What do you think about poetry in translation?

My father (a would-be poet, himself – though our styles and tastes are radically different) went for a time without reading any poetry in translation. His theory was that he didn’t have enough time to read all the good poetry that was originally written in English, so why waste his poetry-reading time on pale imitations of the original language. He applied this to prose translations, as well, but considered the principle especially pertinent to poetry.

He has not kept to that theory, but I understand the principle.

I was reading a collection by the Algerian poets, Abdellatif Laâbi.  It was a collection entitled The World’s Embrace, published by City Lights (yes – the City Lights). The edition presented the French and English in side by side format. My French is notably poor, but I recognized a line in the French as clearly referencing a line by Baudelaire. But the English translation showed no correspondence with Baudelaire.

Now, I greatly love the poems in The World’s Embrace, but I also don’t understand French well enough to read it in the original.

How much am I missing? Would I better off spending my poetry-reading time with books written in English, so that I am sure that I am getting the most out of my time?

2 thoughts on “What Do you Think About Poetry In Translation?

  1. You shouldn’t ignore translations. Marlowe’s translations of Ovid’s Amores are as good a bit of Elizabethan literature as anything else of the period, so they are definitely worth reading. I’ve translated a few of Horace’s Ode’s, and the principal I follow is that a good translation needs to be a good English poem first. So there’s really no such dichotomy between original poetry and translation – you can find great poems in both.

  2. I agree – I do still read translations myself – but translations by classic writers like Marlowe or Pope are a different matter and I don’t think were ever in doubt. Not in the least because you read a Christopher Marlowe translation in order to read Marlowe, really.

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