Interview With Sam Hamill on Translating Poetry

Once a month I meet with a group of other poets at a local restaurant to talk about poetry and to workshop some poems. At a recent meeting we were looking over translations of Japanese poems by Sam Hamill, and we began discussing the subject of translations and the challenges they create for the translator and the reader.

To help answer a few of the questions, I decided to go to the source himself.

Hamill has published at least 14 volumes of his own poetry and about two dozen collections of translations from Chinese, Japanese, ancient Greek and Latin and more. He co-founded Copper Canyon Press and created Poets Against War.

How important is it that the translating poet be fluent in the language? Many people doing translations today work with someone who is fluent to get a literal translation, then the poet-translator steps in to take over.

There is no exact equation for great translation. Pound knew no Chinese and his source, Ernest Fenollosa, knew none, and Fenollosa’s sources, two Japanese art professors knew Li Po’s poetry only in Japanese, hence Pound “translating”  Rihaku—Li Po’s name in Japanese. Against all odds, we got 14 amazing poems, including one that is actually two poems combined. Pound’s “errors” have been noted time & again by his critics as well as by Chinese literary scholars. And yet the poems are among the most influential of the last century.

Stephen Mitchell’s “translation” of Tao Te Ching, on the other hand, is fabrication. His version was apparently “transmitted” by his Korean Zen master. In one chapter, 55, I think, there’s not a single word from the Chinese. This tome has misinformed a hundred thousand readers. Both Red Pine (Bill Porter) and I have translated Tao Te Ching in very literal ways, and comparative readings reveal a lot.

Robert Hass’s famous “translation” of a haiku by Issa bears only faint resemblance to the original, which I translate literally:

New Year greeting-time:

I feel about average

welcoming my spring.

Medetasa mo

chugurai  nari

ora ga haru

“Medatasa is a seasonal greeting, not New Year Day as Hass has it. Then Hass simply invents a line two: “Everything is in blossom!” which is not what line 2 says; “I feel about ‘chugurai’ middle or average,” which Hass turns into a punch line” “I feel about average.” Gets a nice audience response, but Issa didn’t write about blossoms in Feb in Japan. The poem asks for meditation, not a punch line.

My Chinese and Japanese is not good. But I enjoy immersing myself one word at a time, one line at a time, getting deep inside the poem and “finding” the poetry. I get help from scholar-friends and I wear out dictionaries. Bill Porter is a far better scholar, but less of a poet. I have learned a ton from him, as from translators like Burt Watson, J.P. Seaton, Rexroth, Edmund Keeley’s Seferis and Elytis, etc.

It’s always best to have a scholarly annotated translation along with one that focuses on the poetry— a “poet’s translation” —when dealing with complicated poets like Dante or Pindar.

The Poetry of ZenPrecise word choice in poetry can make or break a poem. In the writing group I moderate, we may spend 20 minutes discussing the use of one word. When reading translated poetry, I worry that the translator may not have the same word sense as the original author or that the English word may have connotations or associations not present in the original word (or phrase). How big of a problem do you believe that is?

Some words don’t translate. Some images don’t translate. Chinese syntax doesn’t follow English grammar. When the classical Chinese poet speaks of “clouds and rain,” it may be a reference to sex as well as to the weather: Clouds are masculine, rain feminine.

Translation is a provisional conclusion, that’s why the same classics need to be retranslated periodically. Translators develop their voices, just as emerging poets do, or prose writers for that matter. Scholarship can’t make up for a weak ear or failure of imagination. “Poetic licenses” come with major restrictions if one is respectful of the original

Is the translator’s responsibility to be true to the original author or to produce a good poem? I’m guessing it’s a little bit of both, but where’s the scale for you?

You can’t be “true” to a poet while turning his/her work into bad poetry. All one need do is look at what happens when formalists try to translate Chinese (which, by the way, employs both interior and end-rhyme). Chinese is a rhyme-rich language. American English is not.  Add the fact of needing to add particles, prepositions, conjunctions, decide gender when it’s indeterminate, etc. changes the poem in various ways. Chinese is also very good at plurisignation—one word may convey two or three distinct meanings all at once, and the translator must choose one.

You’ve translated poems from several languages, several different cultures and traditions sometimes separated from yourself by hundreds or thousands of years. How do you deal with the possibility of lost intention in the poem in those situations?

No one knows exact “intentions” in ancient poetry. We surmise. I have passed over a lot of poems just because they don’t make good poems in American English. For instance, Li Po wrote many occasional poems, many poems with bizarre flights of fancy that just don’t translate. We don’t know how much of Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu actually wrote, but we know that much of it existed in various forms, so he was more editor-translator than author.  Intentions?

I translated Catullus simply because the scholars were too timid to recreate his invective. Catullus invented a word, defutate, which one scholar translated “sexual exhaustion.” But a truer translation would be more raw: “fucked-out.” He was an uproarious defiant poet, and we know he, like Dante, bore grudges and used poetry to mock and/or condemn his enemies. He also translated Sappho, including her “mixo-Lydian Mode” into Latin, where it became the foundation of the “heavenly music” of the Catholic church.

How similar do you think is the experience of a contemporary reader reading, for example, Sappho or Saigyo, to the experience of a contemporary of those poets? Do you hope to recreate that experience or a new one?

Can’t possibly be done. We’d have to recreate a 7th century Taoist-Confucian-Buddhist dynastic mind-set that is completely alien to a 21st century sensibility to grasp Tu Fu or Li Po. We see our world through a lens of science and philosophy, history, and a richly embroidered historical imagination, and all of this colors the way we read various classics, from the Bible to the Lotus Sutra. Ancient Greek poets were usually accompanied by musicians, and anyone who’s heard ancient Greek music knows how mysterious it sounds to us, but to them, it was entirely “normal” music. Like Rexroth reading to jazz.

How could anyone try to actually live like Saigyo? I built a house in the woods and lived there without running water or electricity, studying Saigyo and Tu Fu et alia by kerosene lantern. But that’s not 13th century Japan. I drove into Town to work at my press, I drove to the grocery stores. The poem itself is an authentic experience.The Infinite Moment

On the process of translating poetry vs. writing your own-how are the experiences and pleasures different?

Translation requires (unless one is Stephen Mitchell) putting aside the ego and devoting one’s attention and practice to a master.

Writing original poetry, one is informed and inspired by masters, but not sitting at their feet… more like standing on their shoulders. Although my friend Sandy Seaton points out that we all, as translators, stand on the shoulders of fellow translators.

Last Questions: Can you please tell me your top five favorite poems (by other people)? If you want to share what you like about those poems, that’d be great too.

I will regret this. In fifteens minutes, it could be an entirely different list, but here’s five translations:

An Old Man on the Riverbank by George Seferis, translated by Edmund Keeley & Phillip Sherrard  This poem was written while Seferis was in exile in Egypt during the German occupation of Greece. It’s a sustaining vision.

The Heights of Macchu Picchu by Pablo Neruda, translated by Nathaniel Tarn —What could I possibly say about this?

Things I Didn’t Know I Loved by Nazim Hikmet translated by Randy Blasing & Mutlu Konuk— When the Commie Hikmet was captured by the Turkish regime and thrown into a ship’s bilge, he rose up and began singing poetry…

The Little Mariner by Odysseus Elytis, an epic poem translated by Olga Broumas— What an extraordinary poet and man: “Man is drawn to God / like a shark to blood.”

Sappho translated by Mary Barnard— So clear, so truly felt and truly spoken.

Mahmoud Darwish certainly belongs here, but which poem? Rilke’s Elegies, too, but not S. Mitchell’s translatio—maybe Galway Kinnell & Hannah Liebman

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The Sound of Water

Words and Video: Miranda Field and Jack Gilbert

A Facebook acquaintance, Rebecca Kinzie Bastian, posted this link to a video of a reading by Miranda Field and Jack Gilbert at the Library of Congress website.

A couple things to know first:

  • It uses Realplayer, so you may have to download the plugin to view it. If you click the image, you’ll be taken to the Library of Congress page with the video.
  • Jack Gilbert is quite old in this video. It may be the last public reading he’s done (this was 2006, so someone correct me if I’m wrong). He faulters, stutters and almost gives up several times. It can be painful to watch because the process was obviously a chore for him, but his delivery is still beautiful and chilling.
  • Miranda Field–I hadn’t heard of her before, but immediately ordered her book Swallow. Her reading was amazing, especially the poems “Housefire,” which can also be found here and “Soloist.” Below is an excerpt from “Soloist”

I love the idea of a voice crawling like a vine, spilling like milk–beautiful. I’ve used a spilt-milk image myself (to describe moonlight), but this is much better.

If you’re as taken with that as I am, you can find her book here.

Review: Big Silences in a Year of Rain by Doris Ferleger

The poems in Doris Ferleger’s first collection, Big Silences in a Year of Rain bear a level of seriousness, responsibility and impact—and a heavy dose of insight. They dwell on memories and moments, usually painful ones, with both an astuteness and humanity that will prove rewarding to the reader. Professionally, Ferleger is a psychologist, so it’s probably no coincidence that many of the poems in this collection deal with suffering, loss, anticipation of loss and the methods of coping with all of the above.

Many of the poems, particularly those in the first section, deal directly or indirectly with the poet’s heritage as the child of Holocaust survivors.

In “Victory” she writes:

My father considered

himself a success

when he found his children

still breathing. Each night

another victory over Hitler.

I learned early

to pretend I was sleeping,

to not be a burden.

In this collection we find a mix of narratives and lyrics, family histories, odes and elegies. She’s a deeply engaging writer, both of the world and people around her and of the perceived reader. While many contemporary poets seem to hold the reader almost in contempt, as if the act of communicating is a sort-of afterthought to the poem, Ferleger’s poems are meant to be affective. That’s something I like in Jack Gilbert, in Mark Strand and Betsy Sholl; and it’s something I especially like here.

Ferleger is not afraid of opening up, of revealing more about her life in a short poem than many people will reveal to friends they’ve known for years. That doesn’t make these confessional poems, truth for shock appeal. No, in these pages the poet’s spiraling toward truths comes across as a way of life, or, more likely, a way of dealing with life.

From “To Try Again”

Almost unbearable, this body,

unbearable the weight of this

snow cover

thick as a lover’s absence

on a spring day

when you have lost

the one you have slept

and eaten with longer

than three childhoods,

There are many times the reader feels invited into a family conversation, but these are heavier conversations than most families probably have at the dinner table. These are the moments that seem at once oppressive and also extraordinarily generous.

From “Scared”

Last night our son spoke to me

in a bristly tone but it didn’t

scrape me down this time. I just

said whoa, like that, a big whoa

came out of me in one short punching

breath. He stopped, even nodded.

My mouth felt like it could

blow away rock coral.

This poet is knows how to charge her language with emotion, but not sentimentality. Her imagery can be spiritual and concrete and compassionate, and clearly lived. This is not the book of a passive observer, and she chooses her words carefully to communicate that intensity. In “Oh Sages” Ferleger describes a scene in which a woman falls, dying, into the poet’s arms:

as she fell into my arms,

and she let go the last

particles of her supper,

leaving me there

to hold her bones, fat, flesh

the soul always leaves

to the care of failures?

Reading List: Stanley Plumly

I’ve had Plumly’s “Boy on the Step” on my bookshelf since about 1990, but it had been years since I gave it much consideration. My own interests and aesthetic tendency’s have changed a lot since then, so I’ve been recently going back to books I’d abandoned long ago. This book has been one of the more rewarding re-discoveries for me.

Consider this last few lines from Fountain Park:

”                                          all kinds of things

pass witness and are true about this last

light of day coming onto winter,

the trees almost transparent in the dark,

the high grass green as lawns in the hereafter.”

And here’s a more recent one published in the New Yorker last summer:


by Stanley Plumly July 12, 2010

Mine, I know, started at a distance

five hundred and twenty light-years away

and fell as stardust into my sleeping mouth,

Continue the poem here

And here’s a video of Plumly reading Infidelity, one of the most startling poems in the book.

Now that I’ve gone back to this book, I’ll have to check out his newer works.