Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Poems about translation 18: Willis Barnstone, 'ABC of Translating Poetry'

Today's Poem About Translation is Willis Barnstone's ABC of Translating Poetry. It's a poem(ish) about the translation of poems, and it lives in the very pleasing online literary magazine Cipher (not to be confused with the also excellent Irish poetry magazine Cyphers).

Barnstone's poem covers a lot of ground, paying calls to different methods of translation, attempting to debunk some of the more persistent commonplaces about translation. It offers new angles on familiar perspectives on translation, not only of poetry, but mostly of poetry.

It belongs to a rich tradition of epigrammatic reflections on translation by American poet-translators - see also Eliot Weinberger's Notes on Translation from 1988, readable here with Notes on the Notes by Kent Johnson, or Forrest Gander's Homages to Translation ('When I read a poem, I hear it in my thorax') from his 2005 book A Faithful Existence. The Homages can be read online here.

Come to think of it, this is less a Poem About Translation than a Blog Post About Epigrammatic Writing About Translation, all the more so because the status of Barnstone's poem as a poem is not certain. It seems to have started life in prose in Barnstone's 1993 book The Poetics of Translation. That version, with brief introductory remarks by Barnstone, can also be read in a single-page format here.

I think I prefer it as a poem: the layout somehow seems to help the epigrammaticity of it:
A translation is an XRAY,
not a Xerox.

A translator spends a life asking Y?
       Yet the I
       knows it's for U.

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