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Voice and Versification in Translating Poems

The University of Ottawa Press gratefully acknowledges the support extended to its publishing list by Canadian Heritage through the Canada Book Fund, by the Canada Council for the Arts, by the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences through the Awards to Scholarly Publications Program and by the University of Ottawa. We also thank the ERIAC Interdisciplinary Research Group, based at Rouen University, France, for additional funding.

Copy editing: Barbara Ibronyi

Proofreading: Gillian Watts

Typesetting: Counterpunch Inc.

Cover design: Édiscript enr. and Elizabeth Schwaiger

Cover image: Einst dem Grau der Nacht enttaucht by Paul Klee (detail), 1918.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Underhill, James W. (James William), author

Voice and versification in translating poems / by James W. Underhill.

(Perspectives on translation)

Includes bibliographical references.

Issued in print and electronic formats.

ISBN 978-0-7766-2277-4 (paperback).–ISBN 978-0-7766-2278-1 (EPUB).–ISBN 978-0-7766-2279-8 (PDF).–ISBN 978-0-7766-2280-4 (MOBI)

1. Poetry–Translating. 2. Versification. 3. Dickinson, Emily, 1830-1886–Translations–History and criticism. 4. Baudelaire, Charles, 1821-1867–Translations into English–History and criticism. I. Title. II. Series: Perspectives on translation

PN1059.T7U53 2016




For Derek Attridge, who has done more to explain how English poems move, and how they move us, than half of the recent century’s specialists in rhythm and meter put together




The Difficult Task

Hope for Poems

Part 1: Versification

Chapter 1: Form

Formal Definitions of Poetry

Recent Scholarship in Translation Theory

Defining Form

A Few Key Concepts

Chapter 2: Comparative Versification

Different Cultures, Different Stages of Development

A Brief History

Opposing English and French

Resisting a Reductive Model


Chapter 3: Meter and Language

Rhythm and Emotion

Stress Systems



Accent and Meter

Metrical Manipulation of Accents

Metrical Manipulation of Syllables


Chapter 4: Beyond Metrics

Acoustic Patterning


Repetition Proper

The Orchestration of Rhythmic Elements

Part 2: Form and Meaning in Poetry Translation

Chapter 5: Theorizing the Translation of Poetry

Chapter 6: Translating the Sign or the Poem?

Translating Form Blindly

Translating a Poem with a Poem

Translating Form Meaningfully

Chapter 7: Form and Translation

Translating Stragegies: Forms of Reformulating

Voices in Foreign Versification

Part 3: Case Studies

Chapter 8: Baudelaires

Baudelaire Today

Scott’s Baudelaire



The Whole Poem

Chapter 9: French and German Emily Dickinsons

Introducing une Emily Dickinson française

Gender and Personification

Malroux: A Voice That Hears and Responds

Voices after Malroux

Delphy’s Return to the Academy

Malroux’s Missed Rhythms

What Liepe Hears

The Untranslatable and the Untranslated

Chapter 10: A Final Word




I would like to thank lecturers and students at Stendhal University, Grenoble, and the Université de Rouen for their feedback when I was putting this book together. Thanks are also due to friends and family. My teacher Mr. Watson at Hawick High School did much to open up poems to me, while Henri Meschonnic, the great Parisian translator-poet, helped convince me of the importance of poetics for understanding the act of translating.

I managed to convince a number of people to help me with the ideas contained in these pages. Back in the 1990s, when I was well underway with my rhythm project, friends, colleagues, and lecturers gave me considerable help in refining my ideas and offered liberal amounts of challenging criticism. Donald Wesling, Richard D. Cureton, and above all Derek Attridge were great sources of inspiration for me during my PhD research: my all-too-brief conversations and e-mail exchanges with them redoubled my enthusiasm and gave me greater insight. I’d very much like to thank Ian Tullock, Harbans Nagpal, Marko Pajević, Jean-Louis Cluse, Jacqueline Fontaine, Laure Gaudemard, Céline Reuilly, Kateřina Pavlitová, and Claire Simon-Boisson.

Henri Meschonnic, who directed my master’s and PhD theses, from which this work on comparative versification is derived (Underhill 1999), is quoted sufficiently to make clear the debt I owe him. I have dedicated other books to him, and no doubt his voice will echo in the background of most of the books I write. The encouragement and support that came from Anne-Marie Ducreux in my first years in Paris were precious. Later on I was lucky enough to be given sustaining support by my wife, Laetitia.

Since then, colleagues and friends have continued to help me clarify problems of versification and translation. Many of them pulled apart some of my ideas, allowing me to put them back together to make my meaning clearer and my case stronger. Christine Raguet and Luise von Flotow, great translators and specialists in poetics, and the late linguist Michel Viel gave me excellent advice and solid criticism. I benefited from their goodwill at a time when it was not always obvious to others (or even to myself) that I needed praise and encouragement as well as criticism.

For stylistic help, my thanks go to Faye Troughton and, most of all, to Anne-Marie Pugh. The staff of the University of Ottawa Press certainly deserve great praise for their advice on improvements regarding the content, form, and scope of the project. Editors know more about readers and markets than authors, and readers therefore have editors to thank that academics do not unload more bloated, incoherent, and unreadable manuscripts upon them. Elizabeth Schwaiger’s improvements and all-round efficiency in the editing stage helped ensure that we brought out a more polished finished product. I thank her most of all for elegantly solving the seemingly unsolvable problem of rendering Derek Attridge’s binary scansion in print.

For allowing me to publish poems, extracts of poems, and extracts from other authors, I would like to thank the following publishing houses and Internet editors. Cambridge University Press gave permission for the publication of extracts from Derek Attridge’s The Rhythms of English Poetry (1982). Penguin Books agreed to extensive quotations from Baudelaire in English, edited by Carol Clark and Robert Sykes (1997), and from Baudelaire, edited and translated by Francis Scarfe (1972). The editors of the wonderful website Charles Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal / Flowers of Evil (www.fleursdumal.org), which continues to compile both established and innovative translations of Baudelaire’s poems, deserve thanks also. Gallimard must be thanked for enabling me to quote the original poems from Baudelaire’s Oeuvres complètes, volume 1 (1975). Reclam Verlag deserves thanks for kindly allowing me to quote long passages from Gertrud Liepe’s wonderful German translations of the poems in Emily Dickinson: Gedichte (1970).

Thanks go to Farrar, Straus and Giroux for kindly enabling me to publish an entire poem by Ted Hughes from Collected Poems (2003). And thanks go to Tony Kline for allowing me to publish his translation of Paul Éluard’s “Amoureuse,” an online version that I use as a model for rhythm and voice in free-verse translation. Thanks are also due to the editors for enabling me to reproduce Éluard’s original from the Poetica website (www.poetica.fr). I would also like to thank the journals Pathhead and Fras for enabling me to quote translations of Baudelaire’s poems by myself and by others that they have published. Finally, two online sites that offered crucial resources quoted in this work were the World Atlas of Language Structures Online (www.wals@info), which provides a vast and synthetic cross-lingual account of accentuation, and Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org), for its inimitable range of multilingual texts. These resources will make it far simpler for readers to consult originals and compare their impressions with my own findings and arguments.


Since Sophia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation came out in 2003, the familiar phrase that gave the film its title has been used in common speech and in media headlines with a wide variety of meanings, referring to cultural misunderstandings and incomprehension between generations and between genders. In poetics the concept of loss in translation has a much more refined meaning, even if we do not always specify what is actually lost. For what is lost when a poem is translated? Is it the beauty of Hindi or Spanish that fails to penetrate the lexis of English? Is it the shape of French syntax that fails to reform when the poem is “re-form-ulated”? Is it the metrical tradition of one language that turns out to be incompatible with the linguistic norms of another language? Or is it those dominant styles that are currently asserting themselves in literary circles, and which are being endorsed and maintained by the established practices of publishers, that prevent us translating something that is essential in the original poem? Is the voice of the poet simply not to be heard in the translated text?

A human being speaks to other human beings by making use of the shared medium known to a linguistic community. In the same way, poets take their place in language at a given time, addressing others, even if they fail to perceive clearly whom their poems will eventually be addressing. Extracted from the poet’s time, from his or her language and linguistic community, can the translated poem be expected to resound and resonate with the same urgency and vibrancy that the initial voice does? The voices of Shakespeare’s characters, the voice of Goethe’s Faust, the voices that emerge in the poems of Emily Dickinson, of Baudelaire, and of Neruda do reach out to the readers of English, German, French, and Spanish, uttering urgent words in captivating movements and disconcerting jolts. But can translations achieve the same expressive force? Surely Shakespeare deserves a Shakespeare and Goethe deserves a Goethe to translate their poems. But how many Shakespeares, Goethes, Dickinsons, Baudelaires, and Nerudas are there? Can we expect to find a similar voice in another language, a translator who is capable of giving voice to the poet who originally opened up one facet of reality and brought back to life, for his or her culture, an essential moment of meaning?

This book is not intended to be an easy answer to a difficult question. But neither do I intend to pay my respects to a long-standing negative theory of translation that has gained many adherents in recent decades and that has become something of an unanalyzed received idea: that is, translating poems is impossible. In Derrida’s elegant prose this position boils down to affirming that “translating is a sublime and impossible task” (Derrida 2004: 423). Derrida was speaking as an observer rather than a practitioner or a poet, but poets themselves have often expressed doubts as to the fate of the translated poem. The great romantic poet Shelley, for example, argued that

it were as wise to cast a violet into a crucible that you might discover the formal principle of its colour and odour, as to seek to transfuse from one language into another the creations of a poet. The plant must spring again from its seed or it will bear no flower. (2004: n.p.)

Ironically enough, this negative appraisal did not prevent Shelley from translating poems himself. He translated Homer from Greek, Virgil from Latin, Dante from Italian, Calderon from Spanish, and Goethe from German. This activity hardly supports his negative claim. The German scholar may point to losses in the transition of Goethe into English in the extensive fragments of Faust that Shelley translated, and the purist might regret Shelley’s decision to drop the rhyme, but the easy flow with which Shelley’s God and his Mephistopheles speak in English blank verse, heightened by alliteration, would hardly make a good example for pessimism concerning the possibility of translating poems. The following lines come from the dialogue between Mephistopheles and the Lord at the beginning of the play, when they discuss their wager as to whether Faust will choose evil or good.

The Lord. Well, well! it is permitted thee. Draw

His spirit from its springs; as thou find’st power,

Seize him and lead him on thy downward path;

And stand ashamed when failure teaches thee

That a good man, even in his darkest longings,

Is well aware of the right way.


Well and good.

I am not in much doubt about my bet,

And if I lose, then ’tis Your turn to crow;

Enjoy your triumph then with a full breast.

Ay; dust shall he devour, and that with pleasure,

Like my old paramour, the famous Snake.


(Shelley 1917: 743)

Goethe also had doubts about translating poems. And this reservation proved equally curious, since he himself was not only a poet and a playwright, he was also (besides being a scientist and theatre director) a translator. In translating poetry, though, Goethe suggested we should drop not only the rhyme, as Shelley does, but also the rhythm:

Ich ehre den Rhythmus wie den Reim, wodurch Poesie erst zur Poesie wird, aber das eigentlich tief und gründlich Wirksame, das wahrhaft Ausbildende und Fördernde ist dasjenige was vom Dichter übrigbleibt, wenn er in Prosa übersetzt wird. (I respect both rhythm and rhyme, by which Poetry becomes Poetry, but the thoroughly deep and effective, the truly shaping and demanding element in poetry is what remains of the poet when he is translated into prose). (Goethe 1973: 34, my translation)

Some poets remain equally skeptical about the success of poetry translation. Robert Frost even went as far as defining the essential nature of poetry as being that je ne sais quoi that defies translation. Indeed, he was defining poetry itself, not translation, when he suggested, “Poetry is what is lost in translation” (Untermeyer 1963: 16).

Derrida could hardly be said then to find himself in bad company when he voiced his own skepticism. Nonetheless, one argument tends to contradict the hypothesis that translating poems is impossible: the great importance of translation for our own language and the importance of translated poems for our literary tradition. Pound and Eliot are only two of the most prominent modern examples of writers who believed that the literary tradition could be rejuvenated and given the strength to dig its roots into reality by seeking sustenance in the poetries of other peoples and other ages. Translations of Greek, Latin, French, and German poets have never ceased to enrich the English poetic tradition throughout the centuries.

The objection that languages are barriers for poetic works, that they constitute walls between world views, hindering the communion of minds, only superficially supports the skepticism of Goethe, Shelley, Frost, and Derrida. And although the argument that metrical systems cannot be transposed holds true to some degree, this also ultimately proves misleading: because translation happens. It takes place every day. And that fact is the ongoing demonstration that translating poems is possible. It would be absurd to underestimate the task of translation or to refuse to recognize the constraints that lexis, syntax, meter, rhythm, and a whole host of other organizing principles impose upon the translators of poems, but the historical reality of the situation leads us to the inevitable conclusion that poetry is translatable. How else are we to understand that most literary traditions derive not only many of their poetic motifs but also their metrical systems from other languages? The French décasyllable grows out of the Italian decasillabo (decasyllable) verse line. So does the English iambic pentameter. In the same way the eight-syllable line passes from Czech and Polish into Russian verse in the seventeenth century, and in the eighteenth century Chaucer’s English verse influences Lessing’s German verse (see Gasparov 1996).

Metrical systems do not take flight and migrate as birds do. They pass from one language to another through adaptation of the existing tradition in the successful translation of poems. Voices make themselves heard in versifications that are partly imported, partly adapted. Long after the voices of individual poets are heard no more, the movements and organized patterns that those poets once helped to introduce continue to shape and embody poems in the source language. The English iambic pentameter and the French alexandrine outlived the translations that first helped them to take root in the poetic tradition of the languages that adopted them. The language that manages to integrate translations is revitalized by the foreign and the process of refashioning it.

How does this change happen? What takes place when poems are adapted and integrated into another linguistic and literary tradition? These are the questions with which this book is concerned. As with all poetry translation, considering these questions will involve playing with language creatively. But we shall be turning away from the playful poetics of Derrida, because his games turn out to be a poetics of the dead end, a negative poetics inspired by a negative hermeneutics. The negative dialectic consists in transposing a skepticism concerning the capacity of language to express ideas to the theorizing of translating poems. In solidarity with the great German linguist (and translator) Wilhelm von Humboldt, I stand against such negation. Language enables us to speak meaningfully to one another, just as meaningful speech sustains and perpetuates language as an instrument of expression. Poetry is not an exception and cannot be excluded from our conceptions of language, communication, and self-expression. Poets help remould our language as a shared medium of creative individual expression.

Poetry is concerned with reverie and dreams, but theory is not. If we are going to dream of the translation of poems, we must keep our feet on the ground. This book is concerned with neither the sublime nor the impossible, but quite simply with the difficult. If we are to move forward in thinking through the act of poems’ breaking through from one language into another, we will have to proceed in a clear, concise, and pragmatic manner. There will be plenty of room for criticism, but if criticism leads only to reinforcing skepticism, it will ultimately be of no use. Condemning bad translations is facile; it’s as easy as shooting fish in a barrel. The true test of criticism lies in providing a more finely tuned understanding of the task at hand. If criticism embraces this pragmatic vocation, then I trust that the reader (and the translators I cite) will forgive me if I permit myself to analyze what breaks down in order to see more clearly what can be built up.

In this endeavour it will be necessary to distinguish between four different dimensions of difficulty. The language system presents problems proper to itself when it comes to transposing a poem from one language to another. The metrical system, which takes root in the language but which is only one of various existing normative structures, also presents a challenge to translation. The orchestration of secondary organizing principles related to alliteration, repetition, and phrasing must not go unstudied—must not go unheard, so to speak. And finally the specific orchestration of the poem itself as an individual act of expression must also be listened to.

Translating Shakespeare does mean translating English, but Shakespeare’s English is not the English heard in the underground in London, or on the radio in Glasgow. Shakespeare may use the pentameter in both the majority of his plays and the sonnets, but the use of enjambment and line endings is sensibly different in these works. Each poem orchestrates a meaningful movement that sets up expectancy and that provides surprise with free internal rhyming, repetition, and phrasing. This movement is obvious, patently palpable, to anyone listening to the poem. But sadly, and somewhat perversely, specialists in poetry and metrics, and increasingly linguists interested in studying poetry in order to try to understand what it shows about language, often forget to listen to poems. Interested in form and in rule-bound structures, they study poetry and forget the essential: that individual experience each successful poem promises to open up to us.

The task at hand will take us on a short tour of poetics in different languages and will focus primarily on the translation of poems from French to English and vice versa. We will need to make a series of fundamental distinctions pertaining to rhyme, rhythm, meter, and semantic and formal organization. In turn these distinctions will require the translation of—or the coining of—a fairly extensive set of definitions. These definitions are rigorously explained within the text, with the key terms listed in the glossary.

It would not be unfair to contend that good translators do not need theory, just as good poets do not need to learn the rules of metrics to write sonnets. Poets learn to write by reading and listening. In their own way they follow an apprenticeship that enables them to intuitively grasp and assimilate rules and cultivate their own aesthetic sensibility. Yet many translators feel the need to explain to themselves and to others what they are doing and why. And in their attempt to explain, ambiguous terms, tenuous arguments, and dubious guiding principles often obstruct understanding and discourage people from trying to understand what happens when poems are translated. Faced with bad theory, people may turn their backs on the process of theorization and rigorous reflection. The art form is no longer perceived as a craft to be mastered; it becomes an elusive magical activity that defies definition.

In my experience patience is not always rewarded when it comes to studying versification. After wading through treatises and articles on metrics and versification and listening to interminable discussions on the same themes in English, French, and Czech, I found that confusion is the most salient characteristic of much of the research, debate, and discussion. The problem is not simply that terms have different meanings in different languages. One term has various meanings in a single language, and an individual author will apply multiple related meanings to terms such as “rhythm,” “rhyme,” and “organization.” “Form” proves to be one of the most elusive terms when it comes to attempting to understand what it means in the argument of an individual writer.

Translating terms from the idiolects of individual authors frequently leads to confusion and misunderstanding. After considering these questions for more than two decades now, I have come to the conclusion that a much greater danger lurks in wait for those who have a very real sensitivity to these questions and who share a desire to explain their poetic experiences. That danger is the so-called unfounded agreement. The French scholars who discuss Shakespeare agree that his rhythm is remarkable. Yet only after many years did I come to understand that where the first reader was fascinated with the undulating movement of the English language itself—so distinct from strong-syllable, weak-accented French—the second was in love with the iambic meter—so different from the alexandrine—and the third, often a specialist in English or a translator such as Jean-Michel Déprats, heard something specific to Shakespeare that he found nowhere else in English poetry. Putting some order into these impressions and approaches to rhythm and poetry is one of the primary aims of this book.

This book divides into three inseparable parts, each with a specific focus:

Part 1 provides a comparative versification and a theory of voice.

Part 2 invites readers to reflect upon translating poems.

Part 3 provides two case studies, the first investigating the strategies adopted in translating Baudelaire into what can be termed “English Baudelaires” and the second considering the various strategies adopted in French and German to translate Emily Dickinson.

Part 1, the longest section, begins with an outline of the inherent difficulties in comparing metrical systems and versification in a more broadly defined manner. It focuses mainly on French and English and considers meter, rhyme, lines, and those essential organizing principles at work in both free verse and metrical verse (alliteration, phrasing, repetition, and so forth). Short extracts from translated poems are compared and contrasted in order to illustrate the ways that rhythmic elements and organizing principles can be transposed. Each element will be considered in a systematic order, but this methodical approach does not allow us to consider of poems and translations as wholes.

Readers more interested in poems than in theory might be tempted to skim over this first section lightly, so as to dive into the following sections on translating poems. While I understand this temptation, I would contend that as soon as translators seek to explicate what they are doing, both consciously and intuitively, they run the risk of falling into the difficulties that this first section helps eradicate from the poetics of translation: sloppy definitions and arguments based on spurious contentions about languages and versification systems.

In Part 2 the act of translating poetry is directly engaged, both theoretically and technically. I consider what is at stake in translating individual poems as meaningful acts formally unfolding. The question raised is whether the voices re-emerge in the versification of the translated poems or whether either meaning or form is privileged at the expense of the other and, more importantly, at the expense of the poem as an integral whole. I have taken the liberty of introducing a few of my own translations at this point, just as I have included them elsewhere as examples or counter-examples. At times I have chosen to retranslate extracts to highlight the difficulties at hand or to explain how another strategy would achieve something else. If I have chosen to do this, it is not to defend my skills as a translator. To present these translations as models would be so immodest as to be unlikely to convince anyone. Nonetheless, two reasons encouraged me to take this liberty. It seems only fair, after allowing myself to criticize the works of others, that I should offer up my own endeavours to public view and thereby expose myself to the same criticism that I undertake. The second reason relates to the conscious strategy involved in translating. Even though translating remains a creative act that, at its deepest level and by its very nature, defies self-analysis, I was aware of consciously attempting to resolve given problems when I was translating poems. The self-analysis recounted in the short commentaries that follow each of my own translations is intended to help clarify and theorize the difficulties translators confront when handling the orchestration of interacting rhythmic elements and their impact on the meaningful movement of poems.

Part 3 brings us back to the poem and the poet. The French poet chosen, Baudelaire, manifestly still speaks to English readers, judging from the vast array of English Baudelaires that continue to be born. The number and variety of Baudelaire translations available is essential for the task at hand in the case study. Emily Dickinson, the American poet selected for the second case study, likewise continues to inspire fresh translations, in French and in German. The various strategies translators adopt in translating the work of these poets enable us to explore different approaches to translating. They also allow us to critically reappraise the catalogues and oppositions used to distinguish between modes of translating and proclaimed objectives. This section asks whether a theory of voice and versification can help in conceptualizing and understanding what occurs and what is achieved when translating poems. This analysis moves beyond hermeneutics but also beyond formalism. In fact it should take us beyond the idea of poetry and back to the poem.

Translating poems is about meaning and what poems mean to us, but it is also about form: how meaning takes form and how the translated poem re-forms within our listening consciousness, our inner ear. If translated poems are to live on in the new tradition, then they must take us beyond meaning, beyond a sterile formalistic metrics of the rules of expectation, beyond the formal chimes of rhymes. If this seems like a tall order, it must be remembered that so many translated poems have succeeded in doing this. Voices resound in a new language in a reconfigured versification; they cannot be considered mechanical reconstructions in which some elusive hermeneutic core of meaning has been deposited or inserted. Voices take form in a second language, harness principles of organization, and resonate in what might be called an organic translation.

The organic translation cannot be reduced to translation of the meaning or the form. Neither does it enact a clumsy juxtaposition of the two, a semantico-formal adventure, as it were. Organic translations grow out of the meaningful shaping of rhythmic elements that enunciate and highlight the experience of poetic meaning.

The Difficult Task

If we are to make any progress in conceptualizing the process of translation, then we must turn from the negative tradition and look deeply into the act of translating with a pragmatic and optimistic eye. This examination does not mean falling into the opposite extreme of asserting that there are no problems, only solutions. Neither does it entail blindly believing that obstacles can and will be overcome. Ezra Pound, one of the great free translators of his time, researched the question of rhythm both rigorously and exhaustively. His ear was finely attuned to the balance of syllables and the echoes of alliteration and assonance. His idea that translation must replace a poem with a poem has gained wide acceptance in English poetics. But despite being a staunch defender of the importance of translation for the literary tradition, Pound came close to an anti-intellectual position when he affirmed that, in the end, good translations come down to something approaching divine miracles.

For my own part, I believe we will advance more surely with criticism. What is needed is neither skepticism nor faith. Theory will not provide us with tailor-made solutions for handling the supple architectonics of poems. Rigorous analysis of the interaction of rhythmic elements in the dynamic and meaningful workings of both the poem and the translation, however, should help us in our task, by allowing us to discern some of the main factors contributing to the success or failure of poems to make themselves heard in foreign languages. It is in this spirit that I offer as an example one of the less successful translations of Guy Jean Forgue. Arguably Forgue was the best of the first generation of French Emily Dickinson translators (following Messaien, in Dickinson 1956, and Bosquet, in Dickinson 1957), and his translation of a selection of her poems published in 1970 succeeded in securing a lasting place for Dickinson in the French literary tradition (Dickinson 1970b). Consider, for example, “Poem 254.”

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—

That perches in the soul—

And sings a tune without the words—

And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—

And sore must be the storm—

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—

And on the strangest Sea—

Yet, never, in Extremity,

It asked a crumb—of Me.

L’espérance est la chose empennée

Qui va percher dans l’âme

Et chante le chant sans paroles,

Toujours, sans s’arrêter.

Elle est plus douce au fort de la tempête

Et quelle violence il faudrait

Pour décourager l’oiselet

Qui a réchauffé tant de monde!

Je l’ai entendu aux plus froids pays,

Sur les mers les plus étrangères—

Mais jamais, dans ces extrémités,

Il ne m’a demandé une miette.

(Dickinson 1970a: 62–63)

Skeptics, siding with Goethe, Shelley, Frost, and Derrida, might consider this as evidence of the impossibility of translation. Translating a poem is of course a tremendously difficult experiment, and it would be pointless and presumptuous to denigrate Forgue’s attempt. Perhaps certain French readers will react favourably to his rendering of Dickinson, and French-speaking students will certainly benefit from it if they are looking for a ladder to help them climb towards a better understanding of Dickinson’s poem. For my part, however, Dickinson’s poem speaks to me and the translation does not. Is this a mere value judgement? I would argue that it is not. If this is more than a personal appraisal, if this can be explained in technical, formal, aesthetic, and semantic terms, we will have made some progress in explaining what happens when poems are translated. Doing so may equip us better, as translators, for the task of translating. It may enable us to render living, breathing metamorphoses rather than corpses that come into the target language “dead on arrival.”

What exactly breaks down in the translation process? Perhaps the first thing that strikes the ear is that Forgue has dropped the rhyme and chosen not to offer a metrical rendering of the poem. Goethe would find nothing to criticize in that. Would we? What is missing in the translation? Is it the pleasant chimes of rhymes? Is it the reassuring undulating accentuation of metrical beating? These questions bring up a more fundamental question, one that is vital for the metamorphosis of poems: is there an inherent value in form itself? As the following chapters will illustrate, the French poet Paul Valéry (1871–1945) and the great German translator-thinker Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) believed there was. Both posited that the essence of poetry is essentially formal. Their defence of form was part of a celebration of poetry. But can poetry be boiled down to form? Defining poetry in terms of form leads to the inconvenient conclusion that nursery rhymes are poetry and that doggerel is more poetic than free verse. Obviously Valéry and Benjamin had no intention of defending limericks, nursery rhymes, or what the Scots call rat rhyme. Unfortunately the logic of their argument leads unwittingly to a defence of meaningless and lowbrow verse in the name of an abstract aesthetics of form itself. Surely the importance of form and the function of form lie elsewhere.

If the meter and the rhyme work in the poem by Dickinson, then they work by paying their way. If they are to be held essential then it must be because they form part of the dynamic expressive process by which the poem formulates its meaning. Is this the case? Actually, in this poem the coupling of words (soul/all) forms only a half-rhyme. Dickinson’s other rhymes, however, highlight significant elements of the poem’s meaning and forge meaningful links between the words (storm/warm, Sea/Eternity/Me). This is equally true of the alliterative foregrounding. Alliteration and rhyme cannot be reduced to merely formal elements, stylistic flourishes intended to embellish the meaning. Alliteration links words, as in the phrases “sore must be the storm” and “abash a Bird.” If form foregrounds, then it foregrounds meaning. Form makes the poem more meaningful; the poem hits harder than prose.

In the same way the movement of the poem moves us. To some degree this effect is true of any metrical verse. Meter exercises a pull on us (an explanation of the charm of nonsense verse, doggerel, and comic verse). In this poem Dickinson is using her favourite verse form, the iambic tetrameter quatrain, which manifests itself in lines of four metrical beats in which the last beat is not always realized but is often replaced by a pause (called an “implied offbeat” in Attridge 1982: 174). In the opening stanza of Dickinson’s poem, only the third line has four beats, though the first two and the final lines are clearly tetrameters followed by implied offbeats.

Metrics and scansion will be taken up in the chapters in Part 1. For the present moment it will be sufficient to emphasize three points regarding Dickinson’s use of meter. First, the poem presents itself as an organized whole. Second, phrases are divided regularly into lines whose ends, whether rhymed or not, are used to highlight significant elements of the poem’s meaning. Third, there is what may seem like an almost pathological use of dashes (thirteen in twelve lines) that expressively disrupts both the syntax and the meter. This is a distinctive feature of Dickinson’s poetry (see Wylder 1971).

Translating the meaning of a poem of such a subtle and at times hermetic poet as Dickinson presents relatively little problem to Forgue. He shows a gift for exploiting the semantic resources of the French language in translating “little bird” as “oiselet.” In contrast to Slavic languages and to Italian, the range of diminutives in English is poor. French is somewhat richer than English, and Forgue makes use of that richness here to avoid a clumsy word-for-word rendering (petit oiseau). Neither does he prove indifferent to rhythm. Forgue may have decided not to subject his translation to the constraints of a forme fixe—a conventional metrical and rhymed structure in French verse—but the lines of his translation reveal a tendency to flirt with metrical lines. Many of them form vers pairs, that is, lines of an even rather than an odd number of syllables, as here in a sequence of 6-8-6: “Qui va percher dans l’âme [6] / Et chante le chant sans paroles [8] / Toujours, sans s’arrêter [6].” Note that the eight syllables in the second line result from classical pronunciation of the mute e at the end of chante. This is a fairly common technique adopted by contemporary French poetry translators. The intended effect is that of a translated poem that gravitates towards tradition; it sets off the poem against arbitrary prose rhythms by freely introducing a fluid series of lines in which the regularity of the tradition is echoed. Was it to preserve the flow of the lines that Forgue decided to drop the dashes? Only one out of thirteen has been preserved, which is somewhat surprising, since Forgue often preserves these dashes where his predecessors chose to cut down on them dramatically.

What is traditionally termed euphony (alliteration and assonance) is rare in his translation, though Forgue does introduce one free internal rhyme, “Sur les mers les plus étrangères,” which renders “And on the strangest sea.” Forgue’s line is a beautiful one, lyrically inviting. It might well remind readers of Baudelaire’s evocation of the exotic sea, “La musique souvent me prend comme une mer / Vers ma pâle étoile” (Baudelaire 1975: 106). Indeed, it would be tempting to praise Forgue for such a line, but does it help to reproduce the mood and meaning of Dickinson’s poem? Dickinson’s “chillest lands” and “strangest seas” are far from enticing. They are the cold, hopeless landscapes and seascapes where despair invades us, environments in which the only thing that can sing warmth into our hearts is that pitiful bird within us, hope. Forgue and Dickinson both pull us towards poetry, but poetry of very different natures. The fact that this rhyme is the sole one in the translated poem foregrounds the aesthetic departure all the more poignantly.

Similarly, the disappearance of the dashes in Forgue’s version seems to suggest an aesthetics of poetry very different from that to which Dickinson adheres. Forgue is certainly rhythmically interesting. For him poetry can be free. Writing in 1970, after three generations of free verse, Forgue might well have believed that poetry must be free in order to be poetry, so fully had free verse vanquished meter. Contemporary French poetry has espoused freedom as an aesthetic prerequisite. But if he seems indifferent to metrical constraints, Forgue is manifestly not indifferent to rhythm. He seems to believe that poetry should flow: flow in and out of regularity. T. S. Eliot advocated something very similar when he argued that “the ghost of some simple meter should lurk behind the arras in even the ‘freest’ of verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse” (Eliot 1953: 90).

This position raises another question, however. Does Dickinson’s poem “flow”? Should this elegy to the pathos of hope—the small bird within us that refuses to abandon us even in the direst of circumstances—move peacefully and naturally? Should it assume the movement of a berceuse (lullaby) that rocks us gently back towards peace and serenity? Certainly meter has the power to do this, and Dickinson’s poem is metrical. Nonetheless, the dashes tend to disrupt the reassuring effect of meter. What we have here is something quite characteristic of Dickinson’s verse: a fairly acute tension between speech rhythm and meter. While the meter imposes order, coherence, and harmony, the speech rhythms drag against it. The result is the highlighting of words within the lines. The most poignant effect is the act of separating hope from the hoper in the last line: of hope, we are told, “never, in Extremity, / It asked a crumb—of Me.” The loneliness of that last “Me,” left hanging at the end of the line and foregrounded by the triple rhyme (Sea/Extremity/Me), seems to all but deny the power of hope. At the very least it undermines hope’s capacity to comfort the person it sings within.

Forgue does not adopt the meter, so an expressive tension between syntax and meter becomes impossible. It is perhaps understandable, therefore, to remove the dashes; to preserve half of what provokes tension is not necessarily better than preserving nothing at all. In any event, the stylistic and aesthetic preconceptions of what poetry is intervene here in the process by which Forgue apprehends and interprets the poem, appropriating and translating it. The ultimate and essential question is, do we hear Dickinson’s poem or Forgue’s poetry?

At this point it becomes crucial to apprehend what the act of translation involves. We do not translate a language, we do not translate poetry; we translate a poem. As long as we remain close to the poem, we will remain close to a voice that emerges in its versification. Meter helps make sense. Rhymes underline meaning. Alliteration forges links between words and lends those words a greater, more penetrating force. But as translators it is difficult to distance ourselves from the rhythms and movements at work within our conception of poetry. Our individual sensibilities are such that we have a predilection to use meters and sound patterning in a certain way, and this tendency betrays the underlying assumptions of our own conceptions of poetry and reveals a great deal about the nature of our own sensitivity to poetic language. As translators, once we allow our own aesthetics of poetry to intervene, we easily fall victim to allowing formal elements to take the translation in a direction separate from the original. If this direction coincides with reformulation of the poem’s meaning, then the result may work. If not, we can find ourselves on the path to a very different kind of poem.

As we shall see in the Baudelaire case study, many of the translators appropriate Baudelaire’s poems and give a living, breathing form to the translated poems. Robert Lowell’s Baudelaire translations (in Baudelaire 1997), it might be argued, take leave of the originals, but the poems he produces nonetheless hold together as what might be termed “coherent transgressions,” following the logic of their own tangents. Often, however, disassembling the poem and putting it back together again involves sticking together random impulses that are shaped by conflicting desires. Like an unsuccessful salad vinaigrette, the translated poem simply does not come together. The individual lines and stanzas, the expressive potential of the sound patterning, and the rhythms, however expressive they might be, begin to express things contrary to the meaningful movement and organization of the original poem.

Hope for Poems

It is certainly not my intention to debunk or reject Forgue’s attempt. The case study on the French interpretations of Emily Dickinson’s poems reasserts Forgue as a formidable translator. Nor is it my intention to feed skepticism about the potential to translate poems. Strategies that produce unsatisfying results can be of interest to a work of this kind only if they help us to refine our understanding of the difficult task at hand. Criticism should cultivate sensibility of the complexity of the task. If it helps achieve this goal, then it should be perceived as indirectly optimistic, not perversely pedantic.

Lest Forgue’s translation and the accompanying critique put a damper on the reader’s spirits, examples of a few successful translations may be a good idea at the outset. Failures and translations that break down, or fail to find an ear in the target language, make good material for analysis, but readers who are asked to pore over many pages of comparative versification should not be begrudged some nourishment to sustain them in this endeavour.

Examples are surprisingly easy to find. Opening, almost at random, Gérard Gâcon’s French translations of the sonnets of Philip Sidney, Shakespeare’s contemporary, I stumble upon verses carved with craftsmanship equal to those of the original. So smooth and so efficient is the translation in bodying forth the message of the poem that for a moment I find myself asking what is the poem’s original language. A few examples of Gâcon’s translations of Sidney should suffice to make the point. Here is the first stanza of Sidney’s “Sonnet 20.”

Fly, fly, my friends, I have my death wound; fly,

See there that boy, that murthering boy I say,

Who like a theefe, hid in the darke bush doth ly,

Till bloudie bullet get him wrongfull pray.

Fuyez, amis, fuyez! A mort on m’a blessé!

Voyez là cet enfant, ce petit assassin:

C’est un voleur dans d’obscurs halliers embusqué

Guettant de son sanguinaire plomb le larcin.

(Sidney 1994: 34–35)

The urgency of the original is made equally manifest in the translation, even though the third incitation to “fly” is dropped by Gâcon. The translation runs energetically but smoothly in alexandrines of both a classical kind (divided 6:6) and in the more original romantic form (8:4). The rhyme is preserved. And blessé/embusqué has the merit of harnessing words of poignancy for the poem, even though it does not qualify as a full rhyme because, as we shall see later, French rhyming tends to be more demanding on the whole. It does contribute to making meaningful links with sound patterning, nonetheless. What do we find in the original? “Fly”/“ly” is a functional rhyme that supports the narrative, but “say”/“pray” is weak, while Gâcon’s assassin/larcin (assassin/robbery) hits home hard with a meaningful coupling that foregrounds the central idea that life has been stolen by a prankster kid.

Is this simply a lucky find? On browsing the translations more fully, this does not seem to be the case. Gâcon proves equally masterful in the opening stanza of Sidney’s “Sonnet 31.”

With how sad steps, O Moone, thou climb’st the skies,

How silently, and with how wanne a face,

What, may it be that even in heav’nly place

That busie archer his sharpe arrows tries?

Quel sombre pas, ô Lune, pour gravir les cieux!

Quel étonnant silence, et quel blafard visage!

Se pourrait-il donc qu’en ces célestes parages

L’archer pour lancer ses traits soit aussi fougueux?

(1994: 40–41)

Sidney’s moon climbs sadly into the skies. But the archer who energetically bends his bow in the translation is linked in contrast to the moon’s sullen pace. This makes the rhyme cieux/fourgueux (heavens/ardent) a dynamic coupling. In order to maintain a functional structure in translating fixed-form verse, Gâcon, for his part, reproduces not only the rhyme but also the abba rhyming scheme of the original. This entails reproducing the final rhymed couplet, so characteristic of the Elizabethan sonnet, that resolves the poem. Would the following French lines look out of place in an anthology of classical French verse?

Those Lovers scorne whom that Love doth possesse?

Do they call Virtue there ungratefulnesse?

Ces Amoureux qu’Amour détient en servitude?

Nomment-elles Vertu leur fière ingratitude?

(“Sonnet 31,” Sidney 1994: 40–41)

These verses may sound antiquated to the modern ear, and indeed Gâcon does strive to reproduce an archaic syntax and diction. But this form is more than mere artifice; it is more the style and the rhetoric of the poetry of the time that make the form of Sidney’s poetry both distinctive and effective.

Gâcon’s Sidney goes some way towards demonstrating that the difficulties of metrical verse translation can be overcome. But how does verse of a more modern, freer kind translate? The question proves fraught with difficulties. It might seem reasonable to translate non-metrical verse into prose. Many contemporary translators opt for this supposed solution, cutting the lines of their translations into the same slices as the ones they find in the original, irrespective of other rhythmic effects of phrasing and free patterning. This choice often proves a misguided and disappointing strategy, however, because free verse remains poetry—highly stylized and formally organized. Such poetry works thanks to the way its meaning is formulated and bodied forth. Is the poetry of Ted Hughes arbitrary? Are we indifferent to the rhythms of William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Walt Whitman?

For Pound, Whitman was the last poet whom a teacher should dare to introduce in the classroom, so difficult is it to explicate what holds Whitman’s verse together. His verse launches itself forth with great gusto, flowing in a highly stylized form of patterning peculiar to itself. The energy of Whitman’s breath was so powerful that it made his verse a poetry for the whole American people. Opening Whitman at random allows us to enter into that movement and organization that is quintessentially his.

I have heard what the talkers were talking … the talk of the beginning and the end,

But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now.

Nor any more youth or age than there is now:

And will never be any more perfection than there is now.

Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Urge and urge and urge.

Always the procreant urge of the world.

(“Song of Myself,” Whitman 1959: 26)

What do Whitman’s French translators make of this movement? Eric Athénot offers the following version:

J’ai entendu parler les discoureurs … le discours du commencement et de la fin,

Moi, je ne parle ni du commencement ni de la fin.

Jamais il n’y eu plus de commencement qu’à présent,

Ni qu’à présent plus de jeunesse ou de vieillesse;

Et jamais il n’y aura plus de perfection qu’à présent,

Ni qu’à présent plus de ciel et d’enfer.

Toujours le même élan,

Toujours l’élan procréateur du monde.

(Whitman 2008: 53)

The movement of both the French translation and the English original are a far cry from what is often ambiguously called prose rhythm. This is poetry, not everyday spoken language. The lines are highly patterned in terms of phrasing and parallelism. The same phrases are taken up again and again like waves rolling over one another. Words and phrases are repeated, and the free verse strophes give shape to ideas that are formulated in coherent self-contained blocks, stylistically distinct from one another.

How does this translate? To my ear, Athénot’s translation, though successful overall, suffers from a few minor stylistic tics. At times Athénot seems to find Whitman’s repetitions tiresome. It is doubtless for this reason that he refuses “talkers … talking,” preferring “parler les discoureurs.” He tries to knit together Whitman’s overlapping syntax with a tighter, more grammatical synthetic organization, preferring to introduce ni/ni (neither/nor), where Whitman is happy with “or” (“I do not talk of the beginning or of the end”). Athénot anticipates repetition. Whitman, more fully anchored in the present moment, lets repetition come washing over him. Most of all, this urgent presence is made to pulsate in the undulating strong-weak-strong-weak-strong accentual patterning of “Urge and urge and urge.” Urgency was never more balanced, never so inescapable. Athénot’s attempt proves weaker: “Toujours le même élan.” Neither word repetition nor accentuation play any role in enacting the idea.

It is important not to overstate the case and focus pedantically on details at the expense of the whole. Athénot’s translation works, notwithstanding what I have called his stylistic tics, and he does prove very sensitive to the problem of formal coherence when he sets up a repetitive link that binds together this two-lined free strophe into one organized whole: “Toujours le même élan, / Toujours l’élan procréateur du monde.”

Jacques Darras offers a more balanced, Whitmanesque translation than Athénot of the same passage (to my ear at least):

Je sais, j’ai entendu les belles paroles des beaux parleurs qui parlent de la fin et du commencement,

Or moi, de la fin ou du commencement jamais je n’en parle.

De meilleur commencement qu’à la minute même où je parle je n’en connais pas d’autre,

Ni d’occasion plus juste de jeunesse ou d’âge,

Ni d’exemple plus vrai de perfection absolue,

Ni de temps plus réel de paradis ou d’enfer.

Pression, incessante pression,

Inlassable pression procréatrice d’univers.

(Whitman 1989)

Darras does not link up the two-line strophe in the same manner but he consolidates the parallelism in the middle strophe. He does not seek to edit out Whitman’s repetitions or to organize his syntax. While he cannot maintain the urgent undulating accentuation of the original, Darras opts for a syntax that cuts the lines of the final strophe into parcels of meaning that can be strongly stressed. Moreover, the alliteration (pression/procréatrice) helps bind together and consolidate this patterned movement: “Pression, incessant pression, / Inlassable pression procréatrice d’univers.”

These significant elements of formal patterning allow a translation to resound more or less strongly with the voice of the original poem. They therefore invite critical appraisal. Even so, we should not allow details to perturb our overall impression of the translated poem. Whatever their specific merits, the overpowering impression these two translations give is one of free but meaningfully patterned poetry. The lines of both Athénot and Darras bear no relation to patternless prose, ideas thrown together in unorganized and uninteresting chunks.

The following sections turn from criticism to theory in order to analyze more fully the conceptual and the technical questions that arise in the act of translating poems. The linguistic and stylistic investigation will discuss the transposition of rhythmic elements, meter, and rhythm. To some extent, this examination will force us to leave to one side the poetics of poems. Readers more at home with linguistic norms and stylistic structures should find this approach reassuring, but many translators and literary scholars may well find it frustrating. For many good reasons formalist investigations arouse suspicion. Often they are felt to be irrelevant in explicating the nature of poems and translations or in cultivating a sensitive understanding of them.

Theory, however, is crucial for the present work, since we should be able to rise above individual poems and posit some greater overarching principles related to the nature of the French and English languages, the natures of their diverse and changing metrical traditions, and the way those traditions have been superseded by language-specific forms of free verse. Such an investigation involves theorizing the nature of linguistic resources and of metrical structures and the interaction between them. If theory can help with these questions, then it will have paid a great service to translators, who are all too commonly heard expressing the idea that theory is useless and that all real translation is simply intuitive.

Intuition certainly constitutes that prerequisite without which no translation is possible. Intuition is the capacity to seize the text as a whole and perceive the way its parts work together as a system. Intuition enables us to resolve questions semiconsciously. These questions, however, can be brought into consciousness and rigorously interrogated. Henri Meschonnic had this principle in mind when he argued that we must move beyond practice and theory and beyond the sterile opposition between the two. Meschonnic advocated that we begin thinking through what we are doing and begin doing what we think we should be doing. He encapsulated that principle in this pithy formula “penser sa pratique: et pratiquer sa pensée” (Think through your practice, and put into practice what you think; my translation).

His strategy explains the very different natures of the three sections in this book: the theoretical one on comparative versification, the one on translating form and meaning, and finally the case studies. They form three distinct manners of investigating facets of the same question: how do we translate the poem? We treat a poem first as linguistic material within a literary tradition. Then we treat it as the inextricable whole that must be dismantled into formal and semantic elements, which must be reassembled to form a coherent whole in the translation. Finally we return to the poem speaking to us. At this last stage, theory will be left in the background, encroaching only when it becomes pertinent to highlight specific moments in which metrical patterning or semantically charged sound patterning is important.

This strategy should serve to help devise a pragmatic interpretation of translation without demanding too much from theory. Theory should allow us to define our task and analyze the elements involved in the act of translating. Criticism should allow us to verify to what extent our attempts to translate poems have been successful, or to what extent the translator’s theory of language and his or her unconscious aesthetics or poetics are coming between readers and the poem. Nonetheless, intuition alone will allow us to apprehend the poem as a whole and to encounter the translation as a poem. Theory and criticism will discipline our capacities of appraisal and may well even hone our skills and sensibility, but poems and translations can be apprehended intuitively only as wholes. Ultimately neither theory nor criticism will be of any service if they do not bring us back to poems and translations and the way we apprehend them.





Forgue’s Dickinson, Darras’s Whitman, and Gâcon’s Sidney have demonstrated the complexities of translating verse without making the difficult seem like the impossible. Considering where a talented translator such as Forgue stumbles should serve to alert us to the pitfalls awaiting the translator. As we saw in the translations of Dickinson, Sidney, and Whitman, questions that first appeared to be formal turned out to have a bearing on the poem’s mode of expression.

We might already have guessed that a mere prose translation of a poem’s meaning would be less than satisfactory. For the moment, however, it remains unclear what we mean by a prose translation—dropping the form, presumably. But this puts form on the side of conventional structures, meter, and rhyming schemes. And what about the parallelism, the repetition, and the sound patterning of Whitman’s verse? Is this not form also? The manifest complexity of the formal organization of the meaning of a poem—both free and metrical—means we must face up to the necessity of redefining form.

My work has been heavily influenced by the great poet-translator Henri Meschonnic, who believed that what counts is neither the meaning nor the form, but rather the signifying process of the poem, that is to say the binding together of meaning into shapes and forms that endow the poem with greater resonance. For Meschonnic, formal echoes are always meaningful links. “Do or die” and “look before you leap” are merely conventional proverbial examples of the capacity of speech to bind together key features into meaningful moments of heightened attention. Form foregrounds meaning.

Dickinson’s lines are given greater force and resonance when she links suffering with the storm in the line “sore must be the storm” (Dickinson 1970b: 62–63). And Forgue’s line would have been less moving if he had chosen to opt for “moins connues” instead of “plus étrangères” (in “les mers les plus étrangères”) for the loss of that free internal rhyme that heightens our attention to the elusive nature of the seas that he evokes (63). The tug of the sea’s tide is what tugs at the heart in the following line from Baudelaire, but it is the alliterative link between mer and musique that renders so poignant the line “La musique souvent me prend comme une mer / Vers ma pâle étoile […] .” Compare the following two improvised translations of this line and the importance of formal organization should be clear:

Music often takes me like a sea

towards my pale star [...]

Music rises up inside me like a rising tide

Tugging me towards my palest star [...] .1

Sound resounds within the mind, enabling us to assimilate the full force of meaningfully orchestrated moments of formal foregrounding. Meschonnic would not consider these mere formal embellishments of the meaning. They are part of what he calls a sémantique sérielle, which I translate as “meaningful movement.” This forms part of Meschonnic’s conception of rhythm as the organization of a poem by the lyrical subject. This concept of rhythm moves beyond stress and syllable count. Meschonnic considers alliteration, assonance, and rhyme, but he also takes into account all forms of repetition and patterning. Most importantly, he refuses to view these as purely formal elements. He rejects the division of the poem into form and content and he refuses to accept the theory of the sign (signifier/signified) as a working paradigm for poetics.

Indeed, Meschonnic believes that part of poetry’s richness lies in the fact that it demonstrates the inefficiency of the theory of the sign for interpreting what language is and what language does. A theory of linguistics incapable of perceiving the importance and the specificity of poetry, a theory deaf to what poems do, remains an incomplete theory of language from Meschonnic’s perspective. Listening to language also means listening to poems.

In his theoretical writings Meschonnic advocates listening to the poem—to the subtlety, the complexity, but also to the power of formal organization—just as Pound argued in his essays that we should listen to the poem. Once we return to the poem, the power of poetry makes itself perfectly plain, perfectly audible. A whole series of theoretical obstacles prevent us, however, from grasping the true nature and role of form in poetry. And curiously, it is often the specialists—those who prove to be the most sensitive to poetry—who provide the most misleading arguments when it comes to defining form. The most common misconceptions of form result from a failure to listen to the poem as a meaningful moment of heightened attention to movement and organization. Four trends in contemporary thought tend to obscure the problem at hand when defining form and its importance for poetry and poetics. First, formal definitions of poetry tend to obscure the formal organization in individual poems. Second, recent scholarship in translation theory has tended to ignore or marginalize attention to form. Third, traditional theories of metrics are on the whole reductive and misleading, being based on fundamental misrepresentations of order and organization. Finally, recent linguistic theories of meter, while making great progress on individual questions, have tended to leave behind poetics and aesthetics, apart from noteworthy exceptions that will be considered in later chapters. As a consequence, these linguistic theories have inevitably had little impact on mainstream poetics and translation theory.

Formal Definitions of Poetry

If you ask someone, even a teacher or specialist of literature, what makes translating poems difficult, they will no doubt reply that it is meter and rhyme that pose the greatest problem. This is a curious reply, however. Mainstream poetry has been taken over by free verse, which no longer accepts formal structural constraints—a state of affairs that has lasted for more than a century. Moreover, on deeper reflection it becomes clear that rhyme and meter have never been considered the essential criteria by which poetry must be measured. Indeed, lines that observe the rules of versification but either lack inspiration or fail to aspire to lofty or elevated ideals are not usually considered to be poetry at all, but rather verse. For this reason we speak of comic verse but not comic poetry, and political verse but not political poetry. It is a cruel irony that the preoccupation with metrics has become known as versification, a term that has been used (in both French and English) disparagingly for bad verse or doggerel. Versification, in the evaluative use of the term, is hollow verse that lacks inspiration. It obeys the formal requisites but fails to move or uplift us.

Having considered the complexity of translating Dickinson’s poem, it will be obvious that reducing form to meter and rhyme is a mistake. As long as we consider poetry rather than poems, we will find ourselves inclined to leave behind the essential dynamics of the meaningful movement and organization of the individual poem; instead we will find ourselves trying to analyze the poem by reflecting within the conceptual limits of general truths concerning the structural organization of poetry in general. We may still perceive something specific in the individual poetic event, but it will have become subordinate to the general truths applicable to poetry as a whole. We may still intuit something of the meaningful movement, but we will try to speak of that meaningful movement in terms of form and content.

This endeavour may prove provisionally justified. Certainly specialists of metrics such as Derek Attridge, Benoît de Cornulier, and M. L. Gasparov do make progress in providing conclusions that prove valid for poetry as a whole. But Attridge knows only too well that metrics must be used in the service of understanding poems. The converse strategy is a mere perversion, an inverted academic reflex. It makes little sense to use poems simply as examples of poetry. The general rule is of use only inasmuch as it permits clearer perception of the poignancy of a personal encounter with the rhythmic movement of the individual voice of a given poem. To fail to see the poem as the ultimate target of all metrics is a serious mistake.

Curiously, poets themselves, translators, and specialists in aesthetics and poetics often provide no better conception of form. Translation is invariably considered as passing on the meaning of an utterance or a text from one language to another. But where does this leave poetry? Can poetry be reduced to meaning? Surely not.

The hermeneutics of translation, which champions interpretation of the text, leads us into two culs-de-sac in the poetics of poetry translation. Those working with traditional theories of translation are often eager to please the defenders of poetry by paying homage to form. They admit the exceptional nature of poetry but they marginalize it by making it an exception; poetry does not fit into their theory of language and translation. This gesture is intended as one of respect, but in practice it comes down to little more than disposing of poetry as a conceptual problem.

Moreover, it little profits the poem to reduce it to its form, and such a reduction is the inevitable result of such reasoning. Since, according to the logic of this argument, the poetic is essentially formal, the meaning of the poem is regarded as secondary—all but irrelevant. Attributing a privileged status to form de-forms our impression of the poem and our impression of its voice, since only its expressive mode is taken into account. As I have mentioned, this criticism is not directed solely at traditional theories of translation, such as those applied in France, Britain, and the United States. It also applies to a great many translators who have tried to make explicit the implicit theory that directs their own modes and strategies of translating.

Walter Benjamin is often quoted by translators and theoreticians alike, yet Benjamin’s formulation from 1923 proves perplexing:

Was ‘sagt’ denn eine Dichtung? Was teilt sie mit? Sehr wenig dem, der sie versteht. Ihr Wesentliches ist nicht Mitteilung, nicht Aussage. Dennoch könnte diejenige Übersetzung welche vermitteln will, nichts vermitteln als die Mitteilung—also Unwesentliches. (Benjamin 1963: 156)

For what does a literary work “say”? What does it communicate? It “tells” very little to those who understand it. Its essential quality is not statement or the imparting of information. Yet any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information—hence, something inessential. (Benjamin 1992: 70)

To compensate for the traditional marginalization of form, Benjamin swings to the other extreme by marginalizing the meaning of the poem. Translating the sense, for Benjamin (who, unlike Meschonnic, remains within the conceptual limits of the linguistic sign), thus comes to mean translating the “inessential” (Unwesentliches). Benjamin wished to do justice to the poem, but in so doing he paid homage at the shrine of a theory that makes poetry ultimately incomprehensible: the sign that carves the poem into form and content.

Refusing to reduce poetry to meaning is a valid gesture, but Benjamin fails to do justice to the poem as a strikingly meaningful process of signifying, a foregrounded act of meaningful expression. He deprives poetry of its meaning. This is similar to Oscar Wilde’s claim in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray that all art is ultimately “useless.” Refusing the cult of utility championed at the end of the nineteenth century and in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, Wilde was refusing to evaluate culture in terms of the alien criteria of industry, efficiency, and profitability. His statement was meant as a jibe at philistinism as much as a defence of art. He was denouncing the uncultured and their insensitivity to the higher claims of poetics and aesthetics.

But where Wilde was renowned for his sense of humour, Benjamin has been taken all too seriously in his native Germany, in France, and throughout the English-speaking world. Benjamin is often quoted as a defender of poetry. Perhaps it would be fairer to consider Benjamin’s translations as a defence of poetry, but in his critical writings, his failure to escape the schismatic logic of the linguistic sign, which carves all into form and content, makes him a poor champion for a radical aesthetics of poetry translation. What good can come of thinking that the meaning of a poem is superfluous? Poems with form but without meaning would be as meaningless, as frivolous, and as useless as ribbons without hair to tie them in.

Recent Scholarship in Translation Theory

The number of publications in the field of translation theory has exploded in recent decades, producing various schools of traductologie in France and in the United States. The Routledge Translation Studies Reader (Venuti 2004) pays tribute to the wide diversity of research that has focused on the act of translating. This development is to be welcomed. Writers as different as Pound and Lawrence Venuti have insisted on the marginal place that translation has been allotted in the history of ideas and in the literary tradition, and if their work comes as some remedy to this state of affairs, then they are to be thanked.

Nevertheless, poetics has undeniably suffered somewhat in the wake of this renewed interest in translation. Traditionally translation studies attributed a central position to poetry translation, no doubt partly because a concern for classical authors tended to dominate the field. For many years translation was not considered to be part of linguistics but rather part of philology. In 1987, when Penguin Books wanted to pay tribute to the work of the great translator Betty Radice, it published a selection titled The Translator’s Art: Essays in Honour of Betty Radice, edited by William Radice and Barbara Reynolds, a work in which meter in both theatre and verse was central to ...

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