By DONNA URSCHEL
Robert Frost once remarked, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” and many literary types find translation to be a near-impossible task. For Poet Laureate Charles Simic, however, translating poetry from other languages, mostly Eastern European, is an activity filled with passion and dedication.
Simic, in his final appearance as U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, presented a lecture “The Difficult Art of Translation” in the Montpelier Room at the Library of Congress on May 8.
“I wanted to talk about translation because it is something that I have done for close to 50 years, and I have some ideas about translation and its difficulties,” Simic said. “People have said that translation is a labor of love, and it is, because nobody gets paid very much for translating anything.”
Simic, who has written 20 volumes of poetry in English and 13 books of poetry translations, first explained the argument of the naysayer. “Many things have been said against translation: Translation is impossible. How can one translate poetry?” After all, he said, it is true that the genius and character of people are contained in the language they speak; imagination is rooted in language, geography and culture of a land; and no two languages share identical context.
“Can one translate a culture, its world view, its metaphysics? There exists not only idiomatic language and idiomatic imagination, but the accumulative effect of idiomatic usage. How can it be translated? Can one convey in another language what is of immediate value to a native reader?” This line of thinking, said Simic, is the usual argument against translation.
The argument in defense of translation is called the utopian view. “Every culture in the world is enriched by another country’s literature,” Simic said. “Translators were the first multi-culturalists, looking at other languages and other traditions and finding something that they wanted to translate and share.”
Simic added, “Even in this claim that to translate poetry is impossible, I find an ideal situation. Poetry itself is about the impossible. All arts are about doing the impossible. That’s they’re attraction. How does a poet take an experience, big or small, and convert it into 14 lines? But it’s done.”
Simic started translating as a senior in high school, soon after he immigrated to America from Yugoslavia in 1954. He ran across poems in the Serbian language that he wanted to share with his friends. The first poem he translated was “The Message of King Sakis and the Legend of the 12 Dreams He Had in One Night.”
His translating activity pick up in 1960, when he moved to New York City and spent a lot of time at the New York Public Library. He said, “I discovered the Slavic Section.”
Translating poetry is an “act of love, an act of supreme empathy,” Simic said. “I was astonished as I got deeper into translating, the way I could dismantle a poem to a particular degree that I never did as a teacher of literature. I love the close, meticulous readings. Translating is like being a medium, standing in the shoes of the person you’re translating; one becomes another. It is the closest possible reading of a literary text.”
According to Simic, lyric poetry is the toughest, hardest to translate. “It’s formally concise and doesn’t have much subject matter. In a lyric poem, little is said and much is meant. What you experience in a lyric poem is entirely determined by the language.”
Simic read several of his favorite translations. The poems are included in Simic’s book “The Horse Has Six Legs: An Anthology of Serbian Poetry” (1992). They included “Questionnaire of Sleeplessness” by Miodrag Pavlovic; “Outhouse,” “Monastic Outhouse” and “Out in the Open” by Aleksandar Ristovic; “To Phaedrus” by Jovan Hristic, and “The Little Box” by Vasco Popa. An excerpt from “The Little Box”:
… The little box remembers her childhood
And by a great longing
She becomes a little box again
Now in the little box
You have the whole world in miniature
You can easily put in a pocket
Easily steal it lose it
Take care of the little box
At the beginning of the lecture, Simic told the audience that he thoroughly enjoyed his year as U.S. Poet Laureate. “I grew to admire this institution, this library, the Library of Congress. I spent my entire life—the serious life, the life that I value—in libraries. I started when I was a kid, continued as a young man and I still go to libraries. To come to the ultimate library, the world’s greatest library, to be working with idealists dedicated to preserving this noble institution is a great, great honor,” Simic said.
He finished the lecture (available at www.loc.gov/webcasts/) by reading one of his own poems, “In the Library,” from his volume “The Voice at 3 A.M.” (2003). An excerpt:
… Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark and unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds
She’s very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.