Two distinguished poets have translated into English a sixteenth-century Polish poet whose work reads as if he were our contemporary. The very possibility that we can respond to works written long ago is always fragile. After all, how often do we fail to overcome the gap in time that separates us from a given literary work, except when we read it as students of history, fascinated more by a reconstruction of past mores and ways of feeling than by the work itself? The rare accomplishment of Stanislaw Baranczak and Seamus Heaney in translating Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584), a Polish poet of the Renaissance, is that they allow us to forget about differences in mentality and read Laments as a powerful work of literature.
The art of translation has become in this century an important activity for American poets. A certain anti-elitism liberated translators from their former dependence on departments of philology specializing in a given language. Here the boldness of Ezra Pound, who, without having learned Chinese, produced some excellent adaptations of old Chinese masters, had an influential effect. The question of whether, and to what extent, the poet should know the language from which he or she translates has not been resolved; and yet the impressive translations produced by writers with little knowledge of the original language has forced critics to consider the qualities needed to practice the craft. One of the great craftsmen was the California poet Kenneth Rexroth, whose many translations and adaptations from French, Chinese, and Japanese are of particularly high quality. Rexroth usually worked with someone familiar with a language he did not know himself; he did not hide the fact that his talents for speaking or reading foreign tongues were very limited. In his essay “The Poet As Translator” he observes that “the greatest translators of Chinese”—
Judith Gautier [into French], Klabund, Pound—knew less than nothing of Chinese when they did their best translations. In fact, Judith Gautier’s lover and informant was a Thai, and himself had only the foggiest notion of the meanings of the Chinese text.1
Rexroth praises the exceptional genius of the English philologist Arthur Waley: “Not only have the best ‘translators’ not known Chinese, there is only one great translator who has, and only one in the second class—Arthur Waley, of course, and Bernhard Karlgren [into Swedish]. Waley is a special case. He is a fine poet who has deliberately limited himself, as a kind of rigorous aesthetic discipline—a little like the self-imposed rigors of Paul Valéry—to translation from the Chinese and Japanese.”2
For Rexroth the main virtue of the ideal translator is not his ability to match the words of the text with the words of his own language but sympathy—“identification of another person with oneself, the transference of his utterance to one’s own utterance.” Such sympathy, he writes,
can carry you very far if you have talent to go with it. Hart Crane never learned to speak French and at the time he wrote…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.