Poetry in Translation: Live Sparrow or Stuffed Eagle?


Brother Anthony

A paper presented at a meeting of the British/American Poetry Association, the T. S. Eliot Association / The W. B. Yeats Association of Korea
at a conference held in Hanyang University on May 25, 2019.


I think I have to begin by explaining the title of this talk. In 1859 the Englishman Edward Fitzgerald published the first edition of his Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. It was scarcely noticed at first, but then became extremely popular, so that by the 1890s, more than two million copies had been sold in two hundred editions, while by 1929 more than 300 editions had appeared, and countless more have been published since then, and continue to be available on Amazon.com today. It is probably the most widely read English translation of any work except the Bible. Wikipedia notes that “FitzGerald's translation is rhyming and metrical, and rather free. Many of the verses are paraphrased, and some of them cannot be confidently traced to his source material at all. To a large extent, the Rubaiyat can be considered original poetry by FitzGerald loosely based on Omar's quatrains rather than a ‘translation’ in the narrow sense.” FitzGerald did not pretend otherwise. In a letter to a friend written before the initial publication, he wrote: "My translation will interest you from its form, and also in many respects in its detail: very un-literal as it is. Many quatrains are mashed together: and something lost, I doubt, of Omar's simplicity, which is so much a virtue in him" (letter to E. B. Cowell, 9/3/58).  In a second letter, written soon after the first edition was published, he wrote to the same friend: "I suppose very few People have ever taken such Pains in Translation as I have: though certainly not to be literal. But at all Cost, a Thing must live: with a transfusion of one’s own worse Life if one can’t retain the Original’s better. Better a live Sparrow than a stuffed Eagle" (letter to E. B. Cowell, 4/27/59). That is the origin of my title.

             The most important phrase here, in my opinion, is “A Thing (ie a translated poem) must live.” My purpose today is to ask you to reflect on what it is that makes a poem “live,” both in its original language and in translation. A “stuffed eagle” evokes a wonderful bird, a symbol of majestic energy, soaring high, something sublime, which has been mercilessly brought low and killed by a hunter, emptied of its vital organs, filled with sawdust, and placed on a fireplace or in a glass case, a totally lifeless, immobile corpse, “decorating” some wealthy family’s dwelling or gathering dust in a museum. A “live sparrow” may be less majestic but at least it can still fly about and chirp and make love freely. It is undoubtedly “alive.” I would add an extra explanation in parentheses: A “stuffed eagle” in our context would be a translation of a work which only Koreans can admire, made with the sole concern of reproducing as exactly as possible, without omission or addition, the words and phrasing of the original, with no attempt to render it comprehensible, poetic, attractive to readers who know nothing of Korea, following the misguided notions of a former colleague of mine who recently irritated many international experts by daring to write: “Any assessment of a translation is bogus unless it has gone through a rigorous comparison of the source and the translated texts.”

             The ways in which Fitzgerald made his poem “live” are characteristic of his age, and differ totally from that colleague’s demand. He has chosen to dress it up in words, poetic forms and rhythms which for him and for many generation of British readers have seemed essentially “poetic” and which have very little or nothing to do with the Persian original. The style of the Rubaiyat is what one might term very “Victorian,” recalling Wordsworth and Tennyson among many others, and, perhaps unfortunately, many British poetry lovers have continued to think that its style is the very embodiment of what is “poetic.” Even now there are people in England who cannot understand why my translations (like a lot of modern English-language poetry) do not employ regular metre (preferably iambic pentameter), or rhyme, or traditional “poetic” diction. They complain that I have even dared to give up capitalizing the first letter of every line! To them, such dress is still required for a poem to be a poetic, “living” poem.

             Given its enduring popularity, we can hardly claim that the Rubaiyat does not “live,” although I am not sure that many younger readers in 2019 would find it very exciting, even very “poetic” or “lively.” Has it been translated into Korean, I wonder? For us literary historians, the approach found in Fitzgerald’s work is familiar from many other examples. Chaucer freely translated Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato as Troilus and Crisseyde in the 14th century, John Harrington freely translated Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso in the late 16th century, George Chapman published the freely translated Iliad and Odyssey in 1616. John Dryden freely translated the complete works of Virgil in 1697. Alexander Pope produced his free translations of Homer’s works in the 1720s. These are the most famous translations of the British past (and there were many others, of course) and what characterizes them all is their use of the stylistic conventions of their period to produce works which were felt to “live,” together with a more or less considerable disregard for the details of the original text they were transforming into English verse. The most obvious example is the way the transformation of classical texts composed in Greek or Latin into English inevitably meant (in the 17th / 18th centuries) the use of “heroic couplets,” a rigid framework of ryhming iambic pentameter couplets which in no way resemble the meter of the original works. By contrast, though with the same sense of authorized freedom, Christopher Logue composed his “translations” of parts of Homer’s Illiad by reading a close translation, closing that, and writing freely. As a reviewer (Wyatt Mason) wrote: “This is not Homer: it’s Logue’s Homer. Like all translations, it departs fundamentally from the language of the original. Unlike many translations, it arrives at a version that, because of its radical departures, gets us closer to the original than many more defensibly 'faithful' translations have ever managed . . . "

             The “Thing” that Fitzgerald insisted must “live” is what we call a “poem.” In his case, it was a translated poem and he insists that it is the translator’s responsibility to do all she can to ensure that the poem she is producing on the basis of some foreign original “lives” in its English incarnation. That has nothing to do, we should note, with any notion of verbal “faithfulness,” although certainly there is an implication that a poem would not be translated unless it is already felt to “live’ in its original language. Poems, whether original or translated, usually come to us burdened with a lot of superfluous information. We are so accustomed to teaching our students the name of the poet who first made a given poem, her dates of birth and death, her nationality and life history, even the position a given poem occupies in her personal history, whether early, mature or late, that we often forget the lesson of I. A. Richards’s Practical Criticism (1929), where poems were analyzed without any information about their authors, and the insistence of New Criticism as a whole that there is no author in any text. Nothing in this mass of biographical and historical information should play any role in our response to any given poem. But it too often does. The name of that game is usually “Pedantry” except when the poet led a particularly scandalous or exciting life, when it can be “Fun.”

Today, when there is much interest in “World Literature” and multiple publications (such as World Literature Today, Words Without Borders, Modern Poetry in Translation and many others) regularly carry translations of poems from all over the world, poems approach us waving passports and visas from many exotic places. One quite small publisher in Britain (Arc Publications) proudly announces that it has published translations from over 40 languages: Arabic Armenian Basque Bulgarian Burmese Catalan Czech Danish Dutch Estonian Finnish French Galician Georgian German Greek Hebrew Hindi Hungarian Icelandic Indonesian Irish Italian Japanese Latvian Lithuanian Macedonian Middle High German Old High German Old Norse Persian Polish Portuguese Punjabi Romanian Russian Serbian Slovak Slovene Spanish Tamil Turkish. The latest issue of the great online resource of world literature in translation, Asymptote, includes poems translated from Bulgarian Turkish Spanish Portuguese Korean Arabic and French. This is all very admirable, but what difference does even knowing the nationality of a poet make, how does it help us better come to terms with a poem “as poem” and not as the product of a historical or geo-political context? The “New Historicism” is often very interesting because we love stories, but it cannot make a poem come alive in its own right as it lies before us on the page. Modern literary theory gained the high ground because many scholars, bored by “history of literature” classes, had given up all hope of finding poems or novels that were truly alive as poems or novels. Deconstruction is destruction expanded to the extremes of boredom by despair.The fact that a given English translation is of a poem that was originally written by an elderly woman with one arm called Maria living high up in the Andes speaking and writing only the Quechua language, is interesting information but it is completely unhelpful in deciding whether the translation comes alive for me as a poem. It is just as millions of people have enjoyed the Rubáiyát for a century and a half without really knowing anything about who Omar Khayyám was, when or where he lived and died, and whether he wrote anything else beside his Quatrains. We academics love to categorize and catalogue things. Making lists and gathering “data” gives us the impression that we know something, and “information” is the name of the modern game. It also helps us find things to tell our bored students during lectures. But information about the poet is of little or no help in discovering the life of a poem.

I have stressed the word “life” so often that I expect most of you are wondering when I am going to start quoting Walter Benjamin, so let me begin. I am going to assume that you all know Benjamin’s great essay, Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers [The Task of the Translator], probably better than I do, and start straight in by reminding you that there is a problem with the many English discussions of the essay, which regularly say that Benjamin is refering to the “afterlife” of a poem. In the December 2012 edition of the review Erudit, Caroline Disler published a fascinating and very helpful article “Benjamin’s ‘Afterlife’: A Productive (?) Mistranslation.” I am going to quote from that article quite extensively in what follows. For Koreans the problem is perhaps obvious, because of course when you hear the word “afterlife” you either think “후생” or “저승,” both of them being posthumous states occurring after a person’s death, with or without reincarnation. But always after death. Disler starts by pointing out that a similar (though different) problem arises in French discussions of Benjamin, which often use the word “survie” (survival) where the English talk of “afterlife,” while in fact there is only one use by Benjamin of the German word for “survival” in the whole essay, when he writes: “the translation issues forth from the original. Though not from its life so much as from its ‘survival’ [Überleben].” So what was Benjamin talking about, if not a posthumous state or a “survival”? It is very important to note that he virtually created a new word to fit his meaning. He coined the word “fortleben” and that is the word he regularly uses in his essay which has been mistranslated as “afterlife.” In “fortleben” there is no sense of any “after” because its closest English equivalent is the term “on-going life” or “going on living.” We need not discuss here why he used such a special word when he might have used “weiterleben” but we should note Disler’s comment that “fortleben” suggests “progress (Fortschritt), separation (Fortgehen), complementarity, supplementation, futurity, and transformation.”

We might paraphrase the Bible and say “In the beginning was the Work.” Before translation can occur, the original work, the poem must exist. It will not be in any way affected by being translated and Disler points out that “Benjamin places the concept of the “connection of life” between original and translation within a time frame: “the translation is later than the original, and yet for significant works, since they never find their chosen translators at the time of their formation, [the translation] denotes the stage of [the works’] Fortleben.” This is Benjamin’s first use of the word. “In Benjamin’s thought system, literary works have a life of their own, a life with “stages.” The relationship between translation and original is a “natural one,” a “connection of life.” When a literary work is translated, this indicates that it has reached a certain stage of life, its Fortleben. This “ongoing life” of literary works is to be understood neither metaphorically nor spiritually, but purely objectively, not limited to organic life, to the concept of soul or to sentience; he never implies that the “soul of a literary work lives on.” This brings a clearer realization: “The history of great works of art realizes their descent from sources, their formation in the era of the artist, and the period of their fundamentally eternal Fortleben in the following generations. This last [aspect] is called, where it becomes apparent, fame. Translations, that are more than mediations [of information], arise when in [its] Fortleben a work has reached the era of its fame. [...] In them, the life of the original attains its ever renewed, latest and most comprehensive unfolding.

“Thus, fame is Fortleben manifest. Fortleben continues, eternally, whether or not “anyone” is ever aware of the work, whether or not the work is ever translated. There is, again, no human agency implied. On the other hand, awareness of a literary work in its Fortleben, through translation, is called “fame.” When, during its Fortleben, a work of art has come into its own, has reached its stage of fame, then translations arise that are more than mere transmissions of information. Benjamin asserts quite boldly that no translation would be possible if it aspired to similarity with the original. He justifies this by claiming that the original changes in its Fortleben, “which would not be allowed to be called that if it were not transformation and renewal of the living.”

This brings me to a vital point I want to remind you of. A translated poem is inevitably a totally different poem from the poem of which it is a translation, by reason of its different vocabulary, sounds, rhythms, word order and grammar. The difference between Korean and English is particularly great, so that a translated Korean poem is necessarily extremely unlike its ‘original.’ The translation is a completely different poem in every respect except for “what it says,” which will at least to some extent reproduce the flow of meaning of the original. But only to some extent. The idea of “accurate reproduction” is complete nonsense. The essay of Benjamin goes on to remind us that “Fortleben implies constant, dynamic change of the original. Weiterleben and Nachleben are static continuations of what was. Through the concept of the Fortleben of the original, Benjamin has dissociated translation from the original. He has taken the primacy of resemblance, of similarity out of translating. . . . . the chronological precedence of the original no longer presupposes superior status over its translation. Translation has been emancipated from the chains of the original.” We can even say that a translation is superior to its original since it has continued to build, using that as a foundation. A building grows on its foundation, is not fully defined by it. “Fortleben implies independent and elevated creative status for translators.” So when you see a book with, on the cover or hidden inside, the words “Poems by XXX Translated by YYY” you should always remember that “translated by” can be paraphrased as meaning “transformed and improved by.” In Benjamin’s view, the more significant name in the on-going life of a poem is that of the translator, not that of the original author. Please remember that and recognize the significance of us who translate. We are never “mere translators,” unless of course we have surrendered our responsibility and given priority to “faithful transmission of information” instead of the “ongoing transmission of life.”

As a translator of poetry, at this point I am challenged. It is relatively easy for me to find approximations in English which will say more or less convincingly something similar to the Korean original. I view that as my duty and responsibility to the text I translate and its author. I rather distrust translators who claim the right to produce “creative translations” on the grounds that they are themselves poets, and therefore are qualified to take the translation away from its original. Disler helps me here: “Traditional translation theory requires that the translator be invisible, that the translation be totally transparent. Norman Shapiro exemplifies this attitude: “I see translation as the attempt to produce a text so transparent that it does not seem to be translated. A good translation is like a pane of glass. You only notice that it’s there when there are little imperfections—scratches, bubbles. Ideally, there shouldn’t be any. It should never call attention to itself” (Venuti, 1995, p. 1). At first glance, Benjamin might seem to express a similar sentiment: “True translation is translucent, it doesn’t cover up the original, it doesn’t stand in its light, but rather it allows the pure language, as strengthened through its own medium, to fall all the more fully on the original.” Translation, however, Disler explains, is no longer to be considered a passive textual transposition that merely allows clear vision of the original. It is an active, dynamic process that deals directly with the relationship of languages to each other, supplementing, strengthening pure language. The liberation of this pure language is the ultimate task of the translator.”

At this point Benjamin goes in a direction that is rather hard to follow, being visionary: “Benjamin’s concept of messianism refers to a time when languages, through the activity of translation, shall have complemented and completed each other and evolved into pure language. He explicitly confirms translation’s vital role in this messianic fulfillment of languages: ‘But if [languages] grow like this until the messianic end of their history, then it is translation that catches fire on the eternal Fortleben of works and on the endless revival of languages, in order to test repeatedly that sacred growth of languages: [to determine] how far what is hidden within them is distanced from revelation, how present it may become with the knowledge of this distance’.”


Enough of Benjamin and theory. Returning to poetry, I would like to invite you to reflect on the content of your teaching and research. Today we are gathered in celebration, especially, of T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats and they have now been subsumed into the more general category of British and American Poetry, though it would be better still if the name of the association were expanded to “British, Irish, Australasian, Canadian and American poetry” or, better still, simply “Poetries in English.” I assume that many of you have thought about, studied, and taught, Longfellow, Auden, Frost, Geoffrey Hill, Langston Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson and a very large number of other famous British and American poets. Alas, they are all dead. Of course, as we have just seen thanks to Walter Benjamin, that means nothing at all, since there is no link between author and work, once the last proofs of the final edition have been corrected by the author, at least.

It is in the nature of poets to die, even famous ones. Shakespeare died when he was only 52, and he, in adddition to being really dead, is the prime example of what Benjamin means by a work’s ongoing life, its Fortleben. The plays Shakespeare had written went on being acted by the King’s Men after the funeral as before it, then were produced in a new style in the new theatres that opened at the Restoration in London, survived being rewritten by Dryden and others, blossomed with 18th-century Bardolatry, grew international with the European Romantics’ discovery of “natural genius Shakespeare,” became even more popular when live rabbits were added to the forest in performances of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream in Victorian times, and more recently have given rise to some really good movies, to say nothing of all the more or less controversial theatrical productions that continue across the globe in many languages. The works of Shakespeare have a remarkable Fortleben indeed!

Now none of that owes anything to the academic study and teaching of Shakepeare in required or optional courses in universities. I venerate the memory of a professor at SNU in decades past, a true Shakespeare scholar, whose main interest was the way commas were used in the early folio and quarto editions of Shakespeare’s works. Hardly an exciting manifestation of life! And what about poetry? The study of “literature” in universities has a long history, certainly, if by “literature” we mean Homer, Virgil and the other Greek and Latin classics. The introduction of more modern literatures into the university curriculum had to wait for the scientific age to begin, when German universities felt obliged to invent the “science” of “Philologie” in order to be modern and scientific, and to allow scholars of literature to apply scientific “philological” methods to texts written in more modern times. This discipline had very little, or nothing, to do with the Fortleben of literary works as such. The main activities in those first Modern Languages Departments were the scholarly editing of medieval texts, using multiple manuscripts to produce a more “authentic” text by “textual criticism,” as had previously been done for the Classics. Detailed studies of obscure words and linguistic features, producing learned footnotes and commentaries was also acceptable.

To make a long story short, when I was studying in Oxford in the 1960s, the curriculum of the School of English still did not include anything written after 1900, because Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and suchlike “contemporary” writers were not considered fit subjects for serious study, and there was a grave risk that students might read them for pleasure. That has changed, certainly, but I am still not sure that the university is the place where we should hope to find people engaged creatively with living poetry as such. Because at any university the main activity is what is known as “study and teaching.” Professional academics produce books of sometimes profound erudition; they give amazingly detailed lectures; students produce papers and dissertations with countless references to previous research. But it hardly seems possible for poetry to come alive in a university except as an extracurricular, spare-time activity, like drinking. “Creative Writing” courses and departments have proliferated, although they are still a controversial novelty. The main problem is that truly creative writing is surely not something that can easily be produced to order, submitted as an assignment, discussed and analyzed in class discussions, and (oh horror!) graded. Who will establish the basis for fair grading of submitted work when the most important quality of creative writing is that it be new, different, challenging of authority and unconventional? But above all, young people who are beginning to write their own literary works, poems or fiction, cannot do so on the basis of ready-made recipes or stereotyped conventions. The most important input a young person needs if they wish to become a writer is obtained by reading what others have written and (most important) are writing now, reading freely, according to one’s own preferences, whims, and even chance. And above all, reading in such a way that what is read comes alive and feeds the inner poet who is still only just beginning to awaken within them.

“A poet is born, not made,” they say. But if you hope that among your students one or two might become “fit readers” and even creative writers, you will have to ensure that they are exposed above all to what is being written and published NOW, at this present moment, across the world. Nothing is more important, for people “studying” literature. The other necessity is familiarity with the literary giants of the past, whether the ancient classics, medieval and renaissance French and Italian lyrics, the Russian novelists, the noted poets and novelists of the 20th century, everything. But there is a special challenge confronting you here in Korea. Young British writers have normally been exposed from youth, if they are lucky at least, to the entire Western Canon, whether originally written in English or translated from French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Latin and Greek etc. In Korea there is no obvious corresponding centuries-old Canon. Until the 1890s, the Canon in Korea consisted of the Chinese Confucian Classics, with generation after generation taking them as their models for writing. Certainly I know of very few Korean works from earlier centuries that might inspire and enthuse a young Korean writer today. One of your most important tasks, still, then, is to translate the world’s canons (not only the western canon) into Korean in such a way that Korean readers of all ages can find meaning and inspiration in them. The production of excellent translations should be your main priority.

You will tell me that you are prevented from doing so by the regulations of your university, which refuses to give any credit for translation. That is an ignorance you must fight! There is no other way. For a teacher of literature, translation is the best possible way of communicating one’s knowledge and love of the literature you teach. Translations that are to move and inspire must be done by experts who are free to produce “creative” translations without fear of nitpicking over every detail. What is required are texts that, far from being compulsively “literal,” breathe and live in modern ways. Korean is unlike any language except perhaps Japanese. So if you are to produce living translations in Korean, you will also need to be reading works by today’s best Korean writers who are, we must hope, engaged in developing the Korean language in new and exciting ways. You must find out who they are, encourage them, dialogue with them. How else will Korea’s literary culture grow and develop?

On the other side, if you are teaching British and American poetry and fiction, I have to stress the importance of focussing almost entirely in your teaching on introducing students to writers who are living and writing NOW. Your students do not need Elliot or Yeats or Pound, Larkin or Auden, let alone Wordsworth or Pope; but they should certainly be engaging with works written in today’s world, the global village of the 21st century, where young people everywhere are confronted with the same, enormous challenges. Established living writers are easy to identify, and deserve full attention, but also your students should be looking out for and encouraged to read poetry and fiction written by beginners, people barely older than themselves, both Korean and not Korean. But how will a Korean student who reads no contemporary Korean poetry be able to respond well to the poetry written today in Vietnam or Namibia, Pakistan or Cuba? How will a Korean poet who reads no (good) translations of poetry written today in Vietnam or Namibia, Pakistan or Cuba be able to write convincing Korean poetry for NOW? In recent years, I have seen a number of “world-famous” poets and writers brought to Korea: Jane Hirshfield, Marilyn Robinson, Benjamin Zephaniah, Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Sinead Morrisey, Christopher Merrill, Michel Deguy, Gary Snyder, Andrew Motion, Barry Hill . . . . I wonder how many of you here today recognized all those names, heard and met them when they came? There are so many other poets I would love to welcome here but my previous experience warns me. How many of you have read and translated or written about works by any of them? Why was it that when Korean poets were invited to meet those foreign writers, the Koreans did not know who they were or what they should say to them, they had never heard of them or read their work. Dialogue was impossible.

Perhaps the West is too far away for Korea? Certainly, the world of contemporary British writing is known to very few of you, I am sure. Can I ask how many of you have read poems by the current English Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy or her succerssor Simon Armitage? By her Scottish counterpart, Jackie Kay? Who is the current American Poet Laureate? Tracy K. Smith is her name. Of course, the world is over-full of good poets, we can’t read them all. Last November I was at the Asian Literature Festival in Gwangju, to which celebrated writers were invited from Mongolia, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Palestine, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Okinawa. One evening there was a public event where each writer was paired with a Korean writer to give joint readings. It was open to the general public but it was poorly attended. Few people seemed to be very interested in discovering world literature. So sad!