Poets tackle translation at KWH

“It’s amazing to us that people are so interested in translation,” marvels Kelly Writers House Director Jennifer Snead. Historically, she says, “It’s been difficult to sell Americans on translation in general. I mean, we have this language thing.” Judging from the success of two recent translation-oriented programs at the Writers House, the Penn community, at least, may be getting over the “language thing.”

This month the House hosts “Old World/New World,” a translation event featuring poet-translators reading from their translations. The idea for this evening of readings came from Lynn Levin, an adjunct assistant professor of English at Drexel University, who gathered together half a dozen poets who also spend time translating other poets’ work.

Established poets Richard Jackson and Elaine Terranova, who both translate classical authors, are, she says, “the anchors of the show.” The other participants—Levin, Aaren Perry, J.C. Todd and Randall Couch—all work with Latin American poets. “Latin American literature is flourishing and people are rediscovering all these wonderful writers,” says Levin, who will share her translations of the work of Peruvian poets Luis Nieto and Odi Gonzales. For poets, says Levin, translating poetry can be a revelatory exercise. “When you get into the trenches of translating somebody else’s poem you see their thought patterns and image strategies in a really organic way. Re-experiencing the other poet’s creative process, you literally become their hands in another language.”

Within the world of translation there are many hotly debated issues, according to Levin: Should the translation be word for word? Should you strive to reproduce the music? Should you strive to reproduce the theme? Should you recreate the poem in your own image? Should you give it an American life unique to the translator? “People ... talk about this all the time,” she says. “You’ve got your purists and people doing variations and people who don’t know the original languages but work from English versions to create a more contemporary idiom, which can be immensely valuable.”

The bottom line, says Levin, is that it must stand alone as a poem. “It has to have music and flow and be a valid poem on its own.” According to Randall Couch, manager of communications design in Penn’s Information Systems and Computing Department and a poet who has translated the work of Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, “all translations fail.” That’s because every translation results from a series of conscious choices. Every phrase and idiom in a poem functions in many ways and, says Couch, in order to decide how to render a particular expression you have to see all the ways it’s working and decide which are most important to capture and which you can sacrifice. “It’s always impossible,” says Couch. “But the challenge is a lot of fun.”

Working with contemporary poets, Levin must ask permission to translate their work, but she also frequently gets the satisfaction of an ongoing dialogue. “I can email Gonzales and say, ‘Here are my translations of your poems. Are they accurate? Are they okay?’ and he’ll say ‘I love this, but what I really meant in this line is this.’” The copyright on the classical poetry has, of course, long expired, so their translators sidestep those particular sets of worries—and privileges—though Levin is quick to point out that the works are far from dead. The meaning of a literary work changes, she says, as the social context changes. For example, with Terranova’s translation of Euripedes’ Iphigenia at Aulis (published in 1998 by Penn Press as part of its Penn Greek Drama Series), “It was anti-war to begin with but now ... there’s a new relevance.” Petrarch, she says, offers more timeless reflections on concepts like remorse, beauty and truth. “One of the things I love about Richard’s Petrarch translation is that he can reproduce the extreme sincerity of expression this Renaissance poet used, which is a little out of vogue now when we tend to like coolness and irony. Translating Petrarch, you’re allowed to be that open hearted.”

“Old World/New World: A Translation Event Featuring Poet-Translators from the Vermont College and Warren Wilson/Goddard MFA Programs” takes place Nov. 20 from 3 to 5 p.m. in the Arts Café at Kelly Writers House. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT or go to www.writing.upenn.edu/~wh/.

Originally published on November 18, 2004