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Why is it important to read poetry in translation?

In this article, Dr Nicoletta Asciuto discuses the importance of reading poetry in translation.

In my video on ‘Translating Poetry’, I ended by saying that translation work makes us better readers, letting us dwell on individual words in a more personal, and more profound way, than if we were “just reading”. But reading poetry in translation makes us also more ethical readers, although perhaps in a counterintuitive way.

In a world where we have grown accustomed to seeking Italian or Indian cuisine as comfort foods, wearing American shoes made in Vietnam and Spanish clothing made in Turkey, and looking at screens manufactured in China, we have become, conversely, more and more localised readers, confined to what is being originally written in English. Perhaps this is due to the widespread belief that so much gets lost in literary translation, and even more so in translated poetry, or that it does not make sense to read, for example, Spanish literature in English—you either read the original, or you should not bother reading it at all. But these old adages really miss the crucial point: reading in translation allows you to access a very remote and localised reality thanks to the globalising opportunity offered by the English language: as you sit in your favourite armchair in the UK, you can discover the voices of Ukrainian women rising up against patriarchy, walk around the streets of Ljubljana or Madrid, swim in the Indian ocean, or admire Japanese cherry blossoms—all of this, in a language accessible to you.

Reading widely across Europe and across the world enables you to discover new, fresh voices from exciting poetry hubs, and also ensures that poets’ work does not stay confined to a minor literary market simply because they were not writing in English (or other language of cultural power) in the first place. This is why we should really be adopting a different adage:- that so much can actually be found in translation. This is, I feel, particularly true for poets, who are seeking out the new and the experimental in both form and content. There are many examples of Anglophone poets who have been influenced by translated literature or that have contributed to the fame and popularity of a non-Anglophone author by translating them into English. I will only introduce you to one such case, which may be less known to you. W. H. Auden, the famous twentieth-century British-American poet, wrote the introduction to Rae Dalven’s 1961 translation of the poetry of C. P. Cavafy, a Greek-language poet living in Alexandria, Egypt, at the turn of the twentieth century. In this introduction, Auden explains the extent of Cavafy’s influence on his own writing:

I can think of poems which, if Cavafy were unknown to me, I should have written quite differently or perhaps not written at all. Yet I do not know a word of Modern Greek, so that my only access to Cavafy’s poetry has been through English and French translations. This perplexes and a little disturbs me. Like everybody else, I think, who writes poetry, I have always believed the essential difference between prose and poetry to be that prose can be translated into another tongue but poetry cannot. […] What, then, is it in Cavafy’s poems that survives translation and excites? Something I can only call, most inadequately, a tone of voice, a personal speech. I have read translations of Cavafy made by many different hands, but every one of them was immediately recognizable as a poem by Cavafy; nobody else could possibly have written it. Reading any poem of his, I feel: “This reveals a person with a unique perspective on the world.” (p. vii)

The various translations Auden accessed throughout the thirty years of Cavafy’s influence on his own poetry defied his original misconception that poetry gets lost in translation. Even though Auden was not particularly familiar with Modern Greek, the language in which these poems were originally written, all these translations for him clearly pointed to the same man, his own singular voice and Weltanschauung (world view), and he knows exactly how and when elements of Cavafy’s style, imagery, content, and form were able to trickle down to his own poetry.

What I find most striking in Auden’s acknowledgement is the reflection that, had he never come across these English and French translations of Cavafy, he may not have written some poems at all, or have written them quite differently. Readers of Auden can only imagine how different his poetry may have been, had he not encountered Cavafy early on in his life! Reading poetry in translation will not only allow us to find affinities with poets internationally, but also surreptitiously influence our writing, shaping us into more informed, more ethical, and more connected writers.

Over to you

Move on to the next page to find a poll on whether you read poetry in translation, and to reflect on what doing so might mean to you.

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This article is from the free online course:

Poetry: How to Read a Poem

University of York