In 2008 Horace Engdahl, then Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, which selects the Nobel Prize for Literature, chided U.S. writers for not translating enough and for not participating in the “big dialogue of literature.”1 There is no denying that relatively few books of translation are published yearly in the United States, and that as a nation we need a broader, more global engagement with literature, including books not originating in English. But sweeping statements of this kind disregard the important work that is accomplished by literary translators in the United States, and diminishes the ways this work not only engages in, but also helps shape, the “big dialogue of literature.”
The reason then for this feature is to provide a forum for an even further under-acknowledged subset of literary translator: the poetry translator. If literary translation represents a tiny portion of the books published yearly in the U.S., then poetry translators are the underdogs of underdogs.2 For this feature a wide range of poets and poetry translators were asked to submit essays, reviews, translations, videos, poetics statements, or notes on translation. The aim was to include or discuss translators working from a diversity of languages3 into English, but also to widen our understanding of the practice and possibilities of translation. The translators here work collaboratively, alone, and/or as activists. Most translate contemporary poets—some of them living, some not. There are educators among them, as well as poets, publishers, court interpreters, a therapist.
The essays and translations clearly show each poet and translator’s engagement in “the big dialogue of literature,” through the act of translation and in its critical assessment. They consider the political and cultural contexts that inform the original work, as well as the ethical ramifications of translation. Translation is seen not as something simply cloistered in the realm of the literary, but as a civil act, a means of justice. It is often intimate, playful, transgressive, both faithful and radical. The work included here also reminds us that translation has the potential to disrupt, re-dress, and reconfigure the simplistic aesthetic divides of contemporary poetry in the U.S. It isn’t just a window outward to another culture or literary tradition, but a two-way mirror that reflects back on our own, as Jen Hofer writes in her introduction to Sin Puertas Visibles: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by Mexican Women. Perhaps in reading these essays we can also admit that while there are overlaps of concern, the “big dialogue of literature” is not singular or inclusive. It is fractured, multiple, filled with silences and omissions.
But, to return to the problem of poetry translation’s minor status: why do seemingly few poets engage in translation? Is it a rejection of the often demanding, yet underpaid, work required? Clearly, to make a living or sustain a career as a poetry translator—in or out of the academy—is no easy task, and then where to publish the work? Most major poetry contests reject manuscripts in translation or in a language other than English,4 and the question of whether a translated book would secure tenure has kept many an academic up at night. Is it a “simple” problem of monolingualism? Is it a disregard of literatures written beyond our national borders? Is the problem symptomatic of U.S. insularity, as Engdahl suggests? Perhaps there is no easy answer, but what the translators and poets included here prove is that translation and its publication does happen, and that there are journals and presses5 dedicated to publishing not just the classics in translation, but also contemporary work from all over that world that would not otherwise have found an audience in the U.S.
We might also consider the ways in which translation can find the support, recognition, and readership it deserves. Editors can staff their journals and presses with multilingual readers and those fluent in a range of poetry from around the world, and they can actively seek out translated work. In general, more support, more fair remuneration would be nice. Writing and literature classes can make space for translation, hopefully drawing on a diverse student and faculty base. The study of a “foreign” language and literature in a creative writing classroom, as Kristin Prevallet argues, can go beyond the homophonic translation exercise; it can include foreign language requirements for MFA programs.6 And, why not translation tracks of equal value to those of poetry and fiction? Creating a multilingual space, where students write in and translate from different languages can go far in injecting some necessary foreign strains of good bacteria into what some have considered the homogenizing effects of the MFA workshop. And it needn’t exist only in the classroom, as translation can and does happen everywhere and can be a necessary bridge to surrounding communities, and to other, perhaps more urgent, dialogues.
But let us begin here, now, with these poets and translators: Jen Hofer and John Pluecker of Antena, Molly Weigel, Kazim Ali, Johannes Goransson, Jeffrey Pethybridge, Kristin Dykstra, Don Mee Choi, Forrest Gander, Erin Moure, and John Keene.
2According to Three Percent, the number of literary translations published each year is around .7%. Poetry translations accounts for an even smaller number.
Edith Grossman in her book Why Translation Matters (Yale UP, 2011) discusses why she chose to translate fiction over poetry: at 50 cents a line, a novel made more financial sense than a sonnet.
Return to Reference.
3Farsi, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Galician, Portuguese, Portunhol, and Ancient Greek.
Return to Reference.
4The Paz Prize for Poetry began in 2012 as a means to publish work written in Spanish by a U.S. resident. While not a translation contest per se, it is a means to open poetry’s borders to what already exists within the U.S.
Return to Reference.
5Three Percent’s yearly list of translations includes these publishers.
Return to Reference.