The poet and scholar Rosanna Warren delivered a lecture on Poetry and Translation at the University of Rochester on April 24th as part the Plutzik Centennial Series–reviewed here by Jenny Boyar.
From the outset, Rosanna Warren admitted that her profession is one of “smoke and mirrors.” It seems like an image out of that final scene in The Wizard of Oz—the translator frantically conjuring false images from behind a curtain. Yet as a description of Warren’s talk this scene is inaccurate: her discussion brought the oft-overlooked issue of translation out into the open, and Warren—with her numerous fellowships, award-winning poetry, and lauded translations—certainly does not need to feign her success, and delivered her insights with endearing humility.
In fact, Warren’s work proves that the most successful translations are the ones that don’t announce themselves. She shared several of her translations of Latin and French authors: Catullus, Horace, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore and Michael Glück. Each piece was unique, which is surely a testament to Warren’s ability to inhabit and then carry over varying voices. Some of the authors had been translated numerous times before; others, Warren brought into English for the first time. Warren said that regardless of the project her goal is to “make an illusion” that captures what she sees in the poem. And in translating poetry, it seems that seeing necessarily encompasses hearing—that a translator must hold an image before her eyes while also listening for a sort of music.
Warren prefaced almost every reading by plainly stating, “I have failed.” It was less of an apology than a calm acceptance that every translation will fail inasmuch as it will never replicate its original; something will always be lost and no translation will escape the mediation of interpretation. Translating, according to Warren, always involves “determining what will be your own particular heartbreak.” Warren described, for example, how, in Catullus’ poetry, a character’s appetite is enhanced by Latin words that phonetically “gobble each other up” in ways English renders impossible. But with every heartbreak comes some kind of restoration. In one example from Michael Gluck’s “Thirteen Poems,” the English word “rest” and its multiple meanings, unavailable in the French, only enhanced the way the poem inscribed deep remembrance into the ordinary day. All of these instances of triumph and defeat make translation difficult to theorize (Warren spoke at several moments of the divide between translation in theory and in practice) but they are also a testament to translation’s virtues.
Three times during the lecture Warren remarked that when it comes to translating poetry, there is “more than one way to skin a cat” (I counted only because I, as a loyal cat owner, shirked every time). It seems like a crude analogy, especially for a process that has brought us some of our most cherished pieces of literature. But when I wasn’t thinking protectively of my own cat, I was thinking of the (translated) Greek myth of the Nemean lion and how Heracles discovers, in his attempt to fight the lion, that he will not be able to skin the cat—in any way—without using the animal’s own claws. Although this brings even more brutality to Warren’s analogy, it speaks to the fact that translating necessarily involves taking, or trying to inhabit, the very work that is being shaped. The product will never be returned to its original form, and might always be slightly exposed (and I’m sure violence, too, is in some cases a part of the game). But in the hands of an artist like Warren, it will always be something to be valued and worth complete visibility.