The knowledgeable commentator who goes by the sobriquet Baloney has linked to an excellent essay On Translation by James Atlas, originally published in 1973 in the first issue of Poetry Nation (the entire run of which is online, along with a couple of dozen other magazines, at the amazing new poetry magazines archive). I’ll give a couple of excerpts to whet your appetite and send you off to read the whole thing. On the great poet Yves Bonnefoy (who introduced me to the glories of twentieth-century French poetry, and whose gorgeously opaque off-classical poems I would never dare try to translate):

This [a text in which his native language appears foreign to the English reader] is what all translation should strive to accomplish: the creation of a language which mimes the character of the original, even as it invents linguistic modalities unavailable to that language in its common use and structure. I recently heard a reading by Yves Bonnefoy where he provided his own translations, insisting that no English translator, however competent in French, could reproduce either the cadence or intent of the poems. Bonnefoy’s command of English was unexceptional, and his accent rendered the English versions incomprehensible at times, but what could be heard through the translations was a radical diction that owed little to either language. Because the poem Bonnefoy devised wasn’t obligated to be plausible in English, it was released from those restraints which impose themselves on such a developed language, and so could become a new text, situated somewhere between English and French.

And on two short, “untranslatable” poems (I’ve corrected a couple of scanning errors in the Celan):

Here, too, there are two reciprocal terms: the tendency to compose a work in such a way that no translation is possible, the motivation being to reveal those properties in language which are irreducible, and have no other name. This has been the situation with poets like Celan and Ungaretti, whose lives in our disastrous epoch led them to the liminal, exasperated language evident in their work, untranslatable because their experience itself remains untranslatable, and has to be related in a half-articulate language. To cite two simple examples, Ungaretti’s famous Mattina, reads:
and Celan’s Einmal:
Eins und Unendlich,
Ingeborg Bachmann, in Enzensberger’s Museum, has translated Ungaretti’s poem as ‘Ich erleuchte mich/ durch Unermessliches’, which carries over the shape of the original, even if the cadence and music are lost; Patrick Creagh, who translated the Penguin edition, quoted the poem in his introduction, but only to demonstrate its ‘untranslatable’ nature. In Celan’s case, Michael Hamburger has given a sensitive account of how he came to translate, with Celan’s own intervention ‘ichten’ as ‘ied’; Hamburger’s version reads:
One and infinite,
Joachim Neugroschel, Celan’s American translator, rendered this as ‘dieing,/ were I’ing’. Both pose adequate solutions, articulating the word within a word that Celan invented, where the ‘I’ serves as a verb. But whether or not these two fragments can be reconstructed in English, their essence lies in the rhyme, which a translation can only replace or imitate; embedded in their own grammar, these poems, like exiles in a remote land, suffer when forced to live in some other language.


  1. ied- es stimmt nicht.
    Ichten ist ein Infinitivform, kann man im Grimms Wörterbuch finden.
    ICHTEN, verb. zu etwas machen: nicht also daჳ der geist zu nichte werde, sunder daჳ er geichtet werde an gote. H. V. FRITZLAR in Wackernagels leseb. 12, 858.

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