Thoughts on Length and Translation

So I’m not even sure I’m supposed to be writing about this, but I think it’s ok because I’m not talking about specific books. I once again have the privilege of being on the judging committee for the Best Translated Book Award in Poetry. This is my third year, and this year we’ve gotten the most submissions for poetry that we’ve had so far. Which I take to be an excellent sign that more and more publishers are taking the “risk” and publishing translated poetry. But I’m not market analyst, so that’s just my optimistic impression.

Anyone who reads here knows that my tastes run to the aesthetically innovative, some might say experimental and I have no problem with that. I think it’s important to have a variety of aesthetics represented on the committee, it ensures that each year our short list really represents a variety of great works. And of course with more books being submitted it’s harder and harder to narrow it down to a short list.

But I’m finding that as I’m reading for my life right now, trying to give each book a fair amount of time, that one of the things I am paying attention to is the consistency of the book. This is probably something I’d always subconsciously been valuing, but after launching my own press’s chapbook series I have a new sense of what makes a book really work. And part of that for me is cohesion. I should clarify when I talk about consistency that I absolutely do not mean consistency in style, voice, or tone, i.e. consistency in the poetics of the translation. Most of the really great poetry I read has extremely varied registers, shifting styles, a multiplicity of voices and a range of tone. This is one of the ways we can recognize a mastery of the language. And I think that the (not infrequent) translations that homogenize this internal variety for the sake of digestibility and “meeting expectation” do serious damage to the reception and reputation of the poet.

So what do I mean when I say consistency? I’m sort of working it out, which is what this space is for in my mind, working out these thoughts. I think I mean a level of engagement. There’s a great quote from the TV show West Wing, on the episode where they have a poet laureate, and she says something along the lines of art isn’t about truth, it’s about holding the audience’s attention for as long as the artist has asked for it. I think that’s an interesting way to think about it, though of course an artist might be intentionally boring as well and so I wouldn’t say this is a hard and fast rule. But I think the idea of being engaging, of demanding the reader’s attention and refusing to relinquish it, is something I look for when I’m judging a book.

And it strikes me that this is a little bit unfair, because that’s proportionally more difficult to do the longer the collection is. And it perhaps reveals another bias of mine which is for the cohesive book of poems rather than selected or collected poems. I think both are absolutely valuable, but I treat selected and collected poems much more like reference works, and when not judging them for prizes I rarely sit down and read all the way through one. It’s the kind of thing I have on my shelf, turn to in search of a poem or handful of poems, occasionally flip through, but never actually read the whole thing. Where as smaller single-books, especially ones that have a cohesion, a progression throughout the book, I devour.

Now that I’m really thinking about this, too, this is sort of a problem when it comes to translations. Because so little poetry in translation can find a publisher in English, in my observation (and not in hard fact, of course) I’ve seen a trend toward collections, omnibus collections of important foreign poets’ life works. I imagine it’s because it’s hard enough to get someone to publish a book in translation, it wouldn’t make sense to try to bring out several books from an author. And so the translator, as we all already know, plays also the role of editor, reading through the entirety of an author’s work, culling a representative selection, and collecting it for presentation to an English audience.

That of course has its own set of issues. We’re often told, common wisdom, that English audiences have particular expectations for foreign poetry. These are expectations that have to do with “sounding like” English and “sounding like” the great writers that have been translated already from their country or language, among other things. Maybe that’s a whole separate post, too, and certainly much more brilliant minds than mine have taken on this problem (ahem, Venuti). But the result of those expectations are that the selected poems may not always show the breadth of the foreign author’s style. They may enforce a heterogeneity that is not inherent in the author’s body of work, even before the potentially “evening” hand of the translator develops a “voice” for the author in English. Which is a whole separate problem too, the idea of a single, consistent voice for foreign authors, when of course every act of translation is an act of subjective interpretive reading, and so none (really, none) can be authoritative, which makes some people deeply uncomfortable, and makes translation that much harder to “sell” according to traditional wisdom.

Geez, I really spiralled off track. I think my point is that I’m partial to single collections, shorter perhaps (thought not always), and therefore with a level of engagement that is more easily sustained across the book. I think selected and collected works are immensely valuable, but I regret the results of having these as often the only available work by a major foreign poet in English.

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