“Corpse-Keepers” and “Blind Musicians”:
The Ethics of American Poetic Translation in the Late Twentieth Century

Hallie Smith

University of Virginia

Because of the long-held perception that a translation’s main purpose is to convey the semantic meaning of the original work, translation has often been viewed in the United States as a secondary and derivative literary mode. In contrast, I argue that during the last fifty years, translation has not only reflected major American poetic practice but in fact has significantly shaped that practice. My title combines two phrases from W. S. Merwin’s translations that could serve as metaphors for how poet-translators have been perceived in late twentieth-century America. The “corpse-keeper”, or maintenance man of the poetic past, preserves the body of another poet’s work in translation. As in many cultures where touching an actual corpse is considered polluting, the corpse-keeper translator is likewise looked down upon in the American context. He embalms what was once lively verse in another language into the plodding, Frankenstein-ian strophes of so-called “translatorese.” Even worse, he does not produce his own “original” work and is thus a kind of literary parasite1. The translator as “blind musician,” in contrast, openly acknowledges that she or he operates without the full range of senses that a native speaker possesses, but through particular attention and, especially, collaboration with others, captures something surprising and alive from the translated poetry. One prerequisite for being able to perform this more collaborative and culturally nuanced and informed type of translation seems to be that the translator is already an artist in his or her own right-the “blind musician” translators that I will discuss are already poets in the language that they use to translate.

I will focus on examples drawn from the work of Robert Lowell and Lyn Hejinian, only two of the many important poet-translators of the twentieth century in the United States. Both these poets have translated a significant amount of poetry from other languages into English, sometimes by working with collaborators who have better knowledge of the source text or source language and in different ways assist the poet in producing the translation. Although Lowell is a mid-century poet associated with confessionalism, and Hejinian is a contemporary poet associated with language poetry, they have in common the translation of Russian poetry. Lowell’s career spanned the rise of the Cold War, and Hejinian’s marks the end of it. I am less interested in evaluating how well each poet translates than in investigating what each poet claims to be doing when he or she translates poetry into American English. To that end I will read closely each translator’s prose remarks about performing translation, concentrating particularly on those statements that can be read not only as a poetics but also an ethics of translation.

First I want to make a few general remarks about the translation of poetry in the United States. Even though translation has historically been considered a lesser literary mode, it has nevertheless been held to strict norms: for example, the attitude that translations should sound like “natural” English is a cultural expectation that has long held sway in the United States (and also in England). Translation studies traditionally views the “source” text—the original work, along with its author and original audience—as existing in some degree of tension with the translation and its respective “target” audience. The nineteenth-century German philosopher and theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher described the situation in an influential and often-quoted lecture from 1813, “On the Different Methods of Translating”: “Either the translator leaves the author in peace, as much as possible, and moves the reader toward him. Or he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author toward him” (quoted in Lefevere 149). The first option (where the translator “moves” the English-speaking reader toward the author of the foreign source text) has come to be known in English language practice as the “foreignizing” approach to translation. The English-speaking reader is expected to, even forced to encounter the foreign text on something that resembles its own terms. In contrast, Schleiermacher’s second option (the translator leaving the target reading audience “in peace”) is called the “domesticating” strategy and is more typical in Anglo-American practice. In this situation, the translator subtly or sometimes not-so-subtly alters the foreign text to suit the prevailing literary tastes of the target audience. Reading the foreign text is so comfortable for the English language reader that he does not even need to get up from his metaphorical armchair to meet the source text’s author halfway.

The balanced grammar of Schleiermacher’s important binary (“either the translator leaves the author in peace…or he leaves the reader in peace”) implies that the two propositions are of equal value and equally valid, but later translation theorists emphasize the moral and ethical implications of taking one or the other of the two approaches. In the past two decades in particular, domesticating strategies have come to be seen as ethically suspect in the English language context, yet they continue to proliferate in actual practice. A domesticated translation seems transparent, as though it could have been written in English in the first place. Indeed it seems not a translation at all, instead just a book written in English by Neruda or Dante, for example, instead of a translation by Robert Bly or Robert Pinsky. As the American translator and theorist Lawrence Venuti has repeatedly shown, domesticating translation strategies obscure the work of the translator but also, even more importantly, erase the distinctive differences of another literary tradition, historical moment, and culture.

Venuti builds on the work of Antoine Berman, a twentieth-century French theorist and translator, who first adapted Schleiermacher“s arguments into an ethics of translation. As Berman suggests, “translation occupies an ambiguous position” (4). Some domesticating impulses on the part of the translator are inevitable and necessary if the target audience is to comprehend the text. The source text must be converted into the domestic language of the target audience, after all, and in that sense translation is always domesticating. Berman admits that of necessity translation “… heeds this appropriationary and reductionary injunction, and constitutes itself as one of its agents” (4). But Berman also argues that this domesticating impulse is dangerous and easily “… results in ethnocentric translation, or what we may call “bad” translations” (4). He concludes that

… on the other hand, the ethical aim of translating is by its very nature opposed to this injunction[.] The essence of translation is to be an opening, a dialogue, a cross-breeding, a decentering. Translation is a “putting in touch with,” or it is nothing. (4)

The choice between a domesticating versus a foreignizing approach has been complicated and usefully expanded in the global context by the confluence of postcolonial studies, cultural studies, translation studies and poststructuralist thought in general. Most critics concerned with ethics in translation adopt Berman’s and Venuti’s preferences for a carefully calibrated “foreignizing” approach to translation, especially in cases where English language translators are at work. But the significant and particular ways that translation happens in the contemporary American context have not yet been adequately analyzed. Venuti, Edwin Gentzler, and numerous other translation theorists demonstrate this point, and I would argue that in the realm of my particular field of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American poetry, the lack of critical attention to translation is even more egregious. It is usually the case that there is little or no critical attention directed to a poet’s work with translation even though poets do much of the translating, not just of poetry, but of all genres, in the United States. During the last fifty years, translation has significantly shaped American poetic practice, both in terms of translated material and borrowed poetic forms. I argue (in the larger project that I draw this essay from) that a number of international poetries and poetics are absolutely central to what we conceive of as “American” poetry in the second half of the twentieth century, and I will now discuss two important poet-translators crucial to that trajectory.

Lowell’s American Imitations

Robert Lowell is probably best known for his 1959 book of confessional poems and prose, Life Studies, and he is currently experiencing something of a renaissance in his critical reception, in part because of the publication of his Collected Poems and Collected Letters in 2003 and 2005. One part of Lowell’s career that has not received as much attention is his work with translation. Before and during the time when he was working on the Life Studies poems, Lowell was also working on translations of a variety of poets: Rilke, Rimbaud, Villon, many others. He published these translations as a book two years later in 1961.2

Lowell titled the book Imitations, and it is arguably the most influential American work of poetic translation in the second half of the twentieth century. He drew critical fire—practically critical bloodshed—for the licenses that he took with the original texts; nevertheless, the book won the Harriet Monroe Prize and the Bollingen Prize in Translation for 1962. Lowell adds to Pound’s modernist freedoms (as in “Homage to Sextus Propertius” or “The Seafarer”) an investment in his own historical and political moment. Thus in his introduction to Imitations, Lowell writes that his main purpose is to “… write alive English and to do what my authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America” (CP 195). Lowell performs a complicated contortion here, suggesting that his translations are something like ghost-written originals. He claims to be able to ventriloquize the foreign language poets. The phrase I press on—“to do what my authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America”—also provokes a complicated thought experiment for the reader of Lowell’s introduction. Exactly what would Sappho or Baudelaire (two of the other poets Lowell translates) sound like if they were writing in mid-twentieth-century America? My beat-speaking Sappho would probably sound different than Lowell’s.

Part of Lowell’s insistence on embodying the translated poets, emphasizing the human agency behind both the original poems and his translated poems, is a response to the contemporaneous emergence of machine translation at this moment. After World War II, in the enthusiasm for all things scientific and scientistic, linguists were working to develop computerized translation programs. In 1954, there had been a conspicuous public demonstration of machine translation, the “Georgetown-IBM experiment,” which displayed a fully automated computer translation of sixty Russian sentences into English. The Georgetown experiment successfully attracted government funding for the project of machine translation for the next ten years and can certainly be read as part of the larger Cold War determination to crack the Russian code.3

But the usual criticism of Imitations was, and continues to be, that Lowell over-personalized, over-“Lowellized” the foreign poems. Even the poet C. K. Williams’ recent homage to the influence of Imitations on his own work describes “the audacity with which Lowell approached and poached on and cannibalized so many sacrosanct canonical poets, and made their work so thoroughly his own” (110). But the book’s very title, Imitations, telegraphs Lowell’s lack of interest in producing dutiful or “faithful” or equivalent translations, machine-based or otherwise. His “Introduction” contains a number of interesting remarks about his procedure and rationale for translation. First, although the book contains translations of poems by eighteen different Latin, Greek, German, French, Italian, and Russian poets, from the outset of his translator’s preface, Lowell instructs the reader to consider the book as “a sequence, one voice running through many personalities, contrasts, and repetitions” (CP 195). Although he does not state it outright, Lowell implies that his voice as translator is the common thread among the disparate group of poets ranging across time and place from Sappho to Pasternak.

So there is the issue of the “one voice running through many personalities, contrasts, and repetitions”—Lowell’s voice giving American figure to the pan-European anthology—but the figure that Lowell repeatedly turns to in the “Introduction” is the Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak, who was about a generation older than Lowell. At the moment when Imitations was published, Pasternak and Dr. Zhivago were very au courant in the United States, at least in part because of the adventurous way that the book had come to press. The manuscript of Dr. Zhivago had been smuggled out of the Soviet Union in 1957 and was first published (in an Italian translation) in Italy. The following year an English translation came out, and Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize. The novel stayed at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for twenty-six weeks in 1958 and 1959.4 Pasternak had himself earlier turned to translation at a moment of personal disillusionment with the Communist party. Rejected by the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers, RAPP, and thus unable to publish his own poetry, Pasternak translated Goethe, Rilke, Georgian poets, and Shakespeare. Many Russian readers read these 1930s and 1940s translations as submerged political critique. Yet Pasternak, like Lowell, was also accused of being too subjective in his translations. In an echo of what American critics would later say about the “Lowell-ized” translations of Imitations, Pasternak’s critics accused him of “pasternakizing” Shakespeare.

Lowell incorporates Pasternak’s comments on translation, then, both because he was a writer with great popular appeal in the United States and also because Lowell considers him an authority on a liberty-taking style of translation. Lowell’s first reference to Pasternak is a paraphrase: “Boris Pasternak has said that the usual reliable translator gets the literal meaning but misses the tone, and that in poetry tone is of course everything” (195). Lowell here (via Pasternak) manages to make “reliable” sound boring, translators emphasizing literal word-for-word accuracy stultifying “corpse-keepers.” Later, he legitimates his method of working from transliterated crib sheets and previous translations (as opposed to being able to read the language himself) by referring again to Pasternak:

Pasternak has given me special problems. From reading his prose and many translations of his poetry, I have come to feel that he is a very great poet. But I know no Russian. I have rashly tried to improve on other translations, and have been helped by exact prose versions given me by Russian readers. This is an old practice; Pasternak himself, I think, worked this way with his Georgian poets. I hope I caught something worthy of his all-important tone. (196)

Lowell is never misleading about his translation methods. In attempting to retain “something equivalent to the fire and finish of the originals” (195), by which I take Lowell to mean that he valorizes formal effects over content, he acknowledges that he has done “considerable rewriting” (195) and comments at another point: “I have been reckless with literal meaning” (195). One of Lowell’s most infamous changes to literal meaning was to add his own stanza to the last poem in the book, Rilke's “Pigeons.” Lowell dedicated the poem to Hannah Arendt and sent her a copy before Imitations was published. In the accompanying letter, he described the Rilke translation as “almost unrecognizable, and really more my reply or extension than a translation” (CL 376). In a long paragraph in the preface, he describes the many changes throughout the book in even more exacting terms, seemingly wanting to head off the criticism that came anyway:

My licences have been many. My first two Sappho poems are really new poems based on hers. Villon has been somewhat stripped;… Hugo“s “Gautier” has been cut in half… About a third of “The Drunken Boat” has been left out. Two stanzas have been added to Rilke’s “Roman Sarcophagus,” and one to his “Pigeons.” “Pigeons” and Valéry’s “Helen” are more idiomatic and informal in my English… And so forth! I have dropped lines, moved lines, moved stanzas, changed images and altered meter and intent. (CP 195–6)

Lowell’s explanation for all his changes is that he has “labored hard to get the tone” (195), the “all-important tone” attributed to Pasternak. He specifies further: “More often this has been a tone, for the tone is something that will always more or less escape transference to another language and cultural moment” (195). Lowell here reformulates Frost’s often-quoted precept that poetry is what gets lost in translation, claiming that the original’s tone is what usually gets lost in translation. What Lowell does not acknowledge, of course, is that even among native speakers of the original text’s language, there cannot be a unitary, single interpretation of the poetic tone of the text. So although he presents the situation as his attempt to convey one possible interpretation of the original’s tone, no other translator can do anything but the same. The difference is that the translator who follows the dominant norm of the transparent, domesticating translation disguises the fact that a translation is, by necessity, a highly individualistic interpretation of tone.

The irony of Lowell’s translations is that at first glance they seem to be the height of domesticating translation. He claims to “write alive English and to do what my authors might have done if they were writing their poems now and in America” (195), openly and radically changing the poems so that in translated form they might appear to have been written in his own historical and cultural moment, by him. It is instead the very fact that Lowell elbows his way into the translated poems in the way that he does ends up making his translations ethical expressions of difference in translation. Precisely because he causes himself as translator to have such a visible presence in the “Introduction,” and also because his text has conspicuous moments where readers of the original texts notice obvious differences and often radical departures from the originals, Lowell’s translations become, if not foreignizing, certainly estranging, and not at all transparent. What might appear to be Lowell’s hubris is actually be a very nuanced and surprisingly ethical approach to translation.

From Russia With Love: Lyn Hejinian’s collaborative ethics of translation

Poet-translators after Lowell imitate both his characteristic confessional style and his liberties with translated texts, but they do not often follow his program of emphasizing the translator’s presence in the translations. They think of their translations as “their own” poems, in the manner of Lowell, but do not call them “imitations” or include a statement of purpose like Lowell’s explanatory apparatus of preface and notes. Thus the American project of translation is inextricably and sometimes narcissistically linked to confessionalism after Lowell. The work of the language poet Lyn Hejinian serves as a corrective to this phenomenon, partly because language poetry renders problematic the confessional project but also because Hejinian has engaged in a sustained, ongoing collaboration with the Russian poet whose work she has primarily translated. Thus collaboration instead of confession, a “we” instead of an “I,” forms the basis of Hejinian’s translations.

While Lowell’s work with translation is largely solitary, Hejinian conceives of the process as a communal effort. For her, translation is the ideal site to explore not only the ethical complexities of collaboration, but more generally the open and dialogic nature of texts. As a language poet, Hejinian examines the inexact correspondence of language to meaning, the gap between the poet’s word on the page and the reader’s understanding of it. Hejinian’s reader is assumed to be actively involved, not only in construing, but in constructing the poet’s meanings. This is the social and collaborative model for all of Hejinian’s work; translation—with its tripartite collaboration between poet, translator, and reader—foregrounds this set of ethical complexities for her.

Hejinian is one of the most accessible and thus most regularly anthologized language poets. Despite being a widely read language poet, she is far less well known than Lowell, for instance, and, not surprisingly, she is even less well known for her work with translation. Her more limited range of influence as a poet and translator is a result of the difficulty of her work; the experimental nature of Hejinian’s writing means that, despite her deep investment in language poetry’s larger social, political, and cultural implications, Hejinian by default addresses mainly a coterie of specialized readers.5 She has had, over the past two decades, a single extended collaboration with one Russian poet, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, himself an experimental poet. Her collaboration with him has resulted in mutual translations—that is to say, Dragomoshchenko has translated Hejinian’s work into Russian, and Hejinian has translated Dragomoshchenko’s work into English. They have also experimented with other collaborative writing projects, and both the translations and the other collaborative writing have profoundly shaped Hejinian’s contributions to the American project of language poetry.

Although it is misleading to refer to “language poetry” as though it were a single monolith movement—it makes more sense to discuss specific language poems, their particular poetic “signatures,” and the type of mainstream poetry that as a result undergoes a critique—there are certain common interests among Hejinian and other poets who classify themselves loosely as writers of language poetry. The starting point of language poetry, its philosophical origins in Marx, Wittgenstein, and Derrida, its literary origins in Stein and Zukofsky, is to argue that the emotionally expressive realism of mainstream late-twentieth-century American poetry (epitomized in confessional and deep image poetry) is an unacknowledged expression of the capitalist and hegemonic ideology that was elsewhere being questioned in the United States. Hejinian characterizes language writing as an ethics-based venture outright, writing that “the intersecting of aesthetic concerns with ethical concerns is one of the basic characteristics of language writing, and this fact has very much to do with its origins in a particular historical moment, namely the late 1960s and early 1970s” (TLoI 322). Most language poets, sharing with other poets of their generation the consciousness-forging backdrop of the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War, claim to pursue through artistic means the goal of political equality (made graphic in their L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E masthead.)

A signal stylistic feature of language poetry, especially Hejinian’s, is parataxis—the omission of connectives like “and” between grammatical units, and the omission, in a larger sense, of the traditional connective tissue of transitional sentences between units of thought. The other signal feature of language poetry is perhaps the noticeable difficulty that its parataxis gives uninitiated readers, but this and the other formal strategies of language writing boil down to a single intent: that poet and reader both learn to pay rigorously close attention to the signs of language, not only to what is signified. The particular focus on the participation of the reader is an important part of language poetry’s ethics of political participation and activism. After its early manifestos, though, in which different language poets argue that unexamined poetic aesthetics have political consequences, language poetry seems to abandon pragmatic political applications of poetry (for example, anti-war or other poetry that seeks to instigate political change, the traditional province of liberal poets) in favor of a project of aesthetic reinvention. This is not an abandonment of politics and ethics so much as it is a condensation of energies into the belief, familiar from Romanticism, that poetry can legislate some effect on the larger social world and that artistic innovation can be the harbinger of social change.

But with its academic references and what a reader sometimes suspects are insiders’ jokes, with its flattened sounds, its prose or sometimes prosey lines, language poetry often seems opposed to the materials and techniques that traditionally would be seen as necessary to make it poetry at all. In their worst examples language poems can seem like the otiose and overgrown children of Gertrude Stein, with all of her verbigeration but most of her delight drained out. The challenges that reading Hejinian’s work presents to a mainstream audience, and the outright antagonism to conventional reading practices that language poetry more generally presents, leave her and it open to charges of elitism and irrelevance. This apparently populist type of criticism, which attacks language poetry for not taking its readers into more consideration, is usually put forth most strongly by critics invested in preserving traditional modes of writing poetry. Even without taking a conservative perspective regarding form, language poetry might be guilty as charged. It is an ethical problem that a highly politicized school of poetry—probably a better description than “school” would be a group of writers with “overlapping affinities” (Silliman et al. 261)—devoted to liberating their American readers from the shackles of a hierarchical language is seemingly not invested in making themselves intelligible to those same readers.

The problem of language poetry’s unintelligibility to untrained readers resembles, in general outline, the problems that foreignizing translations face. If readers turn away from a foreign text because the translation challenges too much the reading conventions to which they are accustomed, how much mind-expanding work about cultural difference has been accomplished? Foreignizing translations even run the risk of inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes about how mysterious, unknowable, and difficult the foreign Other is. Likewise, language poetry itself walks a tricky line between estranging the reader with its difficulty and convincing the reader to embrace the ostranenie. Hejinian illustrates this tension when she pointedly reverses conventional expectations of poetry, writing in “Forms in Alterity: On Translation” that “Poetry is literary not by dint of the mellifluousness of its sounds, the aptness of its imagery, the seamless interweaving of its parts, but through ‘roughening,’ dissonances, impediments” (301). She continues, linking her assertions to a foreignizing ethos of translation: “… a translator must keep these difficulties in the light and carry them forward so that they are perceptible impediments to new readers, too. To lift poetry out of its difficulties would be to betray it” (302). Hejinian thus makes not just any translator a traitor (à la the famously damning Italian play on words, translatore-trattore) but significantly the domesticating translator the traitor.

One feature of language poetry that especially provokes critical ire is the disruption or outright dismissal of the notion of the unified speaking “self” familiar from confessional poetry—the presumed author of the poem and also its implied lyric speaker. Hejinian’s My Life6, a long prose poem autobiography, eschews the univocal perspective of the traditional lyric “I” and refuses to offer a linear narrative of “her” life, which is what a reader might generally expect of an autobiography. Instead, Hejinian’s text, probably the best-known long poem associated with late twentieth-century experimental writing, consists of rapidly shifting statements of perception that refuse to allow the reader to settle comfortably into a single timeframe or a single state of consciousness of its narrator. For example, one section reads as follows:

The things I was saying followed logically the things that I had said before, yet they bore no relation to what I was thinking and feeling. There was once a crooked man, who rode a crooked mile—thereafter he wrote in a crooked style characteristic of 19th-century prose, a prose of science with cumulative sentences. The ideal was of American property and she had received it from a farmer. It includes buying thrillers and gunmen’s coats. I was more terrified of the FBI agents than of the unspecified man who had kidnapped, murdered, and buried the girl in the other fifth grade in the hill behind school. A pause, a rose, something on paper. It was at about this time that my father provided me with every right phrase about the beauty and wonder of books. Colored cattle were grazing on a California hillside, so much of a single yellow that from this distance and at this hour it was impossible to see any gradation of light and shadow. (48–49)

The reader should not expect the “cumulative sentences” characteristic of the “crooked style” of nineteenth-century prose; the apparent non sequitors between the sentences in her prose poetry are intentional. Also intentional is Hejinian’s attention to the difficulty of clear perception and coherent memory, and in turn to their poetic expression. Despite the speaker’s apparent specificity of looking back in memory from “this distance” and “at this hour,” other details are rubbed out. The poem names not “the” specific things remembered from times past but “A pause, a rose, something on paper,” certain “unspecified” details that become a blur of “single yellow” toward the end of the section. Hejinian’s poem certainly tells the story of an “I,” but who this lyric speaker seems to be—from what age and level of consciousness and from what place and historical moment she seems to speak—changes from one sentence to the next.

During her first major revision of My Life in 1987, Hejinian was working with Dragomoshchenko. She published two book-length translations of Dragomoshchenko’s poetry in the 1990s, Description (1990) and Zenia (1994). Also in the late 1980s and 1990s, she also worked with Dragomoshchenko and other Russian and American poets on two major collaborative projects: 5 + 5 (1990) and Leningrad: American Writers in The Soviet Union (1991). She collaborated again with Dragomoshchenko, along with the jazz musician (and her husband) Larry Ochs, and filmmaker Jacki Ochs (her sister-in-law) to create a film titled Letters Not About Love (1998), which documents letters that Hejinian and Dragomoshchenko sent between 1988–93 reflecting on English, Russian, and personal meanings attached to words suggested by Jacki Ochs: home, grandmother, neighbor, poverty, book, work, violence, and window. Her comments about Dragomoshchecnko written in this active period of collaboration might well describe her own work:

Dragomoshchenko“s writing is often driven by etymological metonymy—its themes evolving as words of like origin branch out into the poem. His work is devoted to phenomenological experience—acts of perception, attentiveness to the moments and events through which the world makes its appearance—and occasionally he uses diction of varying tonalities to indicate mood and hence point of view. (TLoI 313)

Clearly, their writing relationship is based on artistic similarities. And further, both Hejinian and Dragomoshchenko suggest that the collaboration in translation affects what they write in their respective English and Russian poetry. Sandler writes that “Dragomoshchenko has said that there are moments when he considers how a line will sound in Hejinian’s translation, which affects his choices as a poet” (20). And in their film collaboration “Letters Not About Love,” Hejinian herself, writing to Dragomoshchenko, notes that “More and more I find myself paying attention not to the world as it is, but to the world as it might fit into a letter to you.” A few years later she refines her impressions about translating Dragomoshchenko into an ethical statement of purpose:

The process of translating these works has had the effect of providing me with something like a life apart from my own, a life led by an other—though that other turns out to be me. It is not that translation involves the assimilation of someone else’s “otherness”—and it does not consist in the uncomplicated making of an American poem out of the raw materials of a “foreign” one. Rather, translation catalyzes one’s own “otherness,” and the otherness of one’s own poetry. (302–3)

In that Hejinian’s translations have focused on the work of one contemporary Russian poet, her scope of material, compared with that of Lowell, for example, is limited. But the very fact of Lowell’s wide-ranging appetite indicates the main point where Hejinian differs from him. Whereas Lowell works with foreign-language material to reinvigorate his individual poetic practice (he writes that he turns to translation when he couldn”t work on anything else) and to extend the aesthetic boundaries of English-language tradition (and a wide variety of material is explored and annexed for these purposes), Hejinian’s translation practices indicate a deep engagement with one particular idea: the way that language, when it is deployed as a transparent vehicle of semantic content, tends to obscure the subjectivity of the poet. This transparency is misleading when an English-language poet makes use of it, but it is in especially bad faith when a translator obscures the subjectivity of the translated poet.

A major project in all of Hejinian’s poetry, not only in her translations, is to examine the inexact correspondence of language and meaning, the gap between the poet’s word on the page and the reader’s understanding, the reader’s effort to cross that gap being the generative force that drives communication. An “open text,” Hejinian writes in “The Rejection of Closure,” “is open to the world and particularly to the reader. It invites participation, rejects the authority of the writer over the reader and thus, by analogy, the authority implicit in other (social, economic, cultural) hierarchies” (134). Instead of a top-down, writer-as-god model of how meaning is communicated, Hejinian places her reader in a radically lateral seat; her reader is actively involved, not only in construing, but in constructing the poet’s meanings. Hejinian invites her reader to fill in the gaps between the apparent non sequitors of her poetry: “The reader (and I can also say the writer) must overleap the end stop, the period, and cover the distance to the next sentence” (136). Quoting Keats, Hejinian continues: “‘Do not the lovers of poetry like to have a little Region to wander in where they may pick and choose, and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second reading… Do not they like this better than what they can read through before Mrs. Williams comes down stairs?’” (136). So despite the fact that her unfamiliar and disorienting formal structures might initially seem proof of an utter disregard for her reader, Hejinian actually seeks the cooperation of her reader and counts on his or her curious speculation. This is the social and collaborative model for all of Hejinian’s work; translation—with its tripartite collaboration between poet, translator, and reader—foregrounds this set of complexities for her. That is to say, if collaboration between writer and reader is at the heart of Hejinian’s model text, it is even more crucial to her notion of how a text is translated, when not just one reader but two (the translator of the poem, and then the reader of the translation) are actively engaged in bridging the gaps between language and meaning.

A final word on ethics in translation

There is a growing body of work focusing on ethics in translation, ushered in by Lawrence Venuti’s provocative and influential work from the 1990s.7 Increasingly over the past few years, there has been a specialized emphasis, within these studies of translational ethics, on a particular mode of translation that Robert Barsky, Mona Baker, and others refer to as humanitarian or “activist” translation. Activist translation assumes that translators do and should consider the political ramifications of their work, and further, that translators should select projects that are oriented toward social justice. In the United States, the social justice of activist translation often entails conceptual repair work: repairing the knowledge gaps and cultural misunderstandings on the part of the United States of Iraq, for instance.8 A current example of this type of activist translation is the widely read daily blog of University of Michigan historian Juan Cole, who posts English language summaries of Arabic news reports. Another online example is the translation journal Words Without Borders, founded in 2003, the first several issues of which focused on literatures written in “Axis of Evil” countries such as Iraq, Iran, and South Korea.9 Further, there is the activist field work of translators affiliated with groups such as Peaceworkers or Human Rights Watch, and in Great Britain, there seems to be more emphasis on this last type of overtly politicized activist translation.

I will be interested to see how contemporary American poet-translators respond to the activist mode of translation so relevant and pressing in other fields. It is my hope that, since translation performs important cultural work and can be read as a gauge of a period’s aesthetic conventions and political norms, poets in the United States will continue to enlarge the American poetic tradition with translingual and transnational subject matter from lesser-known literary traditions. They have already been doing this cultural service work as long as there has been a United States. But it is also my hope that American poets will attempt, more often, formal experiments with translation that tend more toward foreignizing than domesticating strategies. The result could be a more nuanced and ethically engaged age of American poetic translation, an end goal that seems increasingly essential.

Works Cited

Berman, Antoine. (1992) The Experience of the Foreign: Culture and Translation in Romantic Germany, trans. S. Heyvaert. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Bermann, Sandra and Michael Wood, eds. (2005) Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hejinian, Lyn. (2000) The Language of Inquiry. Berkeley, CA: University of CA Press.

Hejinian, Lyn. (2002) My Life. Los Angeles: Green Integer.

Lefevere, André, ed. and trans. (1992) Translation/ History/ Culture: A Sourcebook. New York: Routledge.

Lowell, Robert. (2003) Collected Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Lowell, Robert. (2005) Collected Letters. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Ochs, Jacki, prod., dir., ed. (1998) Letters Not About Love. Screenplay by Lyn Hejinian and Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. New Day Films.

Pym, Anthony, ed. (2001) The Return to Ethics: special issue of The Translator. Manchester: St Jerome Publishing.

Ramanujan, A. K. (1999) The Collected Essays of A. K. Ramanujan. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sandler, Stephanie. (2005) “Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Lyn Hejinian, and the Persistance of Romanticism.” Contemporary Literature XLVI, 1: 18–45.

Silliman, Ron, Carla Harriman, Lyn Hejinian, Steve Benson, Bob Perelman, and Barrett Watten. (1988) “Aesthetic Tendency And The Politics Of Poetry: A Manifesto.” Social Text 19/20: 261–275.

Venuti, Lawrence. (1995) The Translator“s Invisibility: A History of Translation. New York: Routledge.

Venuti, Lawrence. (1998) The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference. New York: Routledge.

Williams, C. K. (2004) “On Lowell’s Imitations.“ Salmagundi 141/142: 110.


1 I use masculine pronouns here, but the translator is just as likely to be a woman. Historically the profession and its associated terminology have been gendered female. Nineteenth-century English translators were predominantly women—and sexually loaded expressions, such as the translator remaining “faithful&dsquo; to the original text—still predominate.

2 In my work with Lowell’s papers at Houghton Library at Harvard, I have ascertained that Lowell borrowed certain phrases and moved lines back and forth between the poems of Life Studies and Imitations. My archival work forms the basis of another essay, “How Life Studies imitates art: the relation between Lowell’s confessional poetry and his translations in Imitations.”

3 The interest in machine translation at this moment is evident even in popular culture: the 1963 film From Russia With Love, adapted from Ian Fleming's 1957 novel, features machine translation prominently as a plot device. Much of the action is motivated by a so-called Lektor decoding machine that could decipher Russian code.

4 Dr. Zhivago was eventually published in the U.S.S.R. in 1988.

5 A recent printing of Hejinian’s best-known work, her book-length poetic autobiography My Life, makes a striking pair of observations about her audience on its back cover: “Since 1987, My Life has been taught in hundreds of college and university courses around the world, and is a favorite book of thousands of readers.” The first part of the sentence extols the teachability of the text in an academic setting, a fact that might threaten to imply that Hejinian’s main audience is the professors and graduate students who teach these “hundreds of college and university courses around the world.” Thus the second part of the sentence seeks to mitigate the implication that only academics and students read the book; the claim that My Life is a “favorite book” of thousands of its readers even recalls in an unlikely way Robert Pinsky’s populist “favorite poem” project instituted when he was the American Poet Laureate.

6 Hejinian published the first edition of My Life in 1980. For the second edition, published in 1987, Hejinian added eight sentences to each section of the book and eight sections overall. Her procedure was based on her age—thirty-seven when she first composed the book, Hejinian organized it into thirty-seven sections of thirty-seven sentences. Forty-five when she revised the book, she added sentences and sections to structure the book into forty-five sections of forty-five sentences. Thus even though the text is experimental at the level of its lines and sentences, and it does not follow a conventionally linear narrative, the overall structure of the text is arithmetic, not arbitrary; the sentences and sections are an elaboration in poetic form of one aspect of Hejinian’s autobiography, her age.

7 See two texts by Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (1995) and The Scandals of Translation. (1998). Also Pym’s The Return to Ethics: special issue of The Translator (2001), Bermann and Wood’s Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation (2005). Along with other smaller conferences on the same topic, the University of Granada sponsored the first annual “Translation, Interpreting and Social Activism” conference in Spain in 2007.

8 A more limited but currently relevant definition of “activist” translation in the American context would include the actions of a number of Arabic language translators who served in the military and now oppose the war, speaking out online and in public with groups such as Iraq Veterans Against the War.

9 See www.wordswithoutborders.org. (It describes its project as “Working to promote international communication through translation of the world’s best writing” and emphasizes the lack of translation published overall in the United States. Citing a 1999 NEA study, “… today, 50% of all the books in translation now published worldwide are translated from English, but only 6% are translated into English.”)