The Poem Itself


So I’m attempting to read a book of poems written by Stephane Mallarme.  However, the book I checked-out has thrown me for a loop.  I notice some of the poems have been translated a little loosely .

My first impression is that I will not like the poetry of Mallarme, but I’m not sure I can really tell by a loose translation.  Maybe it’s actually the poetry of the translator I don’t like!

I admit that I have a view of translation that cuts against the modern grain.  Today’s view, the enlightened view, is that the translator is supposed to convey the general tone of the expressions used, not a translation of the expressions word-for-word.  Languages are organically different, the argument goes; one can’t just replace the words “little,” “red,” “wagon” from one language with the words “little,” “red,” “wagon” from another language.  Translation is an art, not a science.  A translator must take a certain license.  He or she must find expressions in the receiving language that correspond, in the receiving culture, to the original expression used, as judged by the translator.

Oh, I beg plead and cajole to differ.

Give me my poets raw.  Unwashed even.  Let me deal with the literal translation.  Have some faith in me, the reader.  If the literal translation results in utter nonsense, then so be it.  Perhaps an explanatory editorial comment below or beside the text might then be order.

The best book of translations I ever read was a book called The Poem, Itself.  My God, that book is worth its weight in gold.  The poems are presented in three ways:  1) in the original language,  2) mirrored in a more or less literal English translation on the facing page, 3) at the bottom of the pages runs the translator’s comments on the poem, including anything that the translator felt relevant when it comes to making the poem understood in the receiving language.

No poem emerges unscathed from a translation.  But methinks sometimes the doctor amputates when a little trimming of the nails would do.

One good clue that you are reading a bad translation is if the poem still rhymes after translation.  That is often a good indicator that the translator has monkey’d around with the poet’s work.  And I feel this way even though I’m a troglodyte-poet who finds form essential to a good poem, a die-hard who still values rhythm, assonance, and rhyme.

The translators appearing in The Poem, Itself got it right.  By providing the poem in its original language, along with some very efficient commentary, the reader of the translated version can be apprised that, yes, in the original language this poem rhymed or had this meter.

Perhaps it’s time for a new edition of The Poem, Itself—this one would include audio allowing you to hear how the poem would sound in its original language—and even better, if the poet is alive and willing—to have snippets of the poet reading his work himself (although, this last part perhaps should be tempered by the fact that poets are often the worst outloud-readers of their own works; they’re writers, not necessarily performers).


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