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from Vol. #6, Fall 2015

The Translation of Poetry:
A Lecture by Allen Tate (1970)

Ladies and gentlemen, I was delighted, honored, and moved by the invitation to address this distinguished symposium. The word "address" appeared in Mr. Basler's[i] letter of invitation, and for a brief moment it filled me with dismay. An address is usually a formal oration proceeding through set Ciceronian tropes to a mighty peroration which sounds the trumpet of a prophecy. I am not sure that our foreign guests have heard the phrase "keynote address" or "keynote speech," so they will indulge me, I hope, if I explain this bit of Americana. A keynote speech is delivered at a political convention, Democratic or Republican, at which the party nominates its candidate for the presidency of the United States. The keynoter sets forth in ambiguous mixed metaphors the Utopian promises which neither the candidate nor other members of the party intend to keep or couldn't keep if they would. Now I cannot promise anything in this isolated, that is, isolated in midafternoon, keynote address. I cannot, for example, promise to survey, however briefly, the vast field of translations of literary works in this century. The arts of translating are now practiced throughout the world on a scale that could not have been imagined at the end of the 19th century. It is generally supposed that if the nations know one another's poetry, even if it comes through the translator's sieve, they will like one another better. This dubious assumption, however, leads to something at once pleasant and quite certain. The poets themselves come to know one another, and this encourages in them the virtue of humility, for which poets are not notorious.

Never before in the Western nations has there been such an acute awareness of the literature of all nations, including those of the Orient and of Africa. Many nations outside the Western orbit are equally aware of us. Even an unpopular, or should I say nonpopular, writer like myself has enjoyed that remote attention through translations of some of my books into Arabic and Korean. (I wish I could read them.) To what extent this widespread reciprocal communication by means of translation is politically motivated one cannot at present determine, so great is our international political disorder. One might take the risk of a large generalization in a formula which would read somewhat as follows: the greater the political war of nerves the more resolved are men of letters throughout the world to create an international cultural medium. Or, at any rate, a medium that would be above politics or alongside the international struggle for power. One is always a little suspicious of political poets, until one remembers that Dante's political motivation was an integral part of his divine vision. Of course, Dante would not have understood that curious word "motivation" which we use all the time. What is your motivation? I think he would have said what is the reason for doing it? The value of such a poetry, in the end, an end that we cannot now foresee for our contemporaries, will depend on the talent of the poet, for a great poet can make poetry out of anything, even politics. Is it possible for us here at this conference to know whether there are great poets present? Each of us will have to answer that question in his own way or, more prudently, not answer it at all.

For many years I have had in mind what a 17th-century English poet, Abraham Cowley, said about the violence of the English Civil War as a milieu for poetry. He said it was a good age to write about later but a bad one to be writing in. Is our age like that, on a much larger and more formidable scale? I think it is. One's impression of our contemporary Russian poets is that of a daily struggle for the privilege of writing poetry at all. The hourly existential impact of a closed political system must necessarily make that impact itself the subject of the poem; or the poem would at least have to glance at it, or perhaps be a political counteroffensive against a hostile system. It is a situation that is not unique in Russia. Its permutations are visible in many other superficially different societies. W. B. Yeats' great political poems "Easter 1916" and "1919" are tracts of the times and would remain only tracts were they translated literally into Polish or modern Greek or any other language of a country which had suffered an abridgment of its liberties: a defeat to which the translator wished to show a parallel in the work of the Irish poet, but the translations would not necessarily be poetry, or certainly not poetry as good as Yeats', or even paraphrases which would have allowed Yeats to recognize in them a little of himself. We do not know what poets behind the Iron Curtain or European poets this side of it think of us. Let us assume, which I don't with much conviction assume, that they envy us a little for our rather wildly permissive society in which anything goes, even faked poetry, which on democratic principle we refrain from denouncing. For democratic principle forbids us to take a firm, critical line against poets who are merely "doing their thing." That's a great phrase in this country at the present time: doing one's thing. Now doing one's thing is every man's, every democratic man's, natural right, even if we don't know what a natural right is, and my thing is as good as anybody else's thing because it is mine. I trust you are not convinced that I believe our situation in the United States is as bad as the logical extremity that I have considered. I should, or I think I should, prefer our permissive society to the repressive society; and to that extent I participate unwillingly in the doctrine of doing one's thing, for I would rather do that than do somebody else's thing-for example, the thing that a government says I must do; and we must remind ourselves that all governments, even democratic governments, would like to tell us what to do, if we are not careful.

At the same time in our society we get a great deal of antipoetry, for we have poets who think that in order to be poets they need only to kill off the older poetry.[ii] Could we eventually have in America the destruction of all poetry as the alternative to a poetry which accepts some limitations proposed by society or by a church or by tradition? I take it that the history of poetry that we know anything about shows that a limitation of resistance has usually been good for poetry and that complete freedom may be as stultifying as censorship. We think of Dante as a poet who concentrated and defended the medieval order. The medieval order evidently did not want to be concentrated and defended by a poet, for the works of Dante were publicly burnt by Pope John XXII.

These observations seem to me an inevitable digression from the subject of our conference. The art of translation is our subject, or, more specifically, the application of this art culminating in a cultural exchange such as we are now enjoying. It is a commonplace of English and American literary history that translations from foreign literatures have had a decisive influence upon that re-creation of style. To go back no further than Milton, would Paradise Lost be quite what it is if Milton had not read John Sylvester's translation of an epic by a now-forgotten French poet, du Bartas? In our own time Pound's translation of Propertius had a powerful effect upon his original poems written later. It is irrelevant to say that certain scholars felt that Pound didn't know Latin very well. Would translations of Propertius by a great Latin scholar have been better? Better for whom? Certainly not for Pound. A pragmatic view of the art of translation is, it seems to me, the only useful view. Let us imagine an impossible situation which may be applicable to us at this conference. Let us ask Propertius to come back and express an opinion of Pound's rendition of some of his poems. He might, could we teach him sufficient English, admire a passage here and reject a passage there, but he would not be capable of judging the literary merit of the translation. Were he capable of this judgment, were we capable of judging the translations of our poems, translators would not have to be called in. We could be our own translators. All that we are able to do, if we know fairly well the language into which our poems are translated, is to say that here the translation is not literal or it is simply wrong, or that on the whole it renders the intention we thought we had when we wrote the poem.

Now I hope that it will be no impropriety if I cite from my own experience an extreme and complex example of the use of translations. More than 40 years ago I wrote a poem called "Death of Little Boys."[iii] This poem has enjoyed, or, if you will, suffered, a good deal of commentary. It has been held up as an example of obscure poetry. It has also been read as an elegy on the death of my own youth. Interpretations of a poem are further translations of that poem. The various interpretations of this poem constitute a fourth stage of translation from the original. The original is Rimbaud's Les chercheuses de poux, but I had not read Rimbaud's poem when I wrote my translation. I had read T. Sturge Moore's translation of Rimbaud. I was moved by the short scene in which some nuns are picking lice out of the hair of a lost little boy, a waif, who is perhaps nine or 10 years old. Were this a seminar and not a lecture, I could become a professor and I would read all three versions for your illumination. By the time one gets to "Death of Little Boys," the Rimbaud original is so deeply buried as to be indiscernible. One of the commentators thought he had found my phrase "the cliff of Norway" in another poem by Rimbaud. I looked the poem up. I had not read it when I wrote my imitation.

The word "imitation" brings us to Robert Lowell's brilliant versions of poems beginning with a passage from Homer and coming down to the present with Eugenio Montale. Of the passage from Homer, which leads off in the volume entitled Imitations, one may say what Bentley[iv] said to Alexander Pope: "A pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but it is not Homer." This is true of Lowell, but it is irrelevant. What is wrong with Lowell's fragment of Homer is something quite different. It is not good Lowell. If I am right about this, then one would have to fall back upon a literal trot if no other translations were accessible, such as the prose facing the Greek in the Loeb Classical Library. It is more important to have good Lowell or good Pope or good Lang or good Chapman than a literal rendition, after we have gone beyond elementary Greek. Or, if we have no Greek, it is even more important to have a translation which is English poetry or French or German or Italian or Spanish or Russian poetry. For otherwise we mislead the reader without Greek into believing that Homer himself is mediocre. Had Thomas Rymer or Sir Richard Blackmore written a translation of Homer into which Keats had looked instead of first looking into Chapman's Homer, his own poetry might have been different, perhaps not so good as it turned out to be. I have been saying with some elaboration what we all know: that a translator ought to be a poet himself; that he must be a master of his own language, whatever mastery he may have of the language from which he is translating.

It has been recently said by several critics, and I have in mind George Steiner's essay on the subject, that we are now in an age of great translations.[v] I think this is indisputable but, unlike literary criticism, which translations somewhat resemble, good translations are never obsolete. Literary criticism is perpetually obsolete. George Chapman's rhymed decasyllabic translation of the Odyssey is as good as it was in 1615, and I submit that Robert Fitzgerald's free blank verse translation is as good as Chapman's. Do we need both? I think we do, but we did not know we needed Mr. Fitzgerald's version until we saw it. I shall not offer a list of great 20th-century verse translations from various languages. I might just remind you of several, such as Lattimore's Agamemnon and Humphries' Aeneid. There is not enough time today to praise translations of modern poets, with one exception that I shall presently make, and there is no time, and this is not the occasion, for us to consider English translations of drama and prose fiction, which have on the whole been rather distinguished.

As I come towards the end of this talk I would like to present an exemplum, a comparison of two distinguished but very different translations of the same 19th-century French poem. The poem is Baudelaire's but is not one of Baudelaire's great poems. It is the introduction to Les fleurs du mal: Au lecteur. The translations seem to me to be equally good, but good in different ways. But before I read them, I should like to digress into my own experience with Baudelaire 45 years ago, if I can hope not to deceive myself about what I thought of Baudelaire as a young man. There is nothing like the self-deception that literary men can practice on themselves after a number of years. Men of my generation were led, and perhaps led by the nose, to Baudelaire by Arthur Symons, whose influence on modern American poetry, though indirect, was very great. Symons' Baudelaire was a poet of sin and vice, and rather attractive sin and vice, and he failed to see that Baudelaire was the first great poet to respond to the horror of the overgrown, anonymous city. There was nothing in a late Victorian education, such as I had, and such as prevailed through the first World War, to prepare us to understand a poet like Baudelaire. More than Symons, the translations of a forgotten man named F. P. Sturm influenced a whole generation of young Americans. Looking back at some of my own translations, I am not sure whether they are direct translations of Baudelaire or parasitic versions of a little of Symons and a little of Sturm. That is always the risk that a young man runs who has not developed an idiom of his own. What he gives us is neither his own poem nor a poem moderately faithful to the original.

At what stage of his career is a poet qualified to translate the work of a foreign poet who is his peer? That is an unanswerable question, and here is another one: are we able to assume that a French poet and an Anglo-American poet who are contemporaries would do the best job on each other's work? This is not necessarily true. The two languages may not be contemporaneous, even though the poets are contemporaries. Longfellow and Tennyson could have made little of Baudelaire, and it is curious that Baudelaire thought Longfellow a first-rate poet. Swinburne made something of Baudelaire, but it is bad Baudelaire. It would be helpful if we could find a formula for the right relation of the translator to the translated. The two translations that I shall read seem to me to be masterly, though they will doubtless have to be done over again by a later generation. They may be the translations that we need. Do we need two very different translations of the same poem written at almost the same time? Evidently we do. I will now read the first: "To the Reader" or Au lecteur: [1]

Ignorance, error, cupidity, and sin
Possess our souls and exercise our flesh;
Habitually we cultivate remorse
As beggers entertain and nurse their lice.

Our sins are stubborn. Cowards when contrite
We overpay confession with our pains,
And when we're back again in human mire
Vile tears, we think, will wash away our stains.

Thrice-potent Satan in our cursed bed
Lulls us to sleep, our spirit overkissed,
Until the precious metal of our will
Is vaporized-that cunning alchemist!

Who but the Devil pulls our waking-strings!
Abominations lure us to their side;
Each day we take another step to hell,
Descending through the stench, unhorrified.

Like an exhausted rake who mouths and chews
The martyrized breast of an old withered whore
We steal, in passing, whatever joys we can,
Squeezing the driest orange all the more.

Packed in our brains incestuous as worms
Our demons celebrate in drunken gangs,
And when we breathe, that hollow rasp is Death
Sliding invisibly down into our lungs.

If the dull canvas of our wretched life
Is unembellished with such pretty ware
As knives or poison, pyromania, rape,
It is because our soul's too weak to dare!

But in this den of jackals, monkeys, curs,
Scorpions, buzzards, snakes-this paradise
Of filthy beasts that screech, howl, grovel, grunt-
In this menagerie of mankind's vice

There's one supremely hideous and impure!
Soft-spoken, not the type to cause a scene,
He'd willingly make rubble of the earth
And swallow up creation in a yawn.

I mean Ennui! who in his hookah-dreams
Produces hangmen and real tears together.
How well you know this fastidious monster, reader,
-Hypocrite reader, you-my double! my brother!

This version is by Stanley Kunitz. At a glance one sees that the stanza is the prevailing English quatrain frequently called the elegiac stanza, and in this Mr. Kunitz contrives an external assimilation of the poem to English usage. The original is in what we call in English the envelope quatrain, the most familiar example in English being the stanza of In Memoriam.[vi] Yet it is rare, and wherever used it calls attention to itself in English. I think that Mr. Kunitz did not want the reader to be distracted from what he makes Baudelaire say in English. I would like to call your attention to the phrase "what he makes Baudelaire say in English," for there is no English for precisely what Baudelaire says. We shall see in a moment that this poem is closer to the original than the other version that I shall presently read, but closer in the sense that Mr. Kunitz does not put his own individual style between us and our awareness that a poet had previously said something resembling what he, Mr. Kunitz, says. A simple example will illustrate the point. The first line of stanza two in the original is nos péchés sont têtus, nos repentirs sont laches: our sins are stubborn, our repentances are slack. It's pretty dull in English, isn't it? Mr. Kunitz runs the second half of the line over to the next line and attributes the slackness to the persons committing the sins. In short, what would be flat in literal rendition must be rendered dynamically in English. Now the second version is by Robert Lowell, and it is one of Mr. Lowell's best poems. Should a poem which purports to be a translation be better than the original? I hope that Mr. Lowell will forgive me the paradox: a translation should be as good, like Mr. Kunitz' version, but no better than the original. Au lecteur is not a mediocre poem (I don't think Baudelaire could write a mediocre poem), but it is by the poet's own standards mere verse-a versified statement of the argument of the entire content of Les fleurs du mal. The poem is not the direct and powerful vision that one finds in one of the great poems like Les sept vieillards. It is expository, a catalog of the sins that man commits to relieve his boredom, for boredom is the seat of original sin in this gnostic view of man, Baudelaire's gloss on the medieval doctrine of Accidia. Now let us see what Mr. Lowell does with this catalog of sins.

To the Reader [2]
(for Stanley Kunitz)

Infatuation, sadism, lust, avarice
possess our souls and drain the body's force;
we spoonfeed our adorable remorse,
like whores or beggars nourishing their lice.

Our sins are mulish, our confessions lies;
we play to the grandstand with our promises,
we pray for tears to wash our filthiness,
importantly pissing hogwash through our styes.

The devil, watching by our sickbeds, hissed
old smut and folk-songs to our soul,
until the soft and precious metal of our will
boiled off in vapor for this scientist.

Each day his flattery makes us eat a toad,
and each step forward is a step to hell,
unmoved, though previous corpses and their smell
asphyxiate our progress on this road.

Like the poor lush who cannot satisfy,
we try to force our sex with counterfeits,
die drooling on the deliquescent tits,
mouthing the rotten orange we suck dry.

Gangs of demons are boozing in our brain-
ranked, swarming, like a million warrior-ants,
they drown and choke the cistern of our wants;
each time we breathe, we tear our lungs with pain.

If poison, arson, sex, narcotics, knives
have not yet ruined us and stitched their quick,
loud patterns on the canvas of our lives,
it is because our souls are still too sick.

Among the vermin, jackals, panthers, lice,
gorillas and tarantulas that suck
and snatch and scratch and defecate and fuck
in the disorderly circus of our vice,

there's one more ugly and abortive birth.
It makes no gestures, never beats its breast,
yet it would murder for a moment's rest,
and willingly annihilate the earth.

It's BOREDOM. Tears have glued its eyes together.
You know it well, my Reader. This obscene
beast chain-smokes yawning for the guillotine-
you-hypocrite Reader-my double-my brother!

Mr. Lowell's version is dedicated to Mr. Kunitz; I wonder if it was suggested by Mr. Kunitz'. Possibly, for it is obvious that Mr. Lowell had two texts of the poem before him, Baudelaire's and Kunitz'. Lowell's penultimate stanza is closer to Baudelaire's than that of Kunitz, but viewing the two versions as a whole one feels that Kunitz retains more of Baudelaire. Mr. Lowell is scrupulous in calling his version an imitation, somewhat as Bach took over and amplified themes by Vivaldi. Through the sheer violence of Mr. Lowell's rhetoric we get a poem, which, by moving beyond the expository progression of the original, achieves an intensity that Baudelaire neither intended nor accomplished. We must be grateful for having two English poems where previously we had one French poem. The point I wish to emphasize is that the versatility of translation is without limit. In our time the arts of poetry cannot but profit by the cross-fertilization which has made the present symposium a necessary adjunct to the solitude of poetic composition. The Americans here today are indebted to our foreign colleagues for accepting our hospitality; and we fervently hope that at this moment of decline in civilized intercourse, we can preserve together, by creating anew, that order of intelligence without which mankind will not need to go to the moon. If we don't have that order of intelligence, we will have a sufficient desert right here.


  • 1. Stanley Kunitz, Selected Poems, 1928-1958 (Boston, 1958), p. 89-90. /back
  • 2. Robert Lowell, editor and translator, Imitations (New York, 1961), p. 46-47. /back

Editor's Notes

  • i. Roy P. Basler, long-time manager of the Gertrude Clarke Whittall Poetry and Literature Series. During his tenure with the Library of Congress, Basler served at different times as chief of the manuscript division, chief of the general reference and bibliography division, and director of the reference department, and was Chair of American History. /back
  • ii. Nicanor Parra, a guest at the same festival where Tate delivered this address, is known as the father of anti-poetry. In 1954 he published a collection of antipoems, titled Poemas y antipoemas. /back
  • iii. Originally appearing in The Nation, in 1925. /back
  • iv. Richard Bentley (1662-1742), classical scholar, critic, theologian, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge; lampooned by Pope in The Dunciad. /back
  • v. Perhaps referring to George Steiner's introduction to The Penguin Book of Modern Verse Translation (1966), p. 29: "But the attempt to translate must be made, the risks taken, if that tower in Babel is to be more than ruin. It has been made, with particular wealth and vigour, in the period from c. 1870 to the present." See also Ezra Pound's comment in his 1917 essay on Elizabethan classicists: "A great age of literature is perhaps always a great age of translation; or follows it." /back
  • vi. The requiem In Memoriam A.H.H., by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1849. /back

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