K E N T J O H N S O N
A Note on “Translation” in This Issue of Fascicle
These poems and essays related to “translation” stand as one of the most expansive and idiosyncratic international gatherings, ever, in an American literary magazine. I pondered that somewhat grandiose claim for a bit; I am confident it is the case.
And there is so much astonishing work at issue that there's no way of prefacing, as introductions tend to do, the individual entries offered here. Remarkably, not a single one of the poet-translators solicited stated an unwillingness to send work. The one regrettable absence—one that Tony Tost had hoped to feature in portfolio—is the first English rendering (brilliantly conducted by Tony Frazer) of Vicente Huidobro's little-known long poem “Sky Tremor,” a work that rivals, in its genius, that poet's world-renowned “Altazor.” Unfortunately, legal permissions with the Huidobro estate could not be finalized in time, but Fascicle intends to premier this work in coming months. Meantime, readers have before them a treasure-haul offering of works by some of the world's greatest poets, from the far past to now, famous to unknown, representing nearly twenty languages and thirty nations, most all of it presented in English for the first time, by some of the leading translators in poetry today. And here are essays, too, by some of the most singularly interesting thinkers in the field.
I referred to the international poetry herein as related to “translation.” The quotation marks are significant, inasmuch as the practices encountered in this Table of Contents span the redshift spectrum of the art. Toward the closer pole, as it were, of the array are brilliant trackings of etymological faithfulness (whatever “faithfulness” truly means); toward the more distant end are translucinations or traductions-- to use two recent, provisional terms--that would seem to want Translation herself feel as if the top of her head were taken off, as she speeds away (whatever “herself,” in turn, truly means).
Forgive me for that, but in other words, even in this day of scores of new prizes, summer retreats in Prague , and doctoral degrees devoted to the art, no one knows what on Earth the translation of poetry really is, or should be, all about. And how could anyone be expected to know, when no one knows, either, no matter the chest-pounding assertions to the contrary (assertions both traditional and experimental) what on Earth poetry is in the first place—if poetry, that is, even occupies a position that is anterior and “first” to translation.
Does it? Has it ever? No one really knows the answer there, either, though the question is seldom broached in ways that might lead to unsuspected poetic effects, even (who's to say?) genre dimensions not yet perceived… Not that this lack of questioning is all that surprising, generally assumed, as it is, that the “original” is invested with sacrosanct rank of Authorial provenance (even while this category is ipso facto subverted, to some degree, in any act of “translation”).
This is not to suggest, at all, that “faithful” translation is somehow being left behind by more “advanced” modes. To the contrary. All wavelengths of the practice are more relevant than ever—and faithfulness, however intangible that term, is more than relevant in the present bewildering conjuncture.
Still, that no one really knows what Poetry and Translation actually are, much less where the frayed borders of one can be seen to stop and those of its other begin, is perhaps why each can be said to even exist from the get-go, and why each only ever exists, perhaps, inside the other. A translation may be the poem's afterlife, as the famous trope goes, but translation's body gives up its ghost, too, and poetry is born everyday, as afterlife, for surplus of what is found there. The range of possibility intimated in this issue, points, I believe, toward that ever-expanding, mutually enfolding condition. And that condition, I'd say, beckons translator-poets to explore the conceptual realm of translation-work in ways it hasn't yet been.
Does that make any sense? There's some rhetoric there I've tried to polish, trying to sound as interesting and authoritative as I can. Of course, when it comes to this fractal matter of language-crossing, I don't have any more idea what I'm talking about than anyone else does … Which is to say, to say it openly, that even the great poet/editor/translators, whose imposing, ground-shifting work has partly inspired the idea of this magazine—people like Clayton Eshleman, Jerome Rothenberg, Rosmarie Waldrop, Eliot Weinberger—ultimately aren't really sure themselves, thank goodness, what they're talking about either.
And which is to say, to say it openheartedly, please lose yourself, now, reader, in this strange and wonderful deep-field shot of a little sliver of an unfathomable sky.
August 20, 2005
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