The editors of Into English, Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer, take a decentralized approach to translation. The anthology contains twenty-five poems from a range of languages and historical periods, most by poets canonical to an admittedly-Eurocentric take on world literature: Sappho, Rilke, Baudelaire, Lorca, and Mallarmé all make appearances. Yet neither Collins nor Prufer selects (let alone translates) any of the poems. Rather, each poem is selected by a sub-editor of sorts who assembles not just an original and its translation, but an original and three translations, each by a different translator, and follows these translations with a commentary that triangulates their differences, critiquing and praising them at turns as they succeed or fail to convey the nuance of the original.
This format creates a textual space that is open like a discussion, whose returns are limited only by the interests and questions brought to it. As an amateur translator curious about the process of professionals, I learned a lot from the practical advice latent in the commentators’ analyses. For instance, George Kalogeris, while discussing the opening line of C.P. Cavafy’s ‘The Horses of Achilles’ (“But when they saw that Patroklos was dead”), notes that “Part of Cavafy’s genius… is not using the word ‘corpse,’ as if that term had yet to enter the immortal horses’ vocabulary, at least not while the body is still warm” (66). Embarrassing as it is to admit, it had only crossed my mind to worry about translating the meaning of the words an author had chosen, not the meaning of those words highlighted by the shadow-network of synonyms that might have informed the choice but not themselves been chosen. But as Kalogeris implies, careful translation requires such intimate knowledge of a language. I left Into English with a list of insights like these, offhand comments that revealed depths of questions I had only begun to ask about the ethics and responsibilities of translation.
Alternatively, this format allowed me, as a reader who enjoys questioning reactions to literary texts, to explore word-by-word what makes one translation of a poem more effective than another.
Case in point: the insights yielded by comparing a single word in the first few lines of Giacomo Leopardi’s ‘L’Infinito,’ as it appears in the Italian and two English translations (by Kenneth Rexroth and Jonathan Galassi, respectively):
Sempre caro mi fu quest’ermo colle,
E questa siepe, che da tanta parte
Dell’ultimo orizzonte il guardo esclude.
This lonely hill has always
Been dear to me, and this thicket
Which shuts out most of the final
Horizon from view.
This lonely hill was always dear to me,
and this hedgerow, which cuts off the view
of so much of the last horizon.
As Susan Stewart notes in her commentary, Galassi’s hedgerow is closer to the nineteenth-century sense of siepe than Rexroth’s thicket. “Had Leopardi wanted to write about thickets,” she claims, “he would have chosen boschetto” (45). Knowing neither Italian nor the intricacies of nineteenth-century shrubbery, I trust Stewart is right—historically and semantically. Poetically, however, I wonder. When I read Rexroth’s version, I do not experience thicket as semantic lack, but rather as sonic plenitude. Its unvoiced “th” modulates the voiced “th” of the repeated “thises,” which in turn echo the vocalizations in “always,” “Horizon,” and “view.” Together, these establish a baseline “drone” that persists throughout the poem, an emptiness sounding with the overwhelming infinite that the speaker ultimately “drowns in.”
Does this make Rexroth’s translation “better” than Galassi’s? Who knows. I do know, however, that none of the preceding would have taken place had Into English been a more traditional anthology or adhered to a more limited editorial philosophy. By providing readers with the raw materials of comparative analysis, Into English permits (and in fact, encourages) these kinds of discoveries with every poem it includes. In this, Into English embodies the vibrancy of the humanities classroom, and is a valuable resource for anyone committed to its mission.
Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries / Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer (Editors) / Greywolf Press / 7 Nov. 2017 (Paperback)
William Braun lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is a graduate of the Master’s program in English at the University of St. Thomas. His translations have appeared in Exchanges: Journal of Literary Translation and Ezra: An Online Journal of Translation, and his book reviews in Rain Taxi and Structo.