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Joshua Mehigan
Brooklyn, New York
Joshua Mehigan's second book, Accepting the Disaster, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2014.
Interests: poetry, writing, movies, music, history, science, ideas
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Introduction Today’s entry, along with yesterday’s, constitute a two-part post on contemporary verse translation, featuring the insights of 19 translators who have generously contributed their answers to my very basic questions on the subject. Please note: The responses for today’s post were long enough to require that I continue all the answers in separate PDF files linked from the end of each contributors' section. In other words, please click READ MORE in order to access all the best material. These posts are meant as a somewhat casual practical guide for Anglophone readers of non-Anglophone poetry, especially readers who don’t know the language of the original work. In today’s post, the contributors list translations they admire (usually with commentary), and then each ends with a note, at my request, concerning a work of her or his own. My questions are geared to the assumptions of ordinary readers, not to those of most translators. In some cases, contributors very reasonably questioned my questions, and this in turn led to interesting discussions, some of which I’ve preserved. Many thanks, once again, to Geoffrey Brock, Bill Coyle, Dick Davis, Rhina Espaillat, David Ferry, Christophe Fricker, Jonathan Galassi, Rachel Hadas, Len Krisak, David Lehman, Charles Martin, Robert Mezey, Michael Palma, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody, Roger Sedarat, Alicia Stallings, Rimas Uzgiris, and Philip White. (See below for contributors’ notes.) ____________ Question(s): Please list up to five contemporary translations of poetry that you think really work as English-language poetry while also faithfully conveying the semantic content and something of the original’s greatness or importance. (Feel free to include a few words of explanation, but only if you wish.) Also, in your opinion, what is the most successful translation you’ve done? (Again, if you like, please add a few words of explanation.) GEOFFREY BROCK A.K. Ramanujan’s The Interior Landscape. His versions of these classical Tamil poems make really beautiful poems in English.... READ MORE BILL COYLE Derek Mahon’s translations of French poetry in general, and of Philippe Jaccottet in particular, are wonderful.... READ MORE DICK DAVIS Robert Wells, Theocritus. Clive Wilmer, Radnóti. Two of my favorite 20th-century poets are poets whose works I can barely read in the original.... READ MORE RHINA ESPAILLAT First of all—and outside the count of the five you ask for, on the gounds that they’re not strictly contemporary because they’ve been around for several years—the translations of Richard Wilbur.... READ MORE DAVID FERRY I’m interested in what goes on inside particular lines.... READ MORE CHRISTOPHE FRICKER Rather than list specific translations, Christophe provided a general response to my questions, available here. JONATHAN GALASSI Beowulf by Seamus Heaney—and really anything by Heaney. Anything by Ashbery.... READ MORE RACHEL HADAS A.E. Stallings’s De Rerum Naturae and Erotokritos. Stallings’s tour de force brings Lucretius across with force, pleasure, humor, sternness, variety—dip into it anywhere and you get lost.... READ MORE LEN KRISAK Probably the best of the current translators of Latin is Alicia Stallings. Her Lucretius is a daredevil performance in that it’s done in...wait... Continue reading
Posted Sep 20, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Introduction The entries for today and tomorrow constitute a two-part post on contemporary verse translation, featuring the insights of 19 translators who have generously contributed their answers to my frustratingly broad questions about the subject. Many thanks to Geoffrey Brock, Bill Coyle, Dick Davis, Rhina Espaillat, David Ferry, Christophe Fricker, Jonathan Galassi, Rachel Hadas, Len Krisak, David Lehman, Charles Martin, Robert Mezey, Michael Palma, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody, Roger Sedarat, Alicia Stallings, Rimas Uzgiris, and Philip White. (See below for contributors’ notes.) These posts are meant as a somewhat casual practical guide for Anglophone readers of non-Anglophone poetry, especially readers who don’t know the language of the original work. At first I thought I’d write on this subject myself, having at least had the experience of bewilderment over which translations to read, which to avoid, and so on. But before long I remembered that I have numerous friends who are well-regarded translators. I decided to ask them a couple of very basic questions about verse translation. Today’s post focuses on rules of thumb for readers seeking to read translations of verse in languages they don’t know. Tomorrow’s post will list some translations the contributors admire, along with a note (at my request) concerning a work of their own. As you may notice, my questions are geared to the speculative assumptions of ordinary readers, not to those of most translators! In a couple of cases, contributors very reasonably questioned my questions, and this in turn led to interesting comments that depart slightly from the original format. Please note: For practical reasons, I’ve had to edit down most responses. But whenever I've done so, I've included a link beneath the contributor's name to a PDF of the fuller answer—which in every case I strongly recommend reading. I’ve also substituted an ellipsis wherever I’ve cut something. ____________ Question: Please list up to five things readers should consider before reading a collection of poetry in translation. GEOFFREY BROCK [Readers should consider] rhythmic and tonal qualities. With the translation of poetry, the most important qualities are almost always going to be those that don’t inhere in the semantic fabric of the original—the very qualities of the original that vanish when one is translating just for “meaning” (“Poetry is what is lost...”). These qualities must be freshly created by the translator in the new language, if the translation is going to have any life of its own. (If they’re not, what you have is a trot.) BILL COYLE Please click here for the full answer. (1) How well, if at all, does the translator know the language he or she is translating from? This is not the be all and end all. Richard Wilbur doesn’t know Russian, but his translations of Joseph Brodsky are the most readable in English. (2) What is the translator’s attitude to meter in general, and to the metrical qualities of the work being translated in particular?... (3) Is there an edition of the translation that includes the original printed en... Continue reading
Posted Sep 19, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Not long ago, collecting poetry aphorisms for an essay, I visited Google’s main search page, put the cursor in the box, and typed poetry is Google helpfully suggested a number of common search strings that begin with those two eternally vexed words. The first of these was poetry is dead There are a number of possible reactions to this, including no reaction. My reaction was what might be called resigned laughter, really more of a plosive bilabial fricative in tandem with a backwards jerk of the head. The set-up was that I know, and know as fact, that poetry is not dead. The punchline was that my perception seems to be importantly at odds with other people’s. “Ha-ha!” I thought. “The pursuit to which I have chosen to devote my life is thought by everyone else to be dead. Ha-ha!” Then I began to ponder the popular image of poetry in the United States and decided to expand my investigation by searching just the one word “poetry.” Because I’d been thinking in terms of poetry’s image, I thought it appropriate to conduct my search in Google Images. I found a single page of search results (389 images) to be almost startlingly instructive. Objects thought to be emblematic of poetry. I learned, for instance, that far and away the most prevalent visual representations of poetry are extravagant pens, almost always expensive-looking fountain pens or quill pens, the latter with oversized, even sinuous plumes. Often there is no human hand attached to the pen in question, as if an angel were operating it. The pen or the angel is usually just at the end of writing something—often, logically, the word “poetry”—and never in illegible, moronic print like mine, but in a fine eighteenth-century hand. More telling in that regard may be that there never seem to be any cross-outs. Because of all the quill pens, there are also a lot of inkpots, a few tipped over and spilling ink, sometimes into the shape of a completed word or a poetic landscape. As for paper, the preferred type for poetry appears to be parchment, preferably discolored by age, sometimes with chipped edges. When the paper appears in a photograph, it is presumably more practical to use the kind produced in a mill, so to add a touch of class the paper is shown along with a brass fountain pen or a pair of very serious upturned eyeglasses. I count two ballpoints among the quill and fountain pens. Despite my having written poems for twenty-some years, I have never written a poem with a quill. But now I’m thinking about starting. The visual rhetoric of letters and words would seem, also logically, to be key in evoking poetry. Script, even without a pen in sight, is by far the favorite style. This includes everything from elegantly looped calligraphy to lackadaisical italic computer fonts. It also includes a forearm tattoo of the word “Poetry,” or two. After script, the most popular approaches involve the self-conscious... Continue reading
Posted Sep 18, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Poets nowadays have their own sort of fame. That is, they are famous and not famous. The celebrated poet’s work may affect thousands, tens of thousands, or in extremely rare cases hundreds of thousands of readers. The poet gets fan mail and maintains a private e-mail address, and from time to time may reach the acme of American public ambition by appearing on television, but at the end of NewsHour. The poet may receive an appointment that promises an upper-middle-class lifestyle and, reaching a certain age, may win a five- or six-figure award. Strangers, even non-literary types, will be impressed, at least when they find out about the TV and the money. But never do tens of millions of Americans tune in just to watch a poet read at halftime. The Hoff, with puppies. This is not a complaint. I’m not one of those who is sure that poetry needs a vast popular audience. I do think it would be nice if its audience grew a little and became more varied. It would be nice if the US, like Hungary, named major thoroughfares after poets. But this does not mean I want August Kleinzahler to become David Hasselhoff or Kay Ryan to become Meg Ryan. Even most highly successful poets are happily exempt from the pitfalls of massive celebrity. Few of them, for instance, have had to run to the general public to discover what was good for their art, and fewer still have had to run from the general public. On the contrary, it’s plausible that if you’re a poetry fan you may one day face your idol, a genius for the ages whose poems you’ve known by heart for 20 years, over a table in a wine bar. This odd mix of lofty distinction and approachable humanity extends through the whole field and most of its traditions. Even PBS can’t be bothered with more than one or two big poetry boosters a year—an offbeat look at Shaxper authorship, maybe, or a Ken Burns–style Whitman jamboree. Much of the documenting of poets’ lives is left to men and women with flattened affect who haunt document rooms and write for readers, fit though few, 40, 150, or 500 years after the fact. Big publishers put out relatively few books of history, lore, anecdotes, or tabletalk. Biographies and collected letters of contemporary poets are also pretty rare. But a body of legends exists, even about living poets. It sifts down to us from available official sources and, old or current, also circulates to a notable extent as folklore. For instance, I am lucky to know some people whom I can ask about Bishop or Lowell if I want to. I retain a few scraps of secondhand gossip (but only secondhand) about Anne Sexton, who was “kind of wrapped up in her own stuff,” and Ezra Pound, who was “great till his little far-right fan club showed up, at which point he became an asshole.” It hardly matters that I could guess... Continue reading
Posted Sep 17, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Our century’s latest answer to parlor games like Twenty Questions and Snapdragon is the short recreative list. Probably by now it’s safe to say that everyone is at least familiar with this strange little diversion. Probably it’s also safe to say that most people have received, now and then, a casual invitation to make some kind of list, and that many of them have gone ahead and actually spent time putting one together. I won’t deny that I am one of those people. A game of Snapdragon. What happens in this apparently lighthearted pursuit is that a person is given a sweeping subjective category and invited to declare which five or ten particulars from among billions best satisfy the category’s woolly criterion—usually something like “best” or “favorite.” Though the game has no use for formal argument, the category is treated as if it were absolutely objective. In fact, it is subjective almost to the point of irrelevance. The deductive process (if it can be called that) is governed by two rules: taste, which is always right and also always wrong; and the random imposition of an impossibly low number of allowable particulars. This is all part of the fun. And the final part of it is that the list is meant to be shared with others. In all these ways, composing such a list is almost as good and also almost as bad as writing a poem. It is difficult for me to contemplate composing one without feeling the same blend of exhilaration and dread in my intestines. Sometimes the list in question is of musicians or songs, sometimes actors or movies, sometimes writers or literary works. Today, because I know poets, it’s poems. I can’t face thinking about favorite poems, at least not yet. But there is a song I’ve listened to over and over for thirty years. Never has there been a time when, hearing it, my attention was not immediately captured by its ineffable power. When I was young, it made me shudder with something more serious and weighty than joy or delight. The first time I heard it, my temples pounded. I was full of dangerous grandiosity, seduced by this sonic, temporal contraption—created before my birth by a human being long dead—into behaving like a different person, even when days passed without my hearing it. My friends and family noticed. Its effect and message were all I felt for a week, and I knew during that time, as I stood listening with my eyes closed and my head tilted up, imagining myself fifteen feet tall and fearless, that I would happily forsake a normal life for the deep power it seemed to confer on me. In fact, if I consider its indirect effect, I have done just that. Before I heard this song, my favorite music was the same mindless drivel that all the other kids listened to, the cynical, imbecilic trash played at school dances. Most of my friends kept listening to the music they... Continue reading
Posted Sep 16, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Sep 13, 2013