Thursday, April 20, 2017


Translation as Exercise

John Peale Bishop (1892-1944), "On Translating Poets," Poetry 62.2 (May, 1943) 111-115, rpt. in his Collected Essays (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948), pp. 334-338 (at 334-335):
What is the excuse for translating a poem? Is not a poem by definition something that cannot be translated? Every word is immutable; every sound, once it has been brought into a poetic order, is immovable. Every language, like every land, has its own genius. I recall Elinor Wylie's words on turning Latin into English:
Alembics turn to stranger things
Strange things, but never while we live
Shall magic turn this bronze that sings
To singing water in a sieve.
Elinor Wylie, as I recall it, wrote those lines only after spending some time trying to do what she had to admit in the end could not be done. And I have spent some time, over a period of twenty years, trying to turn, now Latin lines, now lines written in some speech derived from the Latin, into an English that could be read without displeasure and without distrust. I ought to have some excuse for an activity whose aim I have felt impelled to put down in these negative terms.

The positive gain for the translator is that he keeps his pencil sharp. There are times with all of us when we are dull, when there is nothing within which wants to come out, and yet when, uneasy with idleness, we need to write, if only to keep the hand in. Translation is an excellent exercise; it is a test, I believe, which tries less the knowledge of the foreign speech than of our own. The limits of English cannot be accurately determined until we have ventured beyond its borders. We can compute our wealth at home the better for having been abroad.

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