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About this Poem 

"'Translation' here refers to the essential motion, or action, between sight, objects, and words, as well as the more common idea of language into language; also, or maybe in particular, the dilemmas of interpretation and choice. (The line in italics is from the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn.) The idea of the ordinary interests me in relation to a poetics of necessity, which is in turn connected to my long-standing delight in what George Oppen called 'small nouns.'" —Ann Lauterbach

The Translator's Dilemma

Ann Lauterbach

To foretell an ordinary mission, with fewer words.
With fewer, more ordinary, words.
Words of one syllable, for example.

For example: step and sleeve.
These are two favorites, among many.
Many can be found if I look closely.

But even if I look closely, surely a word is not
necessarily here, in the foreground.
I see an edge of a paper, I see orange.

I see words and I see things. An old story,
nothing to foretell the ordinary mission.
I see “her winter” and I see

And even the Romans fear her by now.
Are these words in
translation or barriers to translation?

I see John and an open book, open to a day
in August. I am feeling defeated
among these sights, as if I will never find

either sleeve or step. These ordinary
pleasurable words, attached to
ordinary pleasurable things, as if

to find them is to say I am
announcing criteria. Step, sleeve,
you are invited to come up and be within

ordinary necessities. Staircase. Coat.

Copyright © 2013 by Ann Lauterbach. Used with permission of the author. This poem appeared in Poem-A-Day on September 23, 2013. Browse the Poem-A-Day archive.

Ann Lauterbach

Ann Lauterbach

Ann Lauterbach's most recent book, Under the Sign, was published in September of 2013.

by this poet

The weather map today is pale. The lines on the map
are like the casts of fishing lines
looping and curved briefly across air.
The sky now, also, toward evening, is pale.
On Sunday, in Beacon, there were lines
drawn on walls and also lines
drawn across the canvases of the last paintings
of Agnes Martin. One of


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