While I was at the bookstore, I picked up the September issue of Poetry magazine on the strength of several poems (like “On the Metro“) by C.K. Williams, with his wonderful long lines, and a long essay about Richard Wilbur, one of my favorite living poets, by Phyllis Rose. But at the moment I’m going to quote one of the sections of Michael Hofmann‘s “Sing Softer: A Notebook”:

I think I’ve probably always been drawn to the foreign in English. When I first came across the strange and lovely word “macaronics,” I wanted to use it for a title. There’s a kind of joyful hopscotch, a cavalierism, a dandyishness, an enrichment, about alien presences in English, which otherwise remains for me a chewed, utilitarian, mercantile language. These importations are the making of Shakespeare. They are there in Walt Whitman, that quintessentially American poet, even if Henry James (of all people!), complained about his predilection for “the other languages.” They are there in Stevens, who claimed English and French were one language, and in Pound, who wrote Chinese in English, and Provençal in English, and Latin in English. I sometimes think the only Eliot I really like are the two French poems. These importations are in Lowell, even though he’s as heavily monoglot as a linebacker; in one of his Montale versions in Imitations it says: “The scirocco gunned the dead stucco with sand”—neither Italianate noun in Montale’s original! (Imitations was a huge act of will on the part of Lowell to internationalize and modernize himself by his bootstraps.)

I don’t understand the “chewed, utilitarian, mercantile” bit (what, Beowulf? after that it’s all alien presences) or “monoglot as a linebacker,” but I like the bit about Lowell and Montale. Anybody know which Montale poem Lowell was reworking? I don’t have Imitations.


  1. The part you don’t understand comes from this long-winded, self-impressed sentence which demonstrates how wordy he wants to be by hitting us over the head with as many adjectives as a thesaurus can muster: “There’s a kind of joyful hopscotch, a cavalierism, a dandyishness, an enrichment, about alien presences in English, which otherwise remains for me a chewed, utilitarian, mercantile language.”
    I know this guy is really successful and is part of the Literary Elite that a lot of people aspire to, but it’s that type of writing that obfuscates meaning and dances around any real type of communication with readers. I read what he wrote, and it’s like, “Wow, you’re so learned–I get it.” It seems like a lot of academic creative writing is like that. Rushdie wouldn’t be popular if bloodthirsty loonies didn’t want to kill him.

  2. “Rushdie wouldn’t be popular if bloodthirsty loonies didn’t want to kill him.”
    THE SATANIC VERSES is a tour de force that would be just as widely read if the fatwa hadn’t been pronounced. I have no objections to his writing style, and the only thing that even remotely bugs me about his work is the use of Grass’ THE TIN DRUM in so much of MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN, although Rushdie does come from a culture that appreciates reusing previous literary material.

  3. there’s something deeply unsatisfying about the design of a poetry website that forces you to copy/paste the poem into a word processor to see the poem in the way that it is written

  4. Hi Steve!
    Imitations was a huge act of will on the part of Lowell to internationalize and modernize himself by his bootstraps
    IMHO Imitations was more an act of will on Lowell’s part to stimulate himself into writing by rewriting the translations of other people — “Englishing them,” as he put it, and I think this unfortunately inaugurated a long bad tradition in English versions of poets like Ahkmatova where you have someone who understands Russian translate it, and then someone like Kunitz make it “poetic.” Lowell’s biographers are pretty frank that Lowell “translated” when he couldn’t write.
    Lowell also muddled quite a few poems by Montale — not sure what the reference is to since I dislike his Imitations and other “Englishings.”
    I would have liked the Wilbur essay better if it hadn’t been so insistent that Wilbur Is The Best Poet Of Our Time (I get awfully sick of reading essays on poetry that buy into Lowell’s game of poet-ranking) and included the obligatory dig at Elizabeth Bishop:
    Once in Key West we both attended a performance by a young actress of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry. Not only did she read Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, but she also acted Elizabeth Bishop reading. I happened to walk down the street next to Wilbur afterwards, and I asked him, as someone who had known Bishop, whether the young actress had gotten her right. “She was better at being Elizabeth Bishop than Elizabeth was,” he said, revealing, incidentally, much about Bishop. Wilbur, by contrast, has never seemed to play Richard Wilbur. He is the splendid person whose name he bears.

  5. “I think this unfortunately inaugurated a long bad tradition in English versions of poets like Ahkmatova where you have someone who understands Russian translate it, and then someone like Kunitz make it ‘poetic’.”
    This was the normal way of translating Chinese poetry until approximately Waley. Among the pioneers of this method was Amy Lowell, Robert’s relative in some degree. (Others: Pound, Binner, Payne). So there was nothing inaugural about it.

  6. “The scirocco gunned the dead stucco with sand”
    is an “imitation” of
    “Libeccio sferza da anni le vecchie mure”
    from Montale’s “La Casa dei doganieri” (“The Coastguard House”). It’s pretty typical of Lowell’s technique in the book in its tendency to overegg the pudding, usually by upping the violence. Lowell tends to translate every poet into Lowell (except his emaciated versions of Villon, which are a homage to William Carlos Williams). On the other hand, Lowell was a great (if wayward) poet, so there are plenty of gems amongst the craziness (the line “The serene erosion of the surf” in his take on Valéry’s “Hélène”, for example).

  7. Lowell certainly didn’t inaugurate this tradition but he played a huge part in reviving it, with often unhealthy consequences. Here’s Clive James discussing its effects on the British literary scene in the 1970s:
    “Lowell, in particular, through his landmark book Imitations, gave a generation of poetasters an unrestricted hunting licence to go merrily mistranslating through languages with which they were barely familiar, and often could not read at all…In the 1970s mistranslation flourished ungoverned along with the increasingly unquestioned concept of a poetic career: translation, filling up the off-moments, helped to cover the awkward fact that any poetic career worthy of the name consists almost entirely of off-moments…In a cosmopolitanism without erudition, one of the weirder side-effects was the ability of British cultural journalists to (a) deride the pretensions of anyone who wanted to read in even the standard European languages, and (b) extend reverent consideration to radical playwrights who brought forth new translations of Brecht without being able to read a word of German. The hidden – sometimes not so hidden – assumption was that English was the European language that really mattered. So preposterous a notion was made possible only by the world dominance of America, a fact they declined to admit but didn’t mind taking advantage of. It should be said, in fairness to America’s then burgeoning academic industry, that some of its scholars were at that very time producing authoritative parallel texts which opened up important modern European and Russian poets to Western students – but then, the American scholars, many of whom had an immigrant background, knew what they were talking about. Our poet-translators, shamefully, hardly ever did.”

  8. Stephen Mitchell is one guy who seems to specialize in translations from languages he can’t read. I have a slight familiarity with his Tao Te Ching, which does stuff like calling the sage alternately “he” and “she”.
    Mitchell has pretensions to scholarship because he had access to a hard-to-find translation (by Ames and Young) of Chen Ku-ying’s study of the Chinese text. But Chen’s study was nothing special, and the rare Ames-Young translation was just a student work of Ames overseen by Young.
    Mitchell must be a very fluent operator; he gets enormous advances for his flimsy versions.

  9. J. Cassian: Thanks very much for identifying the line and poem, which I was then able to find and enjoy in the Collected Poems. I really should read more Montale; I always get caught up in the poems when I open the book. Thanks also for the excellent Clive James quote.
    Hi, MoI!

  10. Christopher: I think some of these academic type of writers become superstars with a combo of good PR and movie deals. Rushdie is more of an academic type of writer and the millions of non-academic readers wouldn’t pay attention to him or his work if his plight wasn’t publicized.

  11. I’m guilty of translating from languages I don’t understand. I translated Callimachus’ Hymn to Artemis ( because I wanted a halfway decent version available online. But I was honest. I told people I didn’t know Greek. I’ve got some rusty linguistics from my undergrad years, a bit of Latin, and several good translations to pilfer from. Personally, I want more translations, not less. And I want them from every available writer who cares to try. I just also want to know the level of ability they have in the source language. I want a good sense of how much of the original author I may be getting, but if I feel I’m not getting much, I’ll just judge the translated text as an independent work “inspired by” the original. Translations should always stand on their own merits anyway.

  12. Yvonne: That’s fair enough, and I don’t think anyone’s saying such translations should be banned (a lot of minor literatures would languish in total oblivion if that were the case), just that it’s a bad sign if that becomes standard operating procedure even for languages that it’s not unreasonable to expect translators to know. But I’ve always said that poetry trumps exactness, and I’d trade all the “accurate” versions of Li Po for Pound’s marvelous “The River Merchant’s Wife” (by “Rihaku”!).

  13. “Translations should always stand on their own merits anyway.”
    No they shouldn’t. They should only be cribs useful for a time while the reader is busying learning the original language. Saying that translations are self-sufficient is saying that it is okay to ignore one’s duty to learn a foreign language if one wishes to enjoy its literature.

  14. Dear Christopher,
    We both seem to agree that reading any translation should not be considered equivalent to reading the original. At the same time, I find your umbrage a little silly. I wish I had time to learn every language with great literaure and I refuse to feel at all cowed by you for not doing so. (Actually, one of my wishes I’ve always had – planning ahead in case I catch a leprechaun or accidently rub a magic lamp – is that I have native fluency in all human languages.) Do you really feel that people who do other things rather than learn languages are failing in their duty?
    Anyway, I’m not enjoying the literature of the source language if I’m reading a translation. I’m enjoying the literature of the language of translation.
    A badly written gloss should be identified as such. Your “crib notes” are not translations. That is, they are not pieces of literature but exercises in linguistics. They may be accurate as reference material, but they are not literature.
    A translation as a piece of literature should stand on its own merits. A sensitive reader can and should develop their understanding of what can and can’t be captured in a single translation and tranlations need to be read with that understanding near to hand.

  15. Christopher: You do sound a little extreme. I’m as big a devotee of learning languages as you’ll find, and I’ve learned a number of them specifically in order to be able to read poetry in the original, but even I would never talk about “one’s duty to learn a foreign language if one wishes to enjoy its literature.” To talk about “duty” in this context is to condemn literature to homework status. The more people who enjoy literature, the better, and the better the literature they read (whether original or translated), the better. You’re not seriously saying no one should read Kundera or Hasek unless they’re prepared to learn Czech, are you?

  16. I think that, whenever possible, an English translation of a piece of foreign literature should always have the original foreign language text included with it so that the reader can compare the English translation if there is any doubt about the translation. This would up the cost of printing and the size and price of the book but I think it really should be done. It makes no difference what language the story, novel or poem comes from be it Greek, Latin, Chinese or Eskimo.
    Of course, you don’t have to learn a foreign language in its entirety to appreciate its literature but knowing the language well will almost certainly confer some benefits on the person who does.

  17. I’m afraid your suggestion is impractical (though I of course would love it), but one nice thing about the internet is that more and more original-language texts are available online so you can easily check while you read your translation.

  18. We are trying to settle a dispute on the proper pronunciation of “Mercator”. In the U.S.A, the “a” is generally pronounced as in “aim”. This seems appropriate since Mercator was Flemish and of Austrian parentage. The other side believes it is pronounced as in “father”. Given the Flemish-Austrian connection what do the experts say?

  19. I’m not sure who you mean by “the experts,” but as far as I know the name is pronounced mer-KAY-ter by the entire English-speaking world—at least that’s what all my reference books say, and I’ve never heard it any other way. This has nothing to do with his being Flemish; the Flemish (and for that matter all non-English European) pronunciation has the ah vowel (with different shadings, but nothing resembling English “long a” as in the name of the vowel). It’s due to the Great Vowel Shift and the fact that Latin words like mercator ‘merchant’ were pronounced like English ones. You know Mercator wasn’t actually his name, right? It’s a Latinized version of his family name Kremer or Cremer, which also means ‘merchant’; he chose it as a teenager while studying with the Brethren of the Common Life in ‘s Hertogenbosch. (The word, which also occurs in German as Krämer, doesn’t show up in English, but it does in Scots as cramer ‘one who sells goods at a stall or booth; also a pedlar or hawker’; Scots also has the base noun crame ‘booth or stall where goods are sold in a market or fair.’)

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