Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Wordsworth Stranded: The Prelude and Mark Strand's "The Untelling"

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Wordsworth Stranded: The Prelude and Mark Strand's "The Untelling"

Article excerpt

  "Say," I said. "If translation is a kind of reading, the assumption
  or transformation of one personal idiom into another, then shouldn't
  it be possible to translate work done in one's own language?
  Shouldn't it be possible to translate Wordsworth or Shelley into
  Strand?"
    "You will discover," said Borges, "that Wordsworth refuses to be
  translated. It is you who must be translated, who must become, for
  however long, the author of The Prelude. That is what happened to
  Pierre Menard when he translated Cervantes."
  --Mark Strand, "Translation," The Continuous Life (54)

Given the risks, one would probably forgive Mark Strand if he chose not to "translate" Wordsworth. In fact, he seems to renounce any such project in the W entry from "A Poet's Alphabet":

  Think if I had written the first hundred or so lines in Book XIII of
  the 1805 Prelude, what a great poet I would be. I would have to
  destroy everything else I had written to keep people from saying,
  "What a falling off there has been in Strand's work." So I wouldn't
  be me, and I would not have my poems, and I would have nothing to
  worry about. W is for Wordsworth, who wrote what I didn't and couldn't
  and won't. (Weather 15)

With a mixture of defiance and regret, Strand acknowledges that he would rather "be me," even though being me means being a lesser poet than Wordsworth and, therefore, having something "to worry about." Of course, only Wordsworth ever ran the risk of actually becoming Wordsworth; and some might argue that even Wordsworth occasionally escaped that peril. But for all its playfulness, "Translation" articulates some real concerns about writing in the shadow of a poet too powerful, too much himself, to be amenable to translation--"Translation" deals, that is, not just with the practical and theoretical concerns of an experienced translator (which Strand is) but with something like an anxiety of influence. One would have doubts, of course, about a poet who, when writing under the influence, produced "translations" that remained too literal or transparent, that lacked any character of their own or proved unfaithful to the grammar and idioms of the translator's language. Strand implies as much elsewhere in "Translation"; he suggests that "the translation of poetry is best left to poets who are in possession of an English they have each made their own" and who can therefore engage in "a transaction between individual idioms" (Continuous 53). A work that failed to complete such transactions might prove analogous to the "almost perfect" translation of Heine's "Du bist wie eine Blume" produced, after much dogged perusal of Mathilda Schwantzhacker's German-English dictionary, by Paul Hiebert's fictional Sarah Binks: "You are like one flower, / So swell, so good, and clean; / I look you on and longing, / Slinks me the heart between" (40). (1)

"Translation" offers a solution to the anxieties of translation: when the speaker's four-year-old son, "hunched over, polishing [the poet's] shoes," complains that his own "translations of Palazzeschi are going poorly" (Continuous 48), the startled parent advises him to "find a young poet to translate, someone [his] own age, whose poems are no good. Then, if [his] translations are bad, it won't matter." Strand himself has yet to follow this advice. It matters if his translations are bad, since he has been translating Wordsworth (among others) into Strand since at least the early 1970s (about 20 years before "Translation" appeared). Strand's translations of Wordsworth appear in his essay "Landscape and the Poetry of the Self" (Weather); they appear in other nonfiction prose, in prose poems (The Monument and "Translation"), in interviews, and, most significantly of all, in "The Untelling," the longish, self-reflexive childhood narrative from The Story of Our Lives (1973) whose "source," according to Strand at least, "is really a rereading of 'The Prelude'" (qtd. …

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