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A conversation with translator Kurt Heinzelman

Is it possible for the original text to be reborn through the translator?

These are playfully phrased questions that raise, as of course you know, difficult and important issues. I hope I can respond to them with a corresponding sense of play, even as I try to define what is complicated about their implications and how they personally affect me.

To the first question, then. So much depends on what is meant by “reborn.” In one sense the obvious answer is “Yes, translation is always rebirthing the original.” It is why certain works get translated over and over again. How many English-ings of Dante’s Inferno have we had in just the past few decades? Or of The Iliad—the most recent by the incomparable Classics scholar Peter Green after I thought Stanley Lombardo had made a wonderfully colloquial and musical version. The American Poetry Review alone has offered so many versions of Neruda, especially “Macchu Picchu,” I’ve lost count.

“Reborn,” though, also suggests that a work has somehow died. When construed in this way, the question invites this kind of response from contemporary poets: “It should surely, by now, be axiomatic that poetry cannot be translated in a way that will preserve anything of the flavor of the original.” Well, it surely is not axiomatic, and the best theoretical refutation of this slightly daft statement is Poetry and Translation: The Art of the Impossible by Peter Robinson, which should be required reading for anyone who practices or writes about translation. What’s important, though, is what follows from the premise quoted above—namely, that the only remedy for the failure of translation is to write “versions” of the original—not translations, not even imitations, but something “between” them, whatever that may be.

(The person I have cited above is Don Paterson as he tries to justify his own versions of Antonio Machado, The Eyes. Paterson goes on to say that his “versions” have occasionally appropriated without credit some lines from a non-poetic translation by the scholar Alan Trueblood “because they seemed pretty much unimprovable.” Doesn’t this tend to contradict his own operating premise? I suppose Paterson would counter that Trueblood only gets a few lines right, not the whole poem. But still.)

Paterson is correct, though, if he is implying that translations breed more translations and if that is what “reborn” can mean. Translations “breed” in this way, however, not because they are false but precisely because they do catch some of the flavor or the original: subsequent translators strive to catch some more.

In submitting “To Rimbaud” to us, you remarked that you “have never found a translation [of this poem] that is idiomatic in English but still ‘gets’ Verlaine’s musical and complicated tone.” Can you play French music on an English instrument?


To the second question and again to quote Paterson: “a poem can no more be translated than a piece of music.” What does this mean, exactly? Any piece of music that is scored is translated every time it is performed. Performance is translation. We could say the same about the text of any poem when it is voiced aloud. Perhaps Paterson means that a piece scored for harpsichord cannot be adequately voiced on a piano. He is right about this . . . in a sort of pedantic way. I suppose he would call a transcription of cello music to guitar a “version” rather than a “translation.” What would one call, then, the cellist or guitarist, neither of whom are the originator of the music they play?

The composer Charles Wilfred Orr observed that the kind of verse easiest to set to music must be 1) beautiful, 2) scanned, 3) rhymed, and d) make sense. This certainly applies to Verlaine (and Heine and Housman), whose verse has been often given musical settings. This particular poem, “To Rimbaud,” has been set by Claude Debussy and many others (see Green, a CD collection of Verlaine poems set to music, sung by Philippe Jaroussky); it is also an interesting challenge to a poetic translator because it is a rare example where French is more succinct than English.  That is, it takes more English words to translate even the sense of the French and that is even ignoring the word-play that confronts one immediately in, say, “pleure” and “pleut.”

There is actually a truly wonderful, almost miraculous translation of this poem by Louis Simpson (see his Modern Poets of France, 1997) in which he is not only entirely accurate as to semantics but he gets the end-rhymes, often merely repetitions of the same word but used in a slightly different sense (called in French rimes riches), in the same places in the stanza where they occur in Verlaine. It is masterful. Incredibly difficult to attain. My only quarrel with Simpson is that the staccato sentences in English, accurately tracking the staccato sentences in the French, sound slightly stilted and a tad archaic, whereas the French idiom is more choked up (as with emotion) than stilted, colloquial rather than old-fashioned.

Here is the penultimate stanza according to Simpson: “I am sad for no reason / And sickened at heart. / Why? What have I done? / This grief has no reason.” Simpson brilliantly gets the repeated word “reason” in the same place where it occupies in French, although his last line is not really idiomatic, is it? Can one imagine an English speaker actually saying that line. And the second line, “sickened at heart,” while idiomatic enough, misses the excruciating word-play of “ce coeur qui s’écoeure.”

It is true we can’t do everything in translation but, contra Paterson, we can do some things. Donald Revell (see his Songs Without Words, 2013) tries to render the abruptness of the French, here in that same penultimate stanza: “Useless tears, / Heartsick still. / Fantastic betrayals / Today like rain.” This may be a good example of making an English horn sound like a French horn. Although I have no idea where the word “fantastic” came from or how it works in the same verbal register as “heartsick,” I understand and admire what Revell is trying to do by choosing a concise diction that energizes the lamentation. Simpson’s simple line “Why? What have I done?” is plain yet emotional. And that is more like the tonal flavor of Verlaine who is not fragmented or jerky the way Revell’s English is.

I am pretty sure that all of our translated versions of this Verlaine poem would fail to satisfy the four criteria composer Orr calls for, if a poem is to be set to music. And maybe, in deference to Paterson, one should admit, “How many translations have ever been set to music?” I can’t think of any, off-hand.