Translation as Composition / Composition as Translation

by Jerome Rothenberg

The following talk was delivered on the occasion of receiving the Alfonso el Sabio Translation Award from San Diego State University on March 22, 2004. The key point of reference for the talk is the Pre-Face to my book, Writing Through: Translations & Variations, Wesleyan University Press, 2004, from which the poems at conclusion are also taken. (J.R.)


I would like to talk—perhaps too quickly—about the ways in which translation has served me as a form of composition and as an underpinning for much of my work as a poet and a writer. I have never thought of myself as a professional translator, since my grasp of any language other than English has been limited and has made any translation that I’ve worked on a slow and sometimes a very indirect process (often, too, in the case of languages that are exotic from our point of view, in collaboration with other translators). I have not as a rule added to or subtracted from the original when translating, but within those limits I have thought of myself as a poet using translation as a means for making poems or bringing new poems into English. Even more than that, I have had a need (I emphasize: a need) to translate and, by translating, to connect with the work and thought of other poets—a matter of singular importance to me in what I have long taken to be my “project” and the central activity of my life as a poet.

I do not think of this as in any way unusual, although it has taken me a long time to recognize it for what it is. Many writers, but poets in particular, inherit and carry forward the works of those who came before them. In my own case the work I’ve done with ethnopoetics and with the construction of anthology-assemblages—along with a devotion to the “experimental” as a basis for my writing—has made such considerations still more central to my practice. Accordingly my work has involved not only translation but the use of techniques like collage and appropriation as ways of opening our individual or personal poetry to the presence of other voices and other visions besides our own. I came to think of all of that—appropriation, collage, translation—in ideological terms.  Long before our time, Whitman in Leaves of Grass had set the task very plainly:

      Through me many long dumb voices,
      Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
      Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs,
      Voices of cycles of preparation and accretion,
      And of the threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the
      And of the rights of them the others are down upon,
      Of the deform’d, trivial, flat, foolish, despised,
      Fog in the air, beetles rolling balls of dung.

This was in the section of Leaves of Grass called “Song of Myself”—that great bringing together of the individual voice with the sense of a total and suppressed humanity. And it was reborn for us, for me certainly, in Charles Olson’s rant, say, against “the lyrical interference of the individual as ego,” or in Robert Duncan’s call for a new “symposium of the whole,” a new “totality”—among my immediate predecessors and near contemporaries.

I have practiced translation in one form or another for over forty years now.  My first published book in fact was New Young German Poets (City Lights, 1959), a year before my own first book of poetry. That book included first-time translations into English from poets like Paul Celan, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Günter Grass, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Helmut Heissenbüttel, who would become major German authors in the decade that followed. In the 1960s I adapted Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy for its Broadway performance, did further translations from Enzensberger’s poetry, and began to make occasional translations of Dada poets like Hans Arp and Richard Hülsenbeck from German and Tristan Tzara and Francis Picabia from French. I had also become engaged with translations from Spanish modernists—much of it for my own recreation and as a way better to understand the work at hand—and from 1960 on, I began to use translation as a way to channel material into publications of my own.

Where that channeling turns up most clearly is in the acts of translation that are an underpinning for the anthologies (Technicians of the Sacred, Shaking the Pumpkin, Poems for the Millennium, etc.) that I began assembling in the later 1960s. And the translations there also led me to an interplay with poets closer to my own time and place—Kurt Schwitters, Federico García Lorca, Vitezslav Nezval, among those I’ve recently done in abundance—and now, surprisingly to me, Picasso. For me too the big books were a kind of assemblage and collage, very much like the translations in terms of what they allowed me to do or to be.

In the big books—the ethnopoetic ones in particular—I was engaged with a range of processes, related to but not always identical with that of translation. Some of those—the more clearly translational ones—involved experimental forms of translation with perhaps an emphasis on the translation of oral poetry and—conversely—of visual poetry—a fascination with what had been thought of as untranslatable forms of poetry. In “the 17 Horse-Songs of Frank Mitchell”—from sources in Navajo—I engaged in what Dennis Tedlock and I were calling “total translation,” going beyond the semantic level to try to find equivalents for the non-lexical vocables in Navajo song and even—most outrageously for me—for the music—the melodies—by which the words and sounds were carried. Other Indian song-poems—these mostly from the Seneca—were short combinations of words & sounds which I chose to translate as a kind of visual (concrete) poetry—in order to bring across the curious complexity of otherwise simple or minimal forms—by calling up an image of similar minimal forms in our own (presumably sophisticated and developed) arts of language. And along the same lines, while working with contemporary poems that were themselves experimental, I undertook the translation of a large group of often minimal poems by the German concrete poet Eugen Gomringer—finding those a curious vehicle to get down to some fundamentals about the nature of both poetry and translation.

All of that remains central to me—the translations, I mean, and those other suppositions and legitimate acts of “othering” that underlie my total project. In The Lorca Variations, a series of poems from the early 1990s, I took a step beyond translation by writing with Lorca (or my translation of Lorca’s book-length poem series called “The Suites”) as my source—isolating his nouns and other words (which were by then my own in English) and systematically recasting them into new compositions. In another series of poems, Gematria, I used a traditional Jewish form of connecting words by numerological methods and a word list of numerically arranged words and phrases from the Hebrew Bible, to make a poetry—as with the Lorca Variations—that I thought was both personal to me and was created by means that shared in what Blake saw as “the most sublime act ... [:] to set another before you.” And in recent work, while continuing to make translations from Picasso and from the great Czech modernist Vitezslav Nezval, I have interspersed appropriations from their work with my own—composing three series of a hundred numbered verses each that I have called Autobiography.  Still more recently—in A Book of Witness—I have used the first person voice, the pronoun “I,” to explore whatever it is that we can say for ourselves—not only my personal self but that of all others—and by that process can even and meaningfully put identity into question.

. . . . . . .

Finally, since there is some interest here in the uses of translation in the classroom, I would like to say just a little about my own experience in that regard.

At the university and in other teaching situations, I have found these methods of translation and of near-translation of considerable importance in the teaching of what we call (with some discomfort) creative writing. Many years ago I was offering classes at UCSD in translation for writers—beginning with translations from English into English and moving into recognized forms of translation and into the experimental and near translations that I was just describing. Here my idea was not to create a cadre of professional translators, but to encourage students of writing—whether beginning or more advanced—to enter into acts of community with writers/poets who had come before them. I thought of this sometimes as having some relation to the practice that art students in the past (and sometimes, still, in the present) might have of copying the work of other, often master artists.  Here—with the poetry—it was less a question of honing one’s skills with a foreign language as of using any means at one’s disposal to bring the work across into one’s own work and mind. I had grown up in a time when poets like myself could look to the work of forerunners and contemporaries as proof of a vital role for poetry and poets in the shaping of a new present and future. For this—and for the greater community for which we were also yearning—our fundamental interchange as human beings was one of translation and collaboration. And that was the lesson—more than a matter of technique—that I was most trying to bring across.

There is another sense of course in which all translation involves a kind of collaboration—at least in the mind of the translator. I am very much aware of this, however one-sided it may often seem, and I have sometimes let myself believe that all our writing, all our poetry, is an activity shared with all who are the users and makers of our common language. This idea of a communally driven poetry—of the poem, however individual, as simultaneously what Pound called “a tale of the tribe”—has held my attention even when I felt it to be false. In a world in which that kind of unity is again under fire, I would continue thinking in those terms, wherever they may take me.

. . . . . . .

I would like to end by reading a number of poems that will give you a sense of some of the matters about which I’ve been talking. And since we’re meeting under the cover of Alfonso el Sabio and in the glow of the Spanish language, I’ll start with some translations from Federico García Lorca and some variations derived from my translation of Lorca’s Suites. For these and a few other poems I’ll put the pages of my talk aside and say a few words without text by way of explanation.


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