In an essay this month on English PEN, “How International is Poetry,” editor and translator Michele Hutchison discusses what sort of poetry can cross linguistic and cultural boundaries.

Much as Adonis often speaks about the need for readers to step up their game, Hutchinson says that we can’t put everything on the translator’s mighty shoulders. After all, she can’t (quite) work miracles:

The reader/listener’s knowledge or ignorance of a foreign culture is just as limiting to the transmission of literature as a translator’s inability to pick up and carry across all of the layers of meaning, without footnotes.

Footnotes (or endnotes) can sometimes be enriching — Khaled Mattawa has a raft of them at the end of his translation of Adonis: Selected Works — but even with footnotes, the reader plays an important role in attuning herself sympathetically, and knowledgably, to the work. 

The poet K. Satchidanandan, Hutchinson writes, has translated his own work into English. He often, apparently, “has opted to cut out cultural references which might disturb the Western reading process.” (This doesn’t necessarily make one think highly of the Western reading process.) But fine. I don’t think this will make the sky fall.

Certainly, as Hutchinson notes, some poets are “more easily translatable” into English — creating a more familiar sort of poetry — and these are the ones more likely to gain entrance to the club. She particularly mentions Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish, although with the oddly dismissive comment that his “familiar political agenda is presented in alluring new clothes.”

I had thought N. Darwish is more “translatable” into English because of the structure, images, and styles he employs. His texts work in ways that are familiar to an English-language reader. But even more importantly, Hutchinson suggests, N. Darwish is translatable because English-language readers already (think they) “get” his “agenda”. Hmm.

One thought on “Developing the Reader-as-Translator

  1. As someone who has translated poetry to English from both French and Arabic, I couldn’t agree with you more: structure, imagery, and style are crucial components of what is transferable, as is poetic tradition to some extent. Taking a political or cultural bias for granted is aberrant…

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