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Bill Zavatsky

Bill Zavatsky

Bill Zavatsky is a poet (Theories of Rain And Other Poems; Where X Marks the Spot) and a translator (The Poems of A. O. Barnabooth by Valery Larbaud, with Ron Padgett, Earthlight: Poems by André Breton, with Zack Rogow). His work has been widely anthologized. Currently he works as a freelance teacher and writer in New York City. In a slightly different form, this paper was presented on a translation panel at the  2013 AWP Conference in Boston.

How I Learned To Translate

The first poem that I ever translated was one of Horace's odes. Our college Latin teacher decided to bring in a translation of this ode and read it to us. I must have had a smirk on my face when he looked up. "You seem displeased, Mr. Zavatsky," he said to me. "Well, Father," I answered (he was a Jesuit priest), "I think I can do better." In a few days I did finish a translation that the professor admitted was "not bad" when I read it in class. So my first "rule," if we want to call it that, might be stated this way: The desire to translate often begins with a reader's unhappiness about a translation that he or she has read. A corollary: if you do a decent translation that others seem to enjoy, it will give you the kind of boost that you get when people tell you that they like your poems. For any writer this is no small thing.

I had taken a couple of years of French in high school and in the first college that I attended, but I wasn't a very diligent student. I was interested in Baudelaire and had scribbled some notebook translations of his poems for a paper that I wrote, but it didn't occur to me then that I could actually make anything out of them—anything that would approach the art of the original poems. But these Baudelaire scribbles were another mark in time in my development as a translator. And let me say here that I have never understood why none of my foreign language teachers (or Latin or Greek teachers) ever gave our classes an assignment to translate a poem into our own language. None of them ever said, "Poetry is art. See if you can translate this poem and make your translation a work of art."

In the meantime, throughout high school and my first college, and finally at Columbia, I was working hard to make myself into a poet. I had learned enough about the Surrealists to know that they had discovered important things about the poetic image, and I was hot to know what they had learned. The image (or call it what it is, the metaphor) was, I then felt, at the heart of poetry. In France Éditions Gallimard had begin to publish its wonderful Poésie series, beautifully designed inexpensive paperbacks that brought many poets of all stripes within reach. There were a couple of French bookstores in New York where I snapped up books by Paul Éluard, Benjamin Péret, Robert Desnos, Louis Aragon, André Breton, and others. Lucky for me, I was able to work on translations of Breton with wonderful professors at Columbia—LeRoy Breunig, an Apollinaire expert—and at Barnard I worked on Robert Desnos with Serge Gavronsky, a poet and translator himself. My French is still pretty spotty, but I worked hard, even if I had to look up every other word in the dictionary. So that while I was reading the Surrealists, I was making a record of my readings. I figured, heck, if I have to look up every other word, I might as well write them down! Eventually I began, with the encouragement of my mentors, to see these scribbles as the first drafts of translations. From this part of my narrative I'm going to tease out a principle: Follow what you love, even if you only have a half-assed understanding of what it is you're doing. Naturally you should try to improve your skills as you go forward.

At that time I also began to hunt down any translations of the French Surrealist poets that I could find, and there weren't many. Mostly there would be a couple of poems by the poets who interested me in anthologies like Mid-Century French Poetry, edited by Wallace Fowlie. There were also Penguin anthologies of French poetry, but all the translations were in prose. In the sixties the University of Michigan published Breton's Manifestoes of Surrealism, but there was hardly any poetry in these texts. They also reprinted a selection of André Breton's poetry called Young Cherry Trees Secured Against Hares, but the translations were dreadful and some of the poems weren't even completely translated. I began to feel that if anybody was going to translate the poets I was learning to love, it would have to be me. Even Michael Benedikt's anthology, The Poetry of Surrealism (1974), while it made real strides in bringing a goodly chunk of Surrealist poetry to the attention of American readers, suffered because Benedikt translated too many of the poets himself. Priniciple: Unless you are a genius like Stephen Mitchell, who seems able to translate anything and translate it brilliantly, you can't get away with translating more than a few poets—and maybe only one—if you want to do it well.

The big struggle, it seems to me, occurs in the work that a translator has to do to express whatever the French poet is saying in French to its close-as-possible equivalent in American English. I emphasize American English because British English is not my native tongue. I suppose it's okay for British poets to translate French poets into their idiom, but I found that I don't like most of the British translations of French poetry that I've encountered. It isn't so much a question of vocabulary ("lorry" for "truck," "lift" for "elevator"), but of diction itself. Most British translations of poetry sound stuffy. They sound like the Romans in Hollywood epics who must, according to some unwritten law, be played by Englishmen and -women and talk like Englishmen and -women. I realized that whatever poet I was translating, I had to make him sound like an American poet. I had to make him sound like me. This is why I don't think a translator can translate forty-five poets. This, along with my personal limitations, is why I haven't translated more than two or three poets, and why I've translated two of those poets with collaborators. With a teammate, you can stretch it a little, finding a voice that is somewhere between yours and your collaborator's.

So another rule: Translate a poet that you have an affinity for. This poet has to be your soul-mate, your brother or sister, your likeness, even if you will never be as great a poet as the one you're translating. But, along with plenty of hard work, you must at least empathize with your poet. You've got to feel something for him or for her. It may take you quite a while to find this poet to whom you are going to devote so many man or woman hours.

To translate well, it also pays to be a poet in your own language. Poets have to come up with language solutions every time that they write: How do I say this the best way? Am I including everything the poem needs? How does it sound? What can I leave out and still get it right? And a fundamental question: What do I want to say? In translating this becomes: What did my poet want to say? What does this mean? Thus the issue of meaning can't be dodged by a translator. And even after all our hard work, the hunting through dictionaries and looking at what scholars have brought forth, and then finally submitting the work to someone who knows your poet's work well and is fluent in the original language—can you ever really be sure what your poet meant? I doubt it, but I think that translation is so important that the risk is worth taking.

I'll say it again: I don't know how translators who don't seem to have a poetic bone in their bodies, no matter how good their command is of the foreign language and no matter how firm a grasp of their original language they possess, can do anything but an injustice to the poets that they presume to translate. So one good test of a translator is: check Amazon or Bookfinder or Abebooks and see if the translator has published any poetry of his or her own. Read some of it and see if it's any good.

As you translate, you simultaneously sharpen your feeling for your own language. You become more skilled in what you (and your language) can do, and what you (and your language) can't. As you develop your own style as a poet, you can bring that knowledge to bear on the text that you are translating. Vice versa, the poet you translate can help you to see more deeply into your own language and the poetry that you write. The main thing that I have tried to learn is how to be concise, how to cut out all the fol-de-rol. Principle #89: Every translation offers an interpretation of the poem being translated.

After I read and worked on enough Surrealist poetry, I decided that I didn't want to be a surrealist poet. Rather than being drawn to free-associative writing and the proliferation of metaphors, I found that I was being pulled by other forces towards a colloquial language that didn't wholly depend on metaphor. After my romance with Surrealism, I wanted to leave behind a poetry of fantasy, however beautiful it was, for a poetry in which I discovered and probed the issues in my own experience. I left off being guided by Desnos and Breton and found myself pulled into the orbit of William Carlos Williams and Charles Reznikoff.

So here are my rules for translating poetry, and forgive me if I repeat myself:

1. You must be a poet and write good poetry in your native language.

2. You must learn the foreign language of your choice as well as you can, constantly trying to improve.

3. You must find out as much as you can about the poet that you are translating.

4. You must bring to bear as many critical resources as you can on the work that you are translating. With a poet like André Breton, you must be ready to do research. I will forever be grateful that when Zack Rogow and I were translating Earthlight: Poems by André Breton, Éditions Gallimard published the first volume of his complete works in their magnificent Pléiade series. The edition (like many of the Pléiades) was chock full of wonderful notes by Breton scholars that helped us enormously through knottier passages in our poet's poems. And unlike when we were working on the first edition of our translation (1993), we were abler to rely on the internet for further help.

5. Gather up all the translations you can find of the text or texts that you are translating. Compare them. See what you think you can bring or fix in your translation. Remember the poem by Nicanor Parra. It's called "Young Poets" but we could call it "Young Translators" and substitute the word "translation" for "poetry":

      Write as you will
      In whatever style you like
      Too much blood has run under the bridge
      To go on believing
      That only one road is right.

      In poetry everything is permitted.

      With only this condition, of course:
      You have to improve on the blank page.
                                    (Translated from the Spanish by Miller Williams,

                                                  from Poems and Antipoems 1967)

And if you're going to borrow whole-hog from somebody else's translation, at least have the good manners to acknowledge it.

6. If you are not strong in the original language, find a collaborator who is.

7. Once you or you and your collaborator have finished your best draft of your translation, submit it to other poets and scholars who will read it for accuracy and point out your errors. Poets who don't know the translated language, but whose work you admire, can read it for the sound of your language and for clarity.

8. Be ready to do another draft. And another. And another. A translation is never finished, only published.

I had also done a good deal of work on translations of poems by Paul Éluard, but never felt I had gotten his tone right. Nevertheless, I admired him, and found myself haunted by his work. When my friend the jazz pianist Bill Evans died, my imagination of Éluard's voice helped me to write an elegy for him. I had been friends with Bill for the last few years of his life, and his widow Nenette and manager Helen Keane had commissioned me to write a poem that would appear on the sleeve of the first recording of his to be issued posthumously, a recording that came to be called You Must Believe in Spring. When I wrote this poem my wife and I were living in her mother's apartment while construction work was being done on a loft that we had purchased in midtown Manhattan. I had none of Éluard's work with me—all of my books were packed up and in storage. I had actually never heard Éluard's poetry-reading voice, but I imagined it as clear and noble and full of radiant images. I listened to a cassette tape recording of the forthcoming LP over and over again, waiting for it to "talk" to me. Here is what it said:

      Bill Zavatsky • Elegy

                        —For Bill Evans, 1921-1980


      Music your hands are no longer here to make
      Still breaks against my ear, still shakes my heart.
      Then I feel that I am still before you.
      You bend above your shadow on the keys
      That tremble at your touch or crystallize,
      Water forced to concentrate. In meditation
      You close your eyes to see yourself more clearly.

      Now you know the source of sound,
      The element bone and muscle penetrate
      Hoping to bring back beauty.
      Hoping to catch what lies beyond our reach,
      You hunted with your fingertips.

      My life you found, and many other lives
      Which traveled through your hands upon their journey.
      Note by note we followed in your tracks, like
      Hearing the rain, eyes closed to feel more deeply.
      We stood before the mountains of your touch.
      The sunlight and the shade you carried us
      We drank, tasting our bitter lives more sweetly
      From the spring of song that never stops its kiss.


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