinology and would go a long way to overcome the philologists’ barbarism. After all, you can do nothing whatever with poetry until you comprehend that it too is about “the necessities of life.”

One of the most engaging Hellenists of our time, Robert Byron, believed that all ancient Greek should be given the modern pronunciation. There is something to be said for this. Homer certainly did not sound like the waiter in the corner beanery, but it is possible that he sounded even less like the German and American professors, and it is certainly great fun to sit and eat pie à la mode after midnight and swap quotations with a lonely counterman. Somehow Pericles seems more available. This again is the virtue of the Italian and Roman Catholic pronunciation of Latin. The Tantum Ergo of Aquinas, known to children in the slums of Youngstown or Belfast, shades imperceptibly into the chirr of Horace’s bracelets and back to the old Saturnian stomp. Communion is as important to the poet-translator as communication. I was taught the correct pronunciation of Latin, but I have never been able to take it seriously. On the other hand, who has ever forgotten the first time, on the streets of modern Rome, that he looked down at his feet and saw SPQR on a manhole cover?

Sympathy can carry you very far if you have talent to go with it. Hart Crane never learned to speak French and at the time he wrote his triptych poem “Voyages” he could not read it at all. His only informant was Allen Tate, a doubtful guide at best in this field, and his image of Rimbaud was an absurd inflation of the absurd Rimbaud myth. Yet “Voyages” is by far the best transmission of Rimbaud into English that exists — the purest distillation of the boyish hallucinations of the “Bateau Ivre.”

Sympathy, or at least projection, can carry you too far. All sensible men to whom English is native are distressed at the French enthusiasm for M. Poë, the author of “Jamais Plus.” Nobody in France seems to be able to learn ever, that Poe’s verse is dreadful doggerel and his ratiocinative fiction absurd and his aesthetics the standard lucubrations that go over in Young Ladies’ Study Circles and on the Chautauqua Circuit. The reason is, of course, that the French translate their whole culture into Poe before they even start to read him. They think his formalism is their formalism and his scientific speculation the speculation of d’Alembert. They think the giddy early nineteenth-century misses in Baltimore who swooned over the architectonics of “Eureka” are the same overcivilized courtesans who once bestowed their favors on the brocaded inventors of ingenious mathematical machines and, for that matter, on homespun Le Bon Franklin. In this they are exactly like the brave French Jesuits whose adroit questions taught the Iroquois to expatiate on the mysteries of the Great Spirit, a deity who had migrated unnoticed through the empyrean across the Atlantic from the court of Louis XV.

Finally, what does all this mean to the poet himself? What has it all meant to me? As Eliot, paraphrasing Dryden, has said, inspiration isn’t always at its peak. Today we demand practically unrelieved intensity in poetry. The versified agricultural handbooks of the past are not for us — not even the verse novels of the Victorians. No poet ever could meet such a demand every day in the week. Translation, however, can provide us with poetic exercise on the highest level. It is the best way to keep your tools sharp until the great job, the great moment, comes along. More important, it is an exercise of sympathy on the highest level. The writer who can project himself into the exultation of another learns more than the craft of words. He learns the stuff of poetry. It is not just his prosody he keeps alert, it is his heart. The imagination must evoke, not just a vanished detail of experience, but the fullness of another human being.

Last and not least, translation saves you from your contemporaries. You can never really model yourself on Tu Fu or Leopardi or Paulus the Silentiary, but if you try you can learn a great deal about yourself. It is all too easy to model yourself on T.S. Eliot or William Carlos Williams or W.H. Auden or Allen Ginsberg — fatally easy — thousands do it every day. But you will never learn anything about yourself. Translation is flattering, too. I don’t at all like feeling like T.S. Eliot or Allen Ginsberg. All through the world’s literature there are people I enjoy knowing intimately, whether Abelard or Rafael Alberti, Pierre Reverdy or Tu Fu, Petronius or Aesculapius. You meet such a nice class of people.



“The Poet as Translator” was presented as a lecture at the University of Texas (November 1959) and included in a follow-up symposium volume, The Craft and Context of Translation (University of Texas Press, 1961). It was reprinted in Assays (1961) and in World Outside the Window: Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth (1987). Copyright 1959. Reproduced here by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Rexroth himself was a superb translator of poetry from seven different languages.

Other Rexroth Essays