Found in Translation

by Elaine Equi



I’ve always liked reading poetry in translation. In fact, I prefer it that way.

Poetry is the sound one language makes when it escapes into another.

Whatever you think you’ve missed is, as the saying goes, better left to the imagination.

It gives even a mediocre poem an ineffable essence.

Greater involvement on the part of the reader leads to greater enjoyment.

A bad translation, a clumsy one, is especially charming.

The poem is whatever cannot be killed by the translator.

Its will to survive, its willingness to be uprooted and flee its homeland is admirable. I almost want to say virile.

An untranslated poem is too attached to its author. It’s too raw.

An untranslatable poem that hordes its meaning, whose borders are too guarded, is better unsaid.

For years, I copied authors from around the world. Then one day it occurred to me, perhaps it’s the translator I imitate, not the poet. This idea pleases me and makes me want to write more.

It would be great to learn French in order to read William Carlos Williams.

Translators are the true transcendentalists.

Notes on the Poem

We're all familiar with the phrase "lost in translation", whereby a word or phrase in one language loses its the fullness or subtlety of meaning or connotation when it's translated to another language that perhaps cannot set it in the exact same context. Leave it to Elaine Equi to suggest that there are ways in which new nuances emerge or are added in the translation process. What do we indeed find in translation when she takes on the subject? As we've observed before in her poetry, Equi doesn't eschew the cerebral or dumb down the discussion just because her language is simple, plainspoken and seasoned with humour. certainly, there are observations here that at face value seem to be making light of a particular literary craft that the Griffin Poetry Prize reveres and celebrates. "It gives even a mediocre poem an ineffable essence." seems kind of cheeky, as does ... "A bad translation, a clumsy one, is especially charming." and ... "The poem is whatever cannot be killed by the translator." and in particular ... "It would be great to learn French in order to read William Carlos Williams." You even hear chuckles in the audience for that last line in this audio recording of Equi reading the poem.

But then other observations, slyly mixed in with the rest, seem to take flight. This one is utterly transcendent (and probably cries out to be translated into many, many languages): "Poetry is the sound one language makes when it escapes into another." Doesn't it feel, then, like Equi is winking and smiling wisely with her final line?

2 Replies to “Found in Translation”

  1. Equi uses “hordes” in the poem as it is found in Ripple Effect. That spelling is also acceptable as an intransitive verb. Perhaps it’s meant to be ambiguous or to provoke your very reaction. Certainly, that would play into the theme of what is lost or found in translation, don’t you think?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *