Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

The Mockingbird's Chops: Charles Wright in Italian

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

The Mockingbird's Chops: Charles Wright in Italian

Article excerpt

Those of us who translate poetry may be tempted to think of ourselves as heroic (if not simply bemused) in our dedication to a calling whose difficulty approaches the impossible. The difficulty fascinates, drawing us to the task like mariners to Sirens, and the fascination only increases in proportion to the difficulty. Walter Benjamin may intend to give us hope when he asserts that "the higher the level of a work, the more does it remain translatable even if its meaning is touched upon only fleetingly," but the chime of his last word-fleetingly-is a reminder of how hard it is to transport the sense and the attributes of poetry to a foreign shore.

This essay is one of a series exploring issues in the translation of poetry, taking its examples from American poets translated into Italian. (A complementary series discusses Italian poets rendered in English.) While the choice of language reflects my work as a translator and my interests in Italian literature and art, these issues arise when translating poetry from any language. More broadly still, they are attendant to what Tim Parks calls "translating style." Poetry in translation is like wine in the pre-sulfate days, when certain bottles traveled and others did not: Some aspects of poetry survive the trip, some arrive in bad shape, some are lost entirely. One of the first casualties of the translation voyage is style, and one of the most fragile elements of style is tone.

Tone is the essence of Charles Wright's work, because his poetry is so musical, and because its effect is so dependent on voice (making it distinguishable, up to a point, from poetry more reliant on other elements, such as traditional form, meter and rhyme, narration or psychology, experimental language, or particular subject matter). Composed of subtly modulated registers of speech and shaped by a resonantly American cultural setting, Wright's distinctive voice can be elusive for a translator.

It is not news to say that important subtleties are lost in translation, and it is not always worthwhile to critique a translator, since the exercise often degenerates into carping and second-guessing. But it can be instructive to look at translation's losses with an eye to how and why they occur. The translation process (the philosophy and method, the choices available, the decisions made) can become a lens; if we use this lens to look back at the poem and refocus our attention, we can study the relationship between elements that are difficult to transpose and qualities that are central to the poetry's effect. Approached in this spirit, comparing an original poem with a translation has a larger and more useful aim than finding fault with a translator; it has the potential to shed light on the art of translation itself, on the differences between two languages-and most importantly, on the nature of style.

When a poetic style relies on voice, as in the case of Wright, the translator faces a difficult task. Admittedly this is only one type of difficulty. Formal poets, like Anthony Hecht, Richard Wilbur, or the young Robert Lowell, confront us with problems of their own, beginning with the fateful choice of whether or not to rhyme-a classic translator's dilemma. (Eschewing rhyme may seem like taking down the net before playing tennis, but it is often done; Richard Howard, one of translation's maestros, while acknowledging that Baudelaire "always rhymes," foregoes rhyme in his version of Les Fleurs du Mal "for the sake of cumulative effects.") The difficulty posed by Wright's poetry, with its stress on nuances and variations of voice, is only one of several types-but it poses a considerable challenge.

What is the nature of Wright's voice? The dominant mode of his poetry is lyrical, but it is never just that, and the task might be easier if it were. A translator of Derek Walcott, by contrast, can rely on his tendency to gravitate, or rise, toward a single rhetorical level, like a cathedral organ recital whose sound carries you along as it swells and fills up space. …

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