Sarah Maguire, the London poet who founded the Poetry Translation Centre, has an article on translation in the Poetry Review; she focuses on one of my own touchstones of the translator’s art, Pound’s Cathay:

Why is Cathay so compelling? Firstly, it exists, in its own right, as a collection of great poems in English. Published in 1915, the poems are, as Kenner points out, “among the most durable responses to World War I. They say, as so much of Pound’s work says, that all this has happened before and continually happens.” But what of the poems as translations? How “faithful” to their sources are they? How “Chinese”? It’s generally admitted that Cathay is full of “mistakes”. It’s hardly to be expected otherwise, given the misreadings made by the Japanese professors instructing Fenollosa, whose notes Pound often found difficult to decipher. However, what may be taken as Pound’s “mistranslations” are, as Kenner argues, “deflections undertaken with open eyes . . . . The main deviations from orthodoxy represent deliberate decisions of a man who was inventing a new kind of English poem and picking up hints where he could find them”. Pound’s loyalties, it seems, were to English poetry, not to accurately representing Chinese poetry.

Debates about translation have been raging since the Romans, and, crudely, they all come down to the same decision: whether to “domesticate” the translation or to “foreignise” it. In other words, as a translator you have to take a decision – a decision which is as much ethical as it is aesthetic – as to whether your translation should be as close as possible to a poem in English, or whether it should clearly announce its different, foreign qualities. As Friedrich Schleiermacher summarised it in 1813 (in the most influential essay written on translation in the nineteenth century), “Either the translator leaves the writer alone as much as possible and moves the reader toward the writer, or he leaves the reader alone as much as possible and moves the writer toward the reader”. Pound, one might then conclude, given his stated priorities, was concerned with domestication, with “moving the writer toward the reader”. Yet a close examination of the poems in Cathay indicates that, yes, these are quite wonderful poems in English, but also that they announce their foreign status very clearly indeed…

In 1928, T.S. Eliot claimed that “Chinese poetry, as we know it to-day, is something invented by Ezra Pound”. How is it possible that an American poet who knew no Chinese can be said to have invented “Chinese” poetry? George Steiner has argued that “Pound can imitate and persuade with utmost economy not because he or his reader know so much but because both concur in knowing so little”. In other words, Pound’s “China” is an Orientalist fake, an exotic invention lapped up by readers seduced by a lazy Chinoiserie. However, a number of Chinese scholars have agreed that “Pound’s versions seem to come nearer to the real qualities of Chinese poetry”; and that this is because “he recognized the importance of the culturally distant and unfamiliar”. In fact, it turns out that Pound didn’t “know so little” after all. Although it’s true that, in 1915, he had just begun actively to engage with Chinese literature, this marked the start of a profound, life-long, commitment that had fascinating antecedents in his childhood in Philadelphia. Both Pound’s parents had contacts with Christian missionaries in China; they owned Chinese objects and works of art; and, of all American cities, it was Philadelphia which at that time was “at the center of America’s response to the Orient.” By the time Fenollosa’s notebooks fell into his hands, Pound was steeped in Chinese art and profoundly curious about the radically different world it represented. What Ming Xie and other Chinese commentators point out is that, even by the time of Cathay, Pound grasped “the paradigmatic frame of an entire culture”.

In short, what makes Cathay the most important translation into English in the past one hundred years is that Pound successfully “domesticates” and simultaneously “foreignises” these poems. In Schleiermacher’s terms, he both takes the writer to the reader and he takes the reader to the writer. Added to this, the qualities of directness, simplicity and vividness in Cathay, and the unobtrusive, delicate music of the lines, have had an extraordinarily profound impact on the ways in which it is possible to write poems in English. It was Pound’s recognition of “the importance of the culturally distant and unfamiliar” that made this revolution in English poetry possible.

That’s only part of a thoughtful discussion of what makes translations worthwhile; I recommend the whole thing, as well as what Maguire rightly calls “one of the most beautiful poems in English written last century.”

(Via wood s lot.)


  1. Alas, if one were as talented as Pound in English. As a student of Hungarian, I have tried a translation or two, and have found it quite safe taking the approach of “moving the reader toward the writer”. One reason is because my experiences have shown me that Hungarians, like any other non-native English speakers, are fairly guarded of the nuances and subtleties of their native tongue. As well they should be. But then again, since languages like Hungarian aren’t widely spoken, I was more wanting to introduce others more to the content than style (low ambition and talent on my part). In any case, it still is a worthy and fun endeavor.

  2. Eddie, which Hungarian poet have you tried translating? Poets like Petofi Sandor and Atilla Joszef are, in my opinion, trite and could probably be brought into English without trouble since doggerel is universal. But Weores Sandor, undoubtedly the greatest Hungarian poet of the 20th century, is pretty much untranslatable. I have seen a translation into English by George Szirtes of a fragment from his “Hatodik szimfonia” that is nearly successful.

  3. Christopher,
    I’ve tried (emphasis on ‘tried’) translating Jozsef, Vorosmarty, Szabo Lorinc, and just a bit of Kosztolanyi’s poetry. I agree very much in that Jozsef’s content is universal and is more able to be translated than others. I don’t think his work is trite, by any means, although that can be applied to a lot of Petofi’s work (Ady’s as well). Jozsef really displays a strong psychological element to his poetry, as opposed to the heavy nationalistic sentiment of Petofi. I haven’t had much experience with Weores, but I’ve heard his work is remarkable. I think I would add Kosztolanyi to the list of ‘untranslatable’ authors.

  4. On a very small scale, I’ve same experience as Eddie – with a Russian author, whose poem I’ve attempted to translate in English.
    I put more stress on content, using same metaphors and following original’s flow of thoughts, but I also tried to keep up with his rythmic structure, which I think is equally important.
    I sent the result to the poet and he (subtly…) expressed his displeasure for the absence of similar phonethics in my translation.
    I understand author’s desire to see most adequate translation possible, but there is also this purely technical difficulty: of available phonetically close synonims some don’t fit metrically and some bring irrelevant sub-meanings.
    I realize, of course, that professional translator would take it as an exciting challenge. As eddie said, low ambition and talent on my part.

  5. Michael Farris says

    “I sent the result to the poet and he (subtly…) expressed his displeasure for the absence of similar phonethics in my translation.”
    Perhaps he would have like a magic pony as well …

  6. Just come across this. I wish it (my translation of the Weöres Sixth Symphony) were as “almost successful” as you suggest, Christopher. Failure, alas.
    On the other hand there are bits of my Kosztolányi, the poetry and the fiction, of Szabó and even bits of József, I am rather proud of.

  7. Hi, I would like to read your translations. I’m Hungarian and was trying to translate a few of my favorites into English, and I agree: you have to sacrifice something: either the subtleties, which are SO important in Hungarian poetry, or the rhytm, or the rhyme or meaning…
    Either way, any of you has an English version of Kosztolanyi’s “Akarsz-e jatszani?”
    And an Austrian one, Grillparzer’s Kiss. Anyone familiar with that?

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