Who (or What) Makes the Best Poetry Translations?

I recently saw Khaled Mattawa described, in Yale University press materials, as Adonis’s “hand-picked translator.”  It struck me as a somewhat odd designator (particularly when applied to an accomplished poet like Mattawa), as though the translator had no agency in the affair, but had merely been kneeling down, head bowed, awaiting Adonis’s blessing.

Only a few authors, I imagine, have the clout to “hand-pick” their English-language translators. Anyhow, how many poets really need to worry about their choice of an English-language translator? After all, relatively little poetry (or anything) makes its way into English.

Of course, poetry translations can be a particularly difficult business. In Mattawa’s note prefacing Adonis: Selected Poems, he says that he dreamt up this project in 1992, but became dejected because:

I soon realised that this work, with the particularity of its Arabic references, could not stand on its own in English without much of the poet’s other work providing context. I also realized that to assemble a volume of more recent works I needed to work through at least twenty years of poetry. And, further, I had a ways to go before making any claims to being a poet himself.

I run hot and cold on Arabic poems in translation: sometimes enthusiastic about an Ahmad Yamani or Bassim al Ansar or Sargon Boulos translation, and then cold, cold, cold on the next few dozen translated poems I see. I have come to attribute my favorite translations, generally, to favorite translators: usually those like Mattawa, Sinan Antoon, and Fady Joudah, who are equally welcome in both languages and who are poets or poetophiles themselves. Well, and I also attribute good translations to a good original.

I usually imagine translation as a solitary (or perhaps two-person) process.

So I find myself alternately intrigued and wary of the work produced by the Poetry Translation Project, which, in their words, “take a translator’s literal translation of a living poet’s work & together we turn it into a good poem in English.”

They add, via Twitter, that “We’re now able to pay £100 to translators who bring new poems to our workshops. Interested? Email jennifer at poetrytranslation dot org for details.”

The workshop seems like a wonderful way to learn about translation and poetry-writing possibilities, and surely if I were in London, I would crash one or more of their (free!) events. Just reading their website is a learning adventure. One can read an original poem (say, for example, Abboud al Jabri’s “Remission”) , the “literal translation,” and the “translated poem.”

I imagine the phrase “literal translation” is only loosely meant, as surely they don’t believe in a one-to-one correspondence between words or phrases in two languages (let alone languages as distinct as English and Arabic). Already, the “literal” translator is making thousands of choices: Many of these are perhaps conscious but others are surely not.

Perhaps a solitary translator will miss things that this group, in discussion, might see. But mightn’t a group discussion also serve to pull the text further and further from the essence of the poem?

And, well, can this one poem be translated on its own? I imagine that, for the best translations, not only does the translator need to understand the writer’s own work, but also the context of that work (with whom is the writer dialoguing?), and the possibilities of poetry in the target language. Mattawa seems to have a grasp on this:

Perhaps the last time English could do something akin to what Arabic poetry is doing today was in the hands of T.S. Eliot, Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens, a language that believed in its alterity and trusted its formal bearing. … American readers reading Adonis, especially in “This Is My Name,” perhaps should try to imagine that his poetry has that formal high-modernist lilt.

Mattawa is, beyond this, cagey about his own process, saying that it’s “impossible to determine a method of translating a work, particularly one for poetry.” Although surely some of what he’s written in his translation note points to a sort of method.

In any case, I would be interested to hear the opinions of “real” poets and translators, and of course other innocent bystanders and poetry-lovers like myself.