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Songs from Many Languages: William Jay Smith on W. D. Snodgrass's Selected Translations

Written by

William Jay Smith
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Year

2000

The translation of poetry is impossible, but fortunately poets, rather than being deterred by the impossibility, have even been attracted by it. In a season offering a good number of accomplished poetic translations, the most rewarding have proved to be new renderings of poets long thought to be among the most impossible to translate. Wordsworth, Longfellow, Emerson, and Santayana all tried to translate the poetry of Michelangelo. Wordsworth found it "the most difficult to construe I ever met with," and Rilke, after working on the poems for several years, also gave up. The late John Frederick Nims persevered and in The Complete Poems of Michelangelo (The University of Chicago Press) he manages to catch the unique sensibility of the great sculptor in powerful English verse that closely approximates the form of the original. Norman Shapiro has also ventured where many others have failed, and in his Selected Poems from Les Fleurs du mal of Baudelaire (The University of Chicago Press) has captured, in the words of Richard Wilbur, "that tension between lapidary form and romantic emotion, which is Baudelaire's signature, and which has eluded many other translators." Had I been able to divide the prize, I would have honored these books as well, but I have singled out a volume equally daring and of great range and resonance that brings over into English, from a wide variety of languages, poems that will enrich the body of our poetry, Selected Translations by W. D. Snodgrass (BOA Editions, Ltd.).

This compilation of Snodgrass, the work of many years, consists largely of folk songs, art songs, and ballads. Snodgrass decided in mid-career to translate only songs "since many fine American poets were translating poems while my background in music might make this area more accessible to me." He spent long hours with musicologists and folklore specialists in Romania, Hungary, and other countries. The translation of the Romanian ballad "Mioritsa" or "The Ewe Lamb" is one of the happy results of these sessions. About his work he has this to say:

Though translating a poem should teach you much about its original--its textures, sound effects, formal workings, language and image construction--you will almost never be able to recreate the same effects in another language. And you can waste years trying. Meantime, you may overlook the new language's possibilities. Transcribing the mere tune without drawing on your new orchestra's range of instruments, harmony, and tone color, you deprive your audience of that rich complex of meaning and feeling we bargain for in a poem.

It is the rich orchestration in English that makes these poems, with all their varied backgrounds, so memorable, and Snodgrass reminds us that although the translator must always be true to his original, his final responsibility is to his own language, a fact that is often lost sight of today. In most of this volume he is translating from languages that he does not know, but he has been meticulous in working with such distinguished informants as Lore Segal and Tanya Tolstoy. Like all good translators, he has taken liberties, but he admires the dedication to authenticity of the specialists in early music that he has worked with; he has usually stayed quite close to the dictionary sense of the original. In a number of languages where I have checked him out (in his renderings of Rimbaud, Rilke, Lorca, and Sorescu), I have found him to be remarkably faithful but at the same time unusually inventive in his final solutions.

Denis Donoghue, reviewing Snodgrass's After Experience and referring to a number of these early translations, said: "The old eloquence persists but it is richer now because it listens to other voices and knows something of what silence means." The other voices to which Snodgrass has listened are rich and varied: the songs, whether of the minnesingers or the troubadours, are buoyant and bawdy, graceful and tender, savage and sharp. Like the Scottish songs and ballads that Snodgrass learned from his grandfather, they go to the deepest roots of poetry, to which especially now when music in verse has almost disappeared, it is singularly rewarding to return.


W. D. Snodgrass was the winner of the 1999 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award for his book, Selected Translations (BOA Editions, Ltd., 1998). The judge for the award was poet and translator William Jay Smith, who wrote the following citation.