Is there any purpose in translating poetry (especially when it most often results in a pale imitation of the original?)
Is there any purpose in translating poetry? This question was posed last weekend in the Guardian Review by James Buchan, reviewing a new Paul Celan selection, Snowpart/Schneepart, with English translations by Ian Fairley. He adds that, after all, “a poem does not contain information of importance, like a signpost or a warning notice”.
That’s true enough. Modern lyric poetry, with its symbols and metaphors, its arcane allusions and teasing line breaks, is fairly bad at giving us the facts. We no longer live in an age in which the skills of beekeeping, say, are explained by the greatest verse-maker in the language, as Virgil does in The Georgics. Even those jolly mnemonics about the weather or the Greek alphabet are fading from consciousness. It’s a pity, as I often think I might get the gist of assembling a new piece of flatpack furniture quicker if the instructions were wittily rhymed.
So why translate? My first answer is that poetry in translation simply adds to the sum total of human pleasure obtainable through a single language.