The Intoxication of Translation:
Jerome Rothenberg’s Writing Through

by David Keeling

    “From as far back as I can remember, I was under ‘the spell of poetry,’ as Laura Riding put it, but unlike her I never really thought to ‘break the spell.’ My project, rather, was to join with others in an attempt to open and enlarge the field of poetry, by tactics of our own devising or by an exploration of actual poetic worlds, wherever and whenever found.”

I’ll admit I hesitated before opening up Jerome Rothenberg’s most recent book, Writing Through: Translations and Variations (Wesleyan University Press, 2004). Rothenberg, after all, is well known for his interest in poetry’s fringes, and while his efforts to bring the marginalized into the center of the page are certainly noble, the neglected, potent work he favors is best taken like a good drink—sipped slowly, in small amounts. I wasn’t sure I could make it through an entire bottle by myself.

Happily, Writing Through lends itself to just this type of modulated inebriation. Spanning a breathtaking range of styles, movements and cultures (including, among others, Native American songs, Dadaist texts and Jewish gematria), Writing Through comes together like one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes; a careful assemblage of the forgotten that, accumulated, develops a kind of arcane, eclectic resonance.

Rothenberg has structured Writing Through in three parts: “Translating the New,” “Translating the Old” and “Otherings and Variations.” Each of these sections features a selection of translations (or “variations”) that Rothenberg has created over the past 40 years. Each sampling, in turn, is prefaced by a short introduction in which he discusses context and provides a theoretical framework for the work at hand. Throughout, Rothenberg’s affection for the poems is self-evident, and nowhere more so than in these introductions, which give the reader a glimpse into his life and sensibilities.

The interaction of each section and their constituent styles and poets builds energy and creates interesting tensions and contrasts; Rothenberg’s translations of the relatively straightforward Neruda and Huidobro, for example, find themselves sandwiched between the more outwardly unconventional poems of “Four Dada Poets: Tzara, Arp, Huelsenbeck and Picabia” and “From Kurt Schwitters’ PPPPPP.” Such juxtapositions, while common in this eclectic collection, are less jarring than they might initially seem; to the contrary, to the reader they soon become a vital part of the book-as-assemblage, illuminating heretofore undiscovered patterns among disparate poetics simply by virtue of their unusual proximity to one another.

If the poems in Writing Through are dissimilar in their origins, cultures and philosophies, they are united by a shared element of obscurity. However, it is a testament to Rothenberg’s selective ability that a typical reader can absorb and appreciate the majority of these poems after only one reading. Rothenberg is at his best with poems like Tristan Tzara’s “The Great Lament of My Obscurity Three,” the simple melancholy of which rightly restores the balance between poem and Dada. His translation builds rapidly from the sparking ignition of the surreal initial images into a deeply human lament:

       where we are the flowers in our clocks flare up their feathers ring the light
       on a distant sulfur morning cows are licking the salt lilies
      o my son
       my son
       we are always brought down by the color of the world
       it’s blue more blue than subways than astronomy
       we are too thin
       we have no mouths
       our legs are stiff & knock together
       faces shapeless like the stars

“Make it simple and sad,” James Tate said of poetry, and here the prosaic diction, quiet desperation and forceful imagery combine to fit the bill nicely.

Among the many great discoveries Rothenberg reveals in his collection are the poems from Picasso’s Ecrits. Rothenberg aptly describes the results of Picasso’s experimentation with poetry as “unpunctuated breathless blocks of prose” representing a “faux surrealism—a simulation of spontaneity,” and the poems themselves are compelling and fearless in the same manner as his paintings. Indeed, “when I began to write [poems] I wanted to prepare myself a palette of words, as if I were dealing with colors,” Rothenberg quotes Picasso, whose famous work “Guernica” arguably finds its corollary in the poem “The Dream & Lie of General Franco,” a riotous mob of words that begins:

    owl fandango escabeche swords of octopus of evil omen furry dishrag scalps afoot in middle of the skillet bare balls popped into a cone of codfish sherbet fried in scabies of his oxen heart—mouth full of marmalade of bedbugs of his words—silver bells and cockle shells and guts braided in a row—a pinky in erection not a grape and not a fig—commedia del arte of bad weaving and smudged clouds—cosmetics of a garbage truck—the rape of las meninas cries and outcries—casket on shoulders crammed with sausages and mouths…

Here, it is the pure fury, visual evocation and artistry of composition that makes the poem and allows it to move beyond mere exercise. Ultimately, whether it is surrealism or “faux surrealism” is beside the point.

While there are many such discoveries in Writing Through, not all of them are as compelling. Rothenberg’s translations of the German language poet Eugen Gomringer’s experimental work, for instance, suffer from the limitations of their inherently abstract nature. Although I am certain one can make arguments for the theoretical worthiness of such works as this one:

          silence  silence silence
          silence  silence silence
          silence            silence
          silence  silence silence
          silence  silence silence

… as a reader I find such studies entirely vacuous; pointlessness dressed up in the ill-fitting costume of profundity.

As Rothenberg moves on to “Translating the Old” and “Otherings and Variations,” the work grows more obscure and, consequently, more provocative. Increasingly, questions arise as to the boundaries of poetry: What defines those boundaries? Do they matter? Where does poetry end and visual art (or performance art, or prose, or babble) begin?

Rothenberg clearly is intent on toeing these boundaries, and nowhere more so than in his translations and variations on native cultures’ poetry. For example, his translations of the Seneca tribe’s songs from the “Shaking the Pumpkin” ceremony rely on intricate arrangements of the text and carefully choreographed patterns of words and pure sound to achieve their effects.

While some of these translations require a more academic sensibility to be appreciated, what saves so many of them is their surprising humor and simple humanity. What’s not to like about a poem titled, “Another Song About That Same Dead Person Or Mole—Whichever It Was”? Similarly, Rothenberg’s short translation of “Three Ways to Screw Up on Your Way to the Doings Three Ways” takes on the frank simplicity and bittersweet humor of a classic blues song:

           I fell down

           I got lost

           I lost my bucket

In this case, ending with the lost bucket bestows on the line an emphasis that cuts through the more purely dire tone of the preceding statements; this emphasis is not only comic (I, for one, laughed out loud at the end), but also honest and indelibly human. That was a good bucket.

While many of these poems are fascinating (and funny), as Rothenberg enters the realm of “Total Translation,” one cannot help but wonder why, if sound and gesture are so critical to the full realization of these poems, he did not instead translate them into English and record their performance rather than transcribe them. As Rothenberg himself writes in his essay on “Total Translation,”

    I also realized… that there were more than simple refrains involved: that we, as translators and poets, had been taking a rich oral poetry & translating it to be read primarily for meaning, thus denuding it to say the least.

Rothenberg goes on to discuss his efforts to restore the primacy of sound to the translations, but after reading his elaborate introductions about the performance of these songs and the seeming inadequacy of the text, the task of appreciating them (and it is, at times, a task) feels akin to trying to experience the Rolling Stones by reading the liner notes. 

In the same essay, Rothenberg states, “I don’t want to set English words to Indian music, but to respond poem for poem in an attempt to work out a ‘total’ translation—not only of the words but of all sounds connected with the poem, including finally the music itself.” Yet why not “set English words to Indian music”? It seems to me that such an act would approach “total translation” far better, and the act of setting English words to the native music hardly threatens the integrity of the original work any more than writing it down does.

This question only becomes more insistent when, in his discussion of the process of translating Navajo poetry, Rothenberg writes that it “seemed important to get as far away as I could from writing. So I began to speak, then sing my own words over Mitchell’s tape, replacing his vocables with sounds relevant to me, then putting my version on a fresh tape, having now to work it in its own terms.” It is a pity that these audio recordings cannot accompany the text.

Ultimately, of course, this is an argument about the fundamental purpose and method of translation for a relatively small number of poems, and it should be noted that Rothenberg’s goal is often not the fastidious reproduction of the original in English (“I have never thought of myself as a professional translator,” he confesses in the preface). In fact, perhaps the most fascinating portion of Writing Through is Rothenberg’s “Variations and Otherings,” in which the act of translation and the act of composition become indistinguishable.

The poems from “The Lorca Variations” provide some of the best examples of the way Rothenberg creates entirely new poems in the process of translating another’s, in this case by allowing himself, “a margin of flexibility, with total freedom in the case of verbs and adverbs, with occasional addresses to Lorca himself.” The “variation” of the poem “Lorca’s Spain: A Homage” illustrates how this flexibility alters the original and results in something novel. The poem ends with the lines:

         Beginning with needles.
        Beginning with baskets.
                                                   The Moon.
         Who is naked? The imagination
         (wrote Lorca) is seared.
         This is a homage to water.
         Beginning & end.

Here, the reference to Lorca within Lorca’s poem (or what used to be Lorca’s poem) is startling in the way it forces the reader to directly confront questions of authorship and (once again) translation, violating the unwritten rule that the translator must be subsumed by the work itself. In the end, “variations” like this one constitute the most artistically interesting works in Writing Through; in fact, a book comprised entirely of such variations could easily stand on its own as a collection and give these works the space they deserve.

In the preface to Writing Through, Rothenberg describes his use of translation and the techniques by which he practices his particular version of it as “ways of opening our individual or personal poetry to the presence of other voices and other visions besides our own,” and regardless of what one thinks of those other voices and visions, Writing Through indisputably accomplishes this goal. Indeed, Rothenberg deserves praise not only for his efforts to open up the field of poetry (both through this book and as the central project of his career), but also for his ability to do it in a way that is compelling and accessible (or at least not completely unaccessible).

Yet in the end, Writing Through may be best appreciated as an extended meditation on translation in all its guises. In many ways, this meditation is also a deeply personal one, as Rothenberg guides the reader through a variegated landscape of poetics and disparate modes of translation. Evidence of Rothenberg’s devoted touch (in his introductory mini-essays and in the selection of the material itself) pervades this collection and often pulls the reader ahead when the poems themselves grow treacherous. If Writing Through is truly like a good drink, it is this quality—the way it warms us even as it dizzies us—that makes it so.