A Brief Note On Translating Poetry

To translate poetry, and love doing it and be good at doing it, one must at some level see one's target language(s) as foreign. To be sure, there are very popular, commercially successful translations written by people who did not take this "foreignizing" (either consciously or unconsciously) view of their target language. But such translators add less to the target literary tradition than they could have. They translate the tradition, not the poetry. Coleman Barks, the famous monolingual translator of Rumi, rendered the medieval Islamic mystic's poetry into ecumenical free verse1 utterly foreign to Rumi, but utterly predictable in 20th century America. In a similar manner, Alexander Pope translated Homer into the genteel heroic couplets that appealed to his contemporaries. Daniel Ladinsky's "translations" of Hafiz are downright criminal (Click here for a longer explanation of why Ladinsky is an embarrassment to himself and his fellow Earth-dwellers.)

A good translator doesn't just translate "into" something already existing in the target tradition, but brings something new to the target language from the original. And that requires using one's target tradition in a foreign way at some level. Though if one pulls a Nabokov, the result may be useless in many ways. For all their flaws and chinoiserie, Ezra Pound's translations from Old English, Classical Chinese and Provençal do succeed at that at some level. So do Edward Fitzgerald's translations from Omar Khayyām and Vikram Seth's versions of Medieval Chinese poetry. They offer the reader something new that they can't get anywhere else. The original must, after all, usually be something new if it justifies the reader's attention or the translator's effort.

Walter Arndt, in his hilariously written Picaro in Hitler's Europe once said that to desire to do verse-translation requires one to be a either a person with more than one country or a person with no country. Perhaps he was not entirely wrong.


1Actually, I prefer to think of Coleman Barks as dressing Rumi up in hemp jeans and a tie-dye T-Shirt before placing him behind the cashier's desk at the New Age bookstore where he currently dispenses a nugget of fortune cookie wisdom with any purchase over 10$.


  1. Ya Ustadh Foreman, I enjoy and admire your site very much, but I feel you're being extremely unjust to Coleman Barks. It would be more accurate to say that he dared to bring together the diverse, but profoundly kindred spirits of Rumi and Walt Whitman. It's true that his monolingualism is a puzzling defect, but it's not because he's cavalier or shallow. The authenticity and depth of his spiritual connection to Rumi is undeniable.
    This subject reminds me of an exchange I heard after a poetry reading by Robert Bly (who first inspired Barks to translate Rumi). In the Q&A, a man asked an intentionally provocative question: "Mr. Bly, what is the difference between translating poetry and writing your own poetry?" Bly's answer: "Writing poetry is walking drunk in the moonlight. Translating poetry is walking drunk in the moonlight with your hand on a guide rail." You might accuse Bly and Barks of losing touch with the guide rail, but I would say that --- if the choice has to be made --- far better to lose touch with the guide rail than to refuse to drink the wine. (Unless of course one is doing an intentionally literal, non-poetic translation.)

    1. Actually, I think Robert Bly is an example of this too, and a far more shameless and unredeemable one. Bly is, even more so than Barks, a man who culturally kidnaps texts and turns them into his own version of undisciplined, pretentious doggerel, rather than doing a service to the original text.

      Though one could, and I would, argue that Ezra Pound had aspects of this too, I'd say that Pound had an advantage which enabled him to transcend his own need to foist his personality on other poets' texts. Pound was a very good poet, and pretty good at close readings, which meant he could ultimately recognize good poetry when he saw it, and at least produce decent poetry as a result (though sometimes he could go too far, as he did with Chinese often, for his "River Merchant's Wife: A Letter" was not even remotely the actual poem that 長干行 is) Bly by contrast is a horribly bad poet, and didn't even have the sensibility to figure out what was and wasn't worth carrying across. His renderings are a crime against literature. Look at his rendering of Rilke's "Der Panther." Barks' versions are at least inoffensive as far as poetic quality goes. For more of my objections to the latter, check my notes to this translation of Rumi

      Personally, I think Bly should just not drink the wine. As any recovering alcoholic knows, some people can drink responsibly and some just can't.