Why I won’t finish this book

A review of the first 11 pages of Poetry and Translation: The Art of the Impossible by Peter Robinson (Liverpool University Press, 2010). $95

My time is valuable, and I always have too much to read. There is so much great literature out there, and a lot of really interesting scholarship, and it piles and piles and I’ll never get to it all. So I’ve lately become more discerning, and if I find a book of criticism overly dull without offering me any great insight within the first thirty pages, I won’t read on. This book failed my test, and here’s why.

Unlike many readers, I always read the preface. In the first paragraph, the author writes about being invited to write this book shortly after translating two book-length selections of poems. “Both of these volumes” he writes “were produced with the operative assumption that it was the aim in translating poetry to be faithfully accurate and to make translations that read well as poems in their own right.” Where’s the punch line? “Faithfully accurate”?! Has he ever read any contemporary theory of translation? Accurate to what? To the tone, the literal meaning of each word, the rhythm of the line, the intent of the original author (providing you can even make the claim to understand that), the effect of the original work on it’s original audience (another difficult claim)? To the meaning of the work, he and those of his school respond. Fine. But since poetry can and must be complex in meaning, to whose interpretation of the meaning? And once you get to that, what do you really mean by “faithful” to your own interpretation/understanding of the meaning of the original? How could you be otherwise? So by saying you’re being “faithfully accurate” to your own interpretation of the work, you are really trying to impose your own reading and re-writing of the work as being unassailable authoritative, the same way people who hide behind theoretical jargon are trying to couch themselves in the language of power, in order to discourage other possible interpretations.

These are not my questions, and neither am I being pedantic. These are the major questions that almost inevitably come up when discussion literary translation, especially poetry. So I expect this brazen assertion to be a lead-in to this rich and interesting discussion. Instead, it’s followed by this: “Poetry & Translation: The Art of the Impossible is ancillary to this work in attempting to lay bare … interrelated ideas and principles about, critical responses to, and reflections on translating, that lie behind the apparently simple aim expressed and, to the best of my abilities, carried out in those collections of translated poetry…” So he’s taking the idea of faithfulness as the unquestioned starting point of the book, ignoring wholly the raging critical debate within translation studies about what faithfulness even means, much less whether it’s an acceptable aim or standard in literary translation.

If he’s not going to question the assumptions of the field, or engage in the debate that critically examines these issues, what will he do? Well, he writes, “I spend time…examining the symbiotic relationship between [the] warranted assertion [that poetry is what is lost in translation] and exorbitant claims to creative freedoms made by some poets when rendering from other languages…” So using the unexamined standard of faithfulness, he’s going to attempt to invalidate “creative freedoms” in translation. Interesting, because by the end of the introduction he’s alluding to one of the perhaps most “exorbitant claims to creative freedoms” in translation, translating from a language you don’t know. “A variety of modes and styles are discussed for translating from languages which I have some knowledge of, and, since this is also part of the field for everyone, from languages I don’t know.” A note here: this practice is certainly not “part of the field for everyone” and in fact has been the source of controversy, angst and criticism from the same people who uphold the standard of fidelity and accuracy that Robinson claims to subscribe to.

The first chapter, “On First Looking” begins with an explication of the influence of translated poetry of Keats’ sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” It reads like Vendler, only drier, and with less of a point. Translations influence poets. Translated literature influences the language it was translated into. Ok, but that’s clear from the title of the sonnet (which acknowledges the translator as instrumental and even as owner of the ‘author’ in a sense, a reading Robinson doesn’t explore at all). Robinson’s point is “If Keats had followed to the letter the closed-book attitude to poetry in translation that Frost was to champion, he could not have written his breakthrough early poem…” Let’s keep in mind that Frost was born 58 years after Keats composed this poem. That the context Keats was working in was radically different from the context Frost was responding to with his quip about loss. That translation was not only vitally important to most writers but widely practiced until the end of the nineteenth century. That it probably wouldn’t have occurred to Keats or most of his contemporaries to evaluate a translated poem based on “faithfulness” or “accuracy.” This kind of retroactive ‘disproof’ of Frost’s contention is as valid as saying “If Virgil had listened to modernists’ assertions about poetry’s uselessness, he wouldn’t have written the Aenid.”

I couldn’t continue, and violating even my new strict rubric, stopped on page 11. This book, with its uncritical assumptions, logical flaws and deadly dry rhetoric, is not worth a minute more of my time.


  1. Oh dear. I plan on teaching a course on poetry and translation and probably will include Robinson. I’m not done with it yet but will let you know how pages 12+ hold up!

    • Please do! I started it thinking I would include a chapter in the course I’m teaching next semester, “Translation as Art” but it’s so logically flawed and willfully disengaged with translation theory… I skimmed several chapters before deciding against continuing, and the only real interaction with actual scholarship on translation was a bizzare and basically knee-jerk takedown of Venuti.

  2. Julie, I think you gave me my first crit ever at pffa. I never cared much for Erato, so I have no comment on your pcresnee/absence there, but I am struck by how many of the no-longer-workshopping comments here are from people who were the reason I learned anything at pffa in the first place (e.g., you, Harry, LolaTwo, Rik). I could just be getting cranky and jaded in my old age, but I miss the *old* pffa, both for general conversation and for poetry critique. I think there is a point where one doesn’t need a workshop to polish one’s own work effectively: workshops are helpful at cultivating a less egotistical, more nonjudgmental stance about one’s own work that makes it easier, paradoxically, to identify its strengths and weaknesses without the aid of others. But while the writers don’t need the workshops, the workshops go on needing a diverse mix of experienced writers, especially where otherwise the workshop will be dominated by a single or a handful of personalities and perspectives (as I gather might be the case at Erato). Growing beyond a workshop is natural for individual writers, but seems to me a loss for writing communities as a whole. Still, hard to keep posting if you’re only punished for it; being a noble mentor can only take you so far.

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