Anyone for Tennyson is a series of articles about poetry

Poetry in Translation: As good as the originals

Many poets who write in English have translated works from foreign languages and given them a life of their own in this second language.

The plays and poems of William Shakespeare are broadly popular in Russia, not because so many Russians read English, but because of brilliant translations by Boris Pasternak (1890–1960), author of “Doctor Zhivago” and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Reciprocally, Pasternak’s Zhivago novel has been well-served in English with two excellent translations and a quite fabulous motion picture. (Ah, Julie Christie!)

Translations are an essential part of literature, and while this column is regularly dedicated to poets who have written in the English language, that proudly includes many who have translated works from foreign languages and given them a life of their own in English.

In England, as early as the 14th Century, Geoffrey Chaucer was translating and drawing on French and Italian texts as sources for his own works in English. Among American poets we can point to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s significant translation of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” And in more recent times we have had a distinguished group of poet translators including Ezra Pound, W.S. Merwin, Richard Wilbur, Robert Lowell, and John Ciardi.

A photo of the poet W.S. Merwin
W.S. Merwin

Of these, the most prolific is W.S. Merwin (1927-2019), who wrote translations of poems from numerous languages. He said these were undertaken “with the clear purpose of introducing readers to works they could not read in the original by authors they might very well never heard of, from cultures, traditions and forms with which they had no acquaintance.” Here is his English rendering of a poem in Spanish by the Argentinian, Jorge Luis Borges. The lack of punctuation is intentional.

To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars
from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
to have heard the ring of water in the secret pool
known the scent of jasmine and honeysuckle
the silence of the sleeping bird
the arch of the entrance the damp
—these very things may be the poem.

Borges once wrote, and I rather like the idea, “I always imagined Paradise to be some kind of a library.”

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A photo of the poet Richard Wilbur.
Richard Wilbur

Here now is Richard Wilbur stylishly translating the rollicking French verse of Molière from the play “Tartuffe”:

Ah, there you go – extravagant as ever!
Why can you not be rational? You never
Manage to take the middle course, it seems,
But jump, instead, between absurd extremes.
You’ve recognized your recent grave mistake
In falling victim to a pious fake;
Now, to correct that error, must you embrace
An even greater error in its place,
And judge our worthy neighbors as a whole
By what you’ve learned of one corrupted soul?
Be cautious in bestowing admiration,
And cultivate a sober moderation.
Don’t humor fraud, but also don’t asperse
True piety; the latter fault is worse,
And it is best to err, if err one must,
As you have done, upon the side of trust.

Based on Voltaire, Richard Wilbur also provided the primary lyrics for the Leonard Bernstein musical, “Candide.”

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Looking back through the years, almost certainly the most famous poetic translation has been Edward Fitzgerald’s English version of the Rubáiyát, a poem in Persian by Omar Khayyám (1048-1131). T.S. Eliot said he began to write poetry as a teen-ager after reading this translation. (See video link below.) It includes the famous lines:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

A picture of the manuscript for the Rubáiyát.
The Rubáiyát. Calligraphy by William Morris. Illustration by Edward Burne-Jones.

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Irreverent Note: The esteemed Broadway writers, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (“My Fair Lady”) once had a pop hit called “A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread and Thou, Baby.” It embraced the legend that any piece of poetry could be turned into a successful song simply by adding the word “Baby.” Might we consider “To Be, or Not to Be, Baby” or Tennyson’s “Forward the Light Brigade, Baby!” Just musing.

* * *

Never were translations more appreciated than during the 17th and 18th centuries when Alexander Pope turned Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” into   heroic couplets and John Dryden did gilt-edge translations of the Roman poets Virgil and Horace. Considering Horace, it’s hard to imagine that the original could surpass Dryden’s memorable English version including these lines:

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He, who can call to-day his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
To-morrow do thy worst, for I have lived to-day.

Be fair or foul or rain or shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not Heav’n itself upon the past has pow’r,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

Pope, who was careful to look after his finances, did his “Iliad” translation after receiving advance subscriptions from 17 dukes, 3 marquises, 49 earls, 7 duchesses and 8 countesses! It was a royal success.

Incidentally, we should note that there had also been an earlier translation of Homer by the Elizabethan playwright, George Chapman, a version not much remembered today except that it inspired John Keats to write one of his finest sonnets, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer:”

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

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Perhaps you would like to try a translation yourself. This is from the Gustav Leberwurst Manuscript. Please read it aloud. Helpful hint: Jahn is pronounced Yahn.

Jahn Kid Dudel kämmte tauen
Reih’ Ding’ ohne Bohni.
Stuka Vetter inne satt
Und Kohl Titt’ mag er roh nie.

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VIDEO. In our video the First Poetry Quartet presents three important poems in translation. First, the “Rubáiyát by Omar Khayyám” translated by Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883). Then “The River Merchant’s Wife” by the Chinese poet, Li-Bo (701-762) translated by Ezra Pound, and then “In a Steelworker’s Home” by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933-2017), translated by John Updike. Please note that this poem was written about events in 1945. It is included here for the power of the poetry without necessarily considering the politics.

CLICK ON THIS LINK FOR VIDEO:   Poetry in Translation