Found in translation

Poetry, Poesie, Poesia

By James H. Miller

I have an undying respect for poetry translators. I’ve never had the patience or discipline to truly learn a foreign language myself. I tried Spanish so that I might read Cesar Vallejo in the original, attempted German because I thought Goethe was really rad, and then French for similar reasons—Rimbaud, you bad-ass!

I usually managed to earn a passing grade or better in these courses, but my actual knowledge of any foreign language amounts to funny vulgarities and swear words. So, if you’re like me (my sympathies if you are), those who translate poetry into English are crucial; whether it’s unearthing a master from Argentina, or showing us what, as O’Hara wrote, “the poets in Ghana are doing these days.” In recent years, we’ve been blessed with loads of groundbreaking translations from people like Edward Snow, Clare Cavanagh, and many other erudite guys and gals. I’d like to mention two translators that I’m personally grateful for: Michael Hofman and Jonathan Galassi.

First, Michael Hofman.

Michael Hofman was born in West Germany in 1957. Among other things (poet, free-lance writer), he’s an excellent translator and winner of countless awards. He most recently edited an anthology sensibly called Twentieth-Century German Poetry, which includes fine translations of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, Bertolt Brecht, and Paul Celan, along with many obscure others who’ve never, to my knowledge, been rendered into English so handsomely before.

What are particularly stunning are Hofman’s translations of the German poet, Gottfried Benn (1886-1956). Hofman renders these poems in English beautifully (they read as smoothly as anything published in English today), and faithfully reproduces the poet’s stark tone and frankness. If you read poetry with misguided hopes of finding inspiration or spiritual consolation, Gottfried Benn is most definitely not your man. These poems are concerned with the physicality of death (Benn served in the German Medical Corps during WWI), and the regrettable passing of time. Benn can be mysterious and surreal, carnal and dryly humorous. Here, for instance, is the poem “Threat” in its entirety:

Know this:
I live beast days. I am a water hour.
At night my eyelids droop like forest and sky.
My love knows few words:
I like it in your blood.

Here’s a goose-bump inducing excerpt from the poem “Late”:

remember and endure the hour,
there was never one like it, all are like it,
people and angels and cherubim,
black-winged, bright-eyed,
none was yours—
was ever yours.

And what the hell, here’s another from the poem “The Unsatisfied Ones”:

When despair—
you who enjoyed great triumphs
and walked with confidence and the memory
of many gifts of delirium and dawns
and unexpected
when despair wants you in its grip

. . .

then think of the unsatisfied ones,
with their migraine-prone temples and introverted dispositions,
loyal to a few memories
that held out little hope,
who still bought flowers,
and with a smile of not much luminosity
confided secret desires
to their small-scale heavens
that were soon to be extinguished.

Second, Jonathan Galassi.

Jonathan Galassi was born in Seattle, Washington in 1949, and is the president and publisher of the Farrar, Straus and Giroux book publishing company.

Oh, yeah, and he’s a wickedly sick translator!

In the winter of last year he published his translation of Canti by the highly acclaimed 19th Century Italian, Giacomo Leopardi. It was surrounded by a lot of well-deserved hype (as much as a book of poetry can get, anyway). Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), certainly one of Italy’s most cherished lyrical poets, has baffled English translators for a very long time, but Galassi’s renditions read effortlessly. Leopardi lived an unhappy life, suffered from a cerebrospinal condition, and was notoriously unlucky in romance, although he was a romantic if ever there was one. In Canti, he expresses nostalgia for his country’s lost golden age, criticizes modern soullessness (this foolish age, which wants what’s useful/and so doesn’t see that life/is becoming constantly more useless), admires the beauty of the natural world, and laments the pains of love. Here is an excerpt from “To Angelo Mai”:

Human life was made of vanities,
glad fantasies, and strange ideas:
we chased them together; what survives,
now that the green has leached out of things?
The certain, lonely knowledge
that everything is vain but grief.

Here’s another from “On the Portrait of a Beautiful Woman”:

Human nature,
if you’re merely weak and worthless,
dust and shadow, why aspire so high?
But if you’re partly noble,
why are your best actions and intentions
so easily, by such unworthy causes,
both inspired and undone?

And finally, a personal favorite from “Broom, or The Flower of the Desert”:

Look here and see yourself reflected,
proud and foolish century,
who gave up the way forward
indicated by resurgent thought,
and, having changed course,
boast of turning back
and call it progress.

. . .

Not so shamefully
shall I go to my death;
rather, the disdain for you
that is locked inside my breast
I’ll have displayed as openly as possible,
though well aware oblivion obscures
him who was too disliked in his own time.
I’ve always laughed at this misfortune,
which will be yours as well.

James H. Miller is the author of the poem “Day,” which was featured in the Spring 2010 edition of Forum.

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