The Genius of What Is Possible In English

Fascinating conversation between Adam Kirsch and Ilya Kaminsky on what translation can and can’t do. I’ll grant that Kirsch is well-informed, and his concerns are fair enough, but this response of Kaminsky’s really gets at the inherent error in focusing to exclusivity on the source text w/r/t translation:

But what interests me is not only the genius of the poet translated but also the genius of what is possible in English as it bends to accommodate or digest various new forms. By translating, we learn how the limits of our minds can be stretched to absorb the foreign, and how thereby we are able to make our language beautiful in a new way.

I love that devotion to the “local” in your earlier commentary, and would like to turn the discussion to the idea of influences. How does this inherent local power in English language poetry grow, expand, and learn its own abilities from its constant encounters with the other? What keeps that wonderful poetic (or, at times, anti-poetic) “local” fresh? What allows it to constantly renew itself and not die of incest and boredom?

AK: What you say about poetry’s encounters with otherness seems to me to apply especially to American poetry. Think of Pound and Eliot, who were never more American than when they attempted to channel the whole of European literature

For what it’s worth, I’m reading a book on Italo Calvino right now that recounts Calvino’s translation of a book of Queneau’s that was essentially untranslatable (Calvino’s word, not mine). Why did Calvino do it? He wanted to enrich the Italian language, as well as develop his own style as a writer. That’s just what he did. (It’s a central claim of this book that this translation was largely responsible for Calvino’s evolution in his books after Cosmicomics.) And at the end of the day Italian readers had a book that, though not an exact parallel text to Queneau’s original, was still one of the year’s most interesting, innovative texts to appear in Italian when Calvino published it.

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