Even a simple problem reveals his skill. In one section of the poem “Childhood,” there occurs the following portrayal of would-be tranquillity: “I rest my elbows on the table, the lamp illuminates these newspapers that I’m a fool for rereading, these books of no interest.” The two words sans intérêt (“without interest”) allow for surprisingly many solutions, as one can see from a quick sampling of previous translations. Yet these other choices are either less rhythmical than the French — “uninteresting,” “empty of interest” — or they do not retain the subtlety of the French: “mediocre,” “boring,” “idiotic.” Ashbery’s “books of no interest” is quietly matter-of-fact and dismissive, like the French, rhythmically satisfying and placed, like the original, at the end of the sentence.
It takes one sort of linguistic sensitivity to stay close to the original in a pleasing way; another to bring a certain inventiveness to one’s choices without being unfaithful. Ashbery’s ingenuity is evident at many moments in the book, and an especially lovely example occurs in the same poem: he has translated Qu’on me loue enfin ce tombeau, blanchi à la chaux as “Let someone finally rent me this tomb, whited with quicklime.” Here, his “whited with quicklime” (rather than “whitewashed,” the choice of all the other translations I found) at once exploits the possibilities of assonance and introduces the echo of the King James “whited sepulcher” without betraying the meaning of the original.
Also see Donald Brown’s review in The Quarterly Conversation.