The poetry publisher duration press has put online the first of its new critical e-book series, towards a foreign likeness bent: translation (pdf). It contains fifteen essays, from Ammiel Alcalay’s “Politics & Translation” to Chet Wiener’s “The Legacy and Future of ‘Horizontal’ and ‘Vertical’ Translation in Contemporary Poetry,” of which (I regret to say) too many are marred (for me) by an excess of politics, theory, and/or self-indulgence. But at least two are worth downloading the book to read, Jonathan Skinner’s “A Note On Trobar” (followed by a selection of his own translations, “Petit Chansonnier: Provençal Lyrics”) and Rick Snyder’s “The Politics of Time: New American Versions of Paul Celan.” The first begins:

While it is a commonplace that the troubadours “invented” (or found) the art of love (whose key words we all know well—vernal, auzel [bird], dona, pretz [worth], amors, cor, remirar [glance], dezir, joi, sofrirs, mezura, servir, merce, lauzengier [slanderer], senhal [nickname]), the formal, lyric specificity of that invention has been lost to us. What was unique about the troubadour canso was its secular artifice, its engagement with social and linguistic particulars in an ideal vernacular, a koine relatively free of (Latin) ecclesiastical and juridical control while also not particularly tied to local dialects. The troubadours elaborated a frankly sexual (and, I might add, social) sensibility in a “field of rhyme” with little compare in the history of Western literature—in fact, Occitan rhyme’s likely connections with Arabic and Hebrew poetry, in forms including the Mozarabic zagal and muwashshah, remain relatively unexplored to this day. (Indigenous influences such as refrain songs associated with the round dance have been considered more important.)

The classical background of written, quantitative measures must be kept in mind— stretching from the troubadours almost two millenia back to Sappho at least (who “reconciles us to the strangeness of her dialect by the sweetness of her songs” [Apuleius])—to get a sense of how new poetry, as elaborate artifice, must have sounded rhyming in the vernacular. Occitan poetics gave Dante the courage to write in Italian, and for this reason William Carlos Williams comes most to mind when I think forward from the troubadours: who wrote poetry “in the new dialect, to continue it by a new construction upon the syllables.” (If the troubadours had come at the end of five centuries of abuse of rhyme, they too would have rejected it; as it was in 1071, rhyme stood fresh, untapped, a handy constraint.) Without Williams, Paul Blackburn, the greatest American translator of the troubadours, would not have been able to bring us his ‘projective’ versions (see his Proensa, sadly out of print). And as with Williams, the troubadours’ cansos were their own answer to questions of love; the “allegory” of which was concocted elsewhere (whether via the doctrines of the dolce stil nuovo, Chretien de Troyes’s romances, or the courtly fables of Marie de France), as part of the translation of Occitan culture that accompanied its violent suppression and dispersal during the thirteenth century, in the crusade against the Albigensians.

And here’s his fine translation of William of Poitou’s “Ab la dolchor del temps novel”:

In the sweet new season
Forests rustle and the birds
Chant each in their own Latin
In verses tuned to new song
Then it’s good a man seize
That which he most desires

Neither message nor letter
Brings what is most pleasant
My heart doesn’t laugh or sleep
Nor dare I take one step
’Till I’m sure about the end
Whether it’s as I require

This is the way our love goes
Just like the whitethorn branch
Trembling in the tree-top
All night through rain and frost
’Till daylight when the sun
Spangles the leaves and branches

Remembering a morning
When we’d had enough of war
And she gave me the best gift
Pledging me heart and ring
God keep me alive long as
My hand’s beneath that cloak.

No worries that strange Latin
Will put off my Bon Vezi
I know how it goes with words
The way small talk gets around
Let them gabble of love
We’ve got the bread, the knife

—Guillem de Peiteus

Snyder says:

Translation is fundamentally an ethical undertaking. Of course, it’s not an undertaking at all—but an overtaking, an afterlife—a taking over of words from one culture to another, one language to another. These transferences constitute the same act because language and culture are so intimately bound to one another that their distinction can be seen as a taxonomic convenience. To follow the basic thrust of linguistics, then, and attempt to isolate language from the larger social environment in which it lives is to put it in a laboratory in which its sole measure can be instrumentality. Language needs its larger social fabric to retain the valences that make it meaningful—and thus make poetry a possibility. This necessary entwining of language, culture, and history is unmistakably prevalent in the poetry of Paul Celan. Though the varying keys Celan used throughout his career make it difficult to speak of his work in the singular, these poems, in their very realizations, are always already linked to the contexts and circumstances, the real (lost) world in which Celan created them…

Anyone hoping to render a version of Celan’s work in English must grapple with the resistances of Celan’s work, in general, and with how to render his highly compressed, involuted verbal constructions, in particular. The ways in which each translator approaches Celan’s unique constructions has everything to do not only with the resulting poem in English, but with the basic assumptions that underlie his or her approach to poetics and aesthetics. Such decisions are not merely linguistic and contingent on the given differences between German and English, but as Voloshinov/Bakhtin would contend, are like anything linguistic in nature, at heart ideological, and reveal the translator’s orientation in the sociocultural and even physical landscape as constituted by reciprocal interactions with language. Moreover, in the arc of Celan’s oeuvre and the particular tragedy of his circumstances, the linguistic decisions of his translator take on an amplified importance, one that relates directly to Celan’s relationship to time, history, Judaism, and German language and literature.

He goes on to compare Michael Hamburger’s classic translations with newer versions by Pierre Joris, John Felstiner, and Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh (the latter collaboration being by far his least favorite). He says “Felstiner’s versions are typically both more literal and colloquial than those of Hamburger, whose word choice and syntax tend to be more formal as he moves Celan onto a longer, graceful line,” and provides the following comparison:

With a changing key
you unlock the house where
the snow of what’s silenced drifts.
Just like the blood that bursts from
your eye or mouth or ear,
so your key changes.

With a variable key
you unlock the house in which
drifts the snow of that left unspoken.
Always what key you choose
depends on the blood that spurts
from your eye or your mouth or your ear.

My immediate reaction is to prefer Felstiner’s; my almost as immediate counter-reaction is that of course that’s my immediate reaction, because it’s easier and more accessible, like a wine without tannins. I suspect the Hamburger might hold my interest better over time. Here’s another comparison:

But in you, from
the other wellspring foamed,
on the black
jet remembrance
dayward you climbed.

Yet in you, from
the other wellspring foamed,
on the black
beam of memory
you climbed to daylight.

But in you, from
foamed the other spring,
up the black
ray memory
you climbed to the day.

They’re all effective, but here I think I prefer Joris. Anyway, there’s lots of good stuff here, and if you’re interested in thinking about translation in a literary context I recommend the collection.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering (as I was) about “Voloshinov/Bakhtin,” it turns out that V.N. Volóshinov’s seminal books Freudianism: A Critical Sketch (1927) and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929) have recently been said to be the work of his mentor Bakhtin. I take no position on that controversy, but I’m getting more and more interested in the ideas of that school, and will probably wind up getting The Bakhtin Reader.

(Via wood s lot.)


  1. Thansk for the reference – I just need to see if I find time to read it …
    I have to say I have occasionally thought Hamburger overrated. Why do you say that you like his translation less now but it is more likely to stand the test of time? (maybe a rhetorical question)

  2. It seems to me that Paul Blackburn is cropping up everywhere these days. But, then, I may only be noticing because I noticed 🙂
    That being said he deserves a reevaluation more than most.

  3. MM: That was just a guess, but it’s based on the fact that things that too quickly appeal to us (or me, anyway) tend to pall quicker than things that we have to work to appreciate.
    Kattullus: If I could make one American poet a household name by waving a wand, it would probably be Blackburn. What a wonderful poet, and what a tough way to go, too young.

  4. I did my M.A. work on Blackburn’s amazing Proensa.
    Here’s his translation of “Ab la dolchor del temps novel.” I’m afraid that the spacing, though, won’t come out right here.

    In the new season
    when the woods burgeon
    and birds
    sing out the first stave of new song,
    time then that a man take the softest joy of her
            who is most to his liking.

            But from where my joy springs
            no message comes:
    the heart will not sleep or laugh, nor dare I go out
    till I know the truth, if she will have me or not.

            Our love is like top
            branches that creak
            on the hawthorn at night,
            stiff from ice
            or shaking from rain. And tomorrow
    the sun
    spreads its living warmth through the branches and through
    the green leaves on the tree.

    the softness of that morning we put away anger,
    when she gave me her love, her ring
            as sign,
          remembering the softness,
    I pray to God I live to put my hands
    under her cloak, remembering that.

    And I
    care not for the talk
    that aims to part
    my lady from me;
    for I know how talk runs rife and gossip spreads
    from empty rancid mouths that, soured
          make mock of love.
        No matter. We are the ones, we have
            some bread, a knife.

    [Fixed the formatting — LH.]

  5. The Bakhtin Reader is a good place to start. I was sufficiently enthused by it to pick up three other volumes of B’s stuff, and I have close to zero tolerance for literary criticism.
    Hamburger’s translations are already “classic”? Geez, that makes me feel old. Glad to hear about the Popov/McHugh colloration, though – seems worth pursuing.
    Right now, though, I’m off to read the rest of Sinner’s translations. Thanks for these recommendations, Hat.

  6. (That’s “Skinner,” not “Sinner.”)

  7. The “Arab origins” theory of the troubadors was well stated 50 years ago by Briffault and Nykl (sp.?), but became controversial and seems to have been neglected. Briffault’s argument that everything else during that place and time was influenced by the Arabs seems pretty decisive to me, especially given the existence of bilingual Arab-romance poems.
    I feel that early XXc medievalism had an excessively strong Christian humanist bias (CS Lewis, et al, especially one Robertson in “Preface to Chaucer”). I’ve seen several instances where the question of Arab influences was dismissed or minimized without much argument or evidence.

  8. On Paul Blackburn, see LH posts from 2002 and 2006; he’s still one of my favorites, and I wish he were better remembered. On Bakhtin, see the 2018 posts Heteroglossia and Pathos II.

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