The Translation Crisis in American Poetry

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Recollections of the AWP in Seattle: The Translation Crisis

I spent most of my time at my first AWP convention (in late February) at the book fair, where I had several conversations with small press book editors and publishers that focused on the issue of translation. At the Copper Canyon booth, for instance, I picked up a copy of a large volume of Norman Dubie’s poetry. “Has he had a stand-alone volume of poetry published in translation in another country?” I asked his publisher. “Not that I know of. That would be a rarity.”

That seemed to be the general sentiment. The folks at Tupelo Press, which has published a gross of titles, said that they were not aware of any author who had a book published in another country. I asked them to nominate someone who would be worthy of the honor. The editor suggested that Jeffrey Harrison deserved serious consideration. I bought a copy of Mr. Harrison’s latest book, which showed every symptom of being poetry likely to be found in the New Yorker. I can’t say that I would recommend it to the editors of Words without Borders, which according to its website has published writing from over a hundred languages. If this is the best that Tupelo Press can come up with as work that would justify the effort required to translate poetry, then the editors need to start reading beyond the fashion show of current canonical assemblies of American poetry.

The basic question is: Why is so little poetry written in the United States translated into other languages? Or at least, why is so little poetry endorsed by the National Endowment for the Arts translated into other languages? At this point, Copper Canyon has received over a hundred thousand dollars from the NEA. It defies literary credibility to believe that that not a single poet they’ve published who was born after 1940 has had a book of their poems published in another language. And yet that appears to be the case. I’m afraid that the editor of Copper Canyon had not a clue that this was something to be aspired to, and that a decision about whether to publish a writer should be based, at least in part, on whether someone in another language would find the poems worth translating. Instead, the provincial taste of monolingual cunning and homogenous exile within the academy seem to marginalize the visibility deserved by writers whose work is worthy of being translated. Two Los Angeles poets whose writing stands out in that regard are Anthony Seidman and Cecilia Woloch, both of whom merit much more attention for work that meets the ultimate challenge of a poem’s transmissible placement. Translation is a displacement, in which the connotations of the elusively literal (in being closely listened to) become the denotations of tantalizing metaphors, nestled in the sway and tug of replication.