Attempted Treasons: Some Notes on Recent Translations

By Ali, Kazim | Field, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Attempted Treasons: Some Notes on Recent Translations


Ali, Kazim, Field


"Translations from Hafiz," translated by Matthew Rohrer, American Poetry Review 41:6 (Nov/Dec 2012)

Stolen Air: Selected Poems by Osip Mandelstam, translated by Christian Wiman (Ecco Press, 2012)

Dark Elderberry Branch: Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, a reading by Jean Valentine and Ilya Kaminsky (Alice James Books, 2012)

Alice Oswald, Memorial (Graywolf Press, 2012)

In the note accompanying his translations of Hafiz which appeared in a recent issue of American Poetry Review, Matthew Rohrer makes the kind of confession that usually makes me immediately suspicious: "I have never read Hafiz in his native language. But the more I read translations, the more I have come to understand that really, honestly, there is no such thing as the poem translated from one language to the next. There can't be." For the moment let me set aside my general worry about Hafiz once again being translated by a person who by his own admission knows neither the language nor the cultural, religious and linguistic contexts of Hafiz' production, and agree with the general character of Rohrer's statement. Unitalicize his "the," of course, and we would have a disagreement.

Rohrer goes on to quote Matthew Zapruder in saying that despite all the pitfalls and difficulties (and ultimately, that pesky builtin guarantee of failure) a translation can work if it aims to translate the "movement" of energy in the original poem. There is an idea here, probably becoming more popular in contemporary translation, that translation need not worry about the sound or rhythm of the original language, those physical characteristics of language that famously "do not translate," but rather should pay attention to meaning and sense-making mechanisms; in some new translations one sees a greater attention to the sentence structure and syntax and grammar of the original language insofar as those things reveal the outline of the mind in motion. Walter Benjamin would be proud: the places the translation fails reveals the actual core essence of the original poem.

"Like a parrot I said / what everyone else said," Rohrer's Hafiz declares, "Roses and weeds / are exactly the same." But for most of us, of course, roses and weeds aren't the same, and that's the problem, isn't it? If Hafiz is trying to write toward a dissolution of boundaries between an individual and the divine, then Rohrer's translation of the attention to spiritual intent to an attention to more earthy concerns of wine and sexuality may end up bringing that verve of language energy even more clearly to the fore - but they run the risk of missing the mark; of missing a lot of marks. And while it is fine to say then that there should be many translations of a poet, one still must confront the basic fact that the most readily available translations of Hafiz - including these ones - are all by men who have not read Hafiz.

Rohrer's translations stemmed from his reading stilted (and to his mind, unpoetic) literal versions made in Iran. He marvels at the physical beauty of the Farsi book he sees the poems in, but is "so mad at these terrible English versions of Hafiz." He goes on to claim, "I knew what he was talking about and these poems weren't talking about it. He was talking about getting drunk... he was talking about what it feels like to be alive." Once more, let me set aside the quibble that in Sufi poems of devotion mentions of wine and sex can often be metaphors for ecstatic connection to the divine and not mere "thisworld" (to borrow a phrase from Jean Valentine) revelry, and comment instead on the substance of Rohrer's response. He is describing here a moment felt often by readers of translations and even poetry in its original language: the moment the reader can see past or through the limits of language, history and culture to the unbridled and boundless "movements" of human perceptions. If you are reading a poem in an original language (often one you yourself have written) that seems limited in its music or perception, you might well attempt to rewrite it. …

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