Translating Zbigniew Herbert's poems from the original Polish is not for the faint-hearted. I mentioned in a previous article here that there had been controversy over Alissa Valles’s translation of Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems. I'd advise taking a deep breath before reading this post...
It began with Michael Hofmann’s review of the book in Poetry magazine. Hofmann, although he admits to knowing no Polish, is an accomplished and admired translator and poet. He asks why John and Bogdana Carpenter’s translations (they have translated much of Herbert’s output up until now, but the books are out of print) were not used in the new Collected, and then compares their translations to Valles’s in several poems. In each case, he feels Valles does a poor job. His criticism is that the poems read – in English – as inferior to the Carpenters’ versions. He pulls no punches:
“Alissa Valles's Herbert is slack, chattersome, hysterical, full of exaggeration, complacency, and reaching for effect. The original (I'm quite sure) is none of those things. This Collected Poems is a hopelessly, irredeemably bad book. The only solution to its problems would be a bulk reinstatement of the old translations.”
The reaction in Poetry’s letters page in the following issue took up the issues raised in Hofmann’s review. They published a good balance of opinion, I think. Some letters (on both sides) were more to the point than others, and one offered a moment of unintentional humour:
“I know Michael Hofmann about as well as he knows Polish, which is to say, in translation.”
Hofmann, of course, writes poetry in English (unless the letter-writer means that he has read Hofmann's translations of other writers)!
The balance of opinions exhibited in Poetry's letters' page was complemented by Don Share’s blog post at the Poetry Foundation. He tries to get to the root of things, raising questions wider than those congregating around Valles’s translations and Hofmann’s review:
“What constitutes competence in translators... and in reviewers of their work? Do great poets deserve many translators - or, as Hofmann said, not. In what sense is a translated poem the same poem as the original?”
These are huge questions and people have been arguing over the answers since translation began. A translated poem surely sets out to render the poem as effectively in the new language as in the original, but quite how that comes about has been a source of endless argument.
In addition, David Orr assessed the debate in the New York Times in an even-handed way. His conclusion was that, while Hofmann may have overstated his case, nonetheless there are deficiencies with the Valles book (although he also asks how there couldn’t be deficiencies in a work of translation). Orr writes:
“Herbert is now a complete poet in English, and he’s not as strong as he should be.”
The involvement of Adam Zagajewski in writing the introduction raises further questions. Zagajewski was born in Lvov, the same city as Herbert, but some twenty years later, and Herbert was a fundamental influence on his own development as a poet. It's surely unlikely that Zagajewski, who can also lay claim to being one of Poland’s great 20th century poets, would have lent his name to a book that was unworthy of his own mentor. That’s even if Valles did have the professional connection to him that’s claimed by some of the Amazon reviews.
The Amazon USA page offers comments of varying levels of insight, and includes one by well known poet, Stephen Dobyns, who writes:
“Believe me, I have been reading and teaching Herbert since the early 1970's and Alissa Valles' translations are a travesty.”
However, some reviewers there argue that the translations are, for the most part, very good. Valles's Collected Poems is also the only in-print, comprehensive Herbert that exists and anyone wanting such a book either buys it or does without entirely. If you’ve been dedicated enough to negotiate this labyrinth of opinion so far, you’ll realise that the only solution is to read the Valles, pick up the Carpenters’ books from the library or second-hand, and compare and contrast.
Alissa Valles has responded to the controversy in a fashion. She hasn’t quarrelled with any particular reviewer, which seems like the correct approach to me. Her article is well written and cool-headed, but the point she makes on the controversy is clear. The acerbic nature of this paragraph isn’t quite hidden by the measured quality of the writing:
“It isn’t possible to render a poet anew without disturbing many readers’ relation to that poet; I expected my own translations of Herbert, a poet much adored, to be controversial, and they have not disappointed me. Translations are the fruit of interpretation and part of a larger, complex process of bringing a foreign poet into view. I set no store by the notion of a definitive translation; like the term “spiritual leader,” as Herbert is unfortunately called on the dust jacket of his Collected Poems, it reeks of church authorization or a sales pitch. A truly great text—whether a Bible verse or a Paul Celan poem—has no final translation. It will go on inviting new attempts by arrogant young poets who want to measure themselves against the greats. At best, translators engage in the ongoing unfolding of a text, seeing their occupation, as the great philosophers of translation have, as a branch of applied metaphysics. At worst they are like old prostitutes arguing about who gave Napoleon his best night. The insights one may gain from these squabbles may be thrilling, but they are rather narrow if not informed by broader knowledge.”
Anyway, the Valles is now in my Amazon shopping trolley and I’m looking forward to reading it, although I will be keeping half an eye on the Carpenters’ two Selecteds as I do so.