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Micro Lesson: Translating Poetry with Sharon Bryan

Posted Thu, 4/11/2019 - 12:41pm by  |  Category: , , ,

Robert Frost said that “poetry is what gets lost in translation,”

meaning that whatever poetry is can’t be carried from one language to another. But that’s obviously false, since we have so many examples of great translations.

The process of translating poems from one language to another is very similar to what happens when you write a poem: you translate your thoughts, feelings, and observations into words on the page. The choices and decision-making as you write a poem are identical to the ones you make as you translate, but when you translate you don’t have to start with a blank page.

The goal of my class, Translating Poetry, is two-fold: to help you think more clearly about the process you go through when you write, and for those with a second language, to think about the issues involved in translating poems from one language to another.

I’ve often found it easier to think about writing poems from an angle rather than head-on—by looking at paintings, or listening to music, or studying cooking or astronomy. This class is a way to think about writing poems through the lens of translation.

First, we’ll compare different translations of the same poem.

These will provides a kind of x-ray of the thought process the translators went through. Look at these two versions of a poem by the Nobel Prize-winning poet, Tomas Tranströmer. Beginning with the first line, the translators are choosing different words, different sentence structure, and different lines and line breaks to convey the same poem in English. This is the same process you go through when you write different drafts of a poem, but it’s easier to see in someone else’s work.

THE COUPLE

They switch off the light and its white shade
glimmers for a moment before dissolving
like a tablet in a glass of darkness. Then up.
The hotel walls rise into the black sky.

The movements of love have settled, and they sleep
but their most secret thoughts meet as when
two colors meet and flow into each other
on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting.

It is dark and silent. But the town has pulled closer
tonight. With quenched windows. The houses have approached.
They stand close up in a throng, waiting,
a crowd whose faces have no expressions.

translated by Robin Fulton

*

THE COUPLE

They turn out the lamplight, and its white globe
glimmers for a moment: an aspirin rising and falling
then dissolving in a glass of darkness. Around them,
the hotel walls slide like a back-drop up into the night sky.

Love’s drama has died down, and they’re sleeping now,
but their dreams will meet as colours meet
and bleed into each other
in the dampened pages of a child’s painting-book.

All around is dark, and silent. The city has drawn in,
extinguishing its windows. The houses have approached.
They crowd in close, attentive:
this audience of cancelled faces.

translated by Robin Robertson

The second thing we’ll do is construct translations (no need to know another language) using Stanley Burnshaw’s book The Thing Itself.

It amounts to a poetry-making kit. He includes 42 poems written in languages other than English: their originals, a short summary in English, and some context. You use those to assemble your own poems/translations, and we’ll compare your versions in class. Once again, you’ll have something to work from, rather than the blank page, and a chance to think about shaping a poem you didn’t have to generate from scratch.

To learn more about the art of translation, sign up for my eight-week class, which begins Thursday, April 18, 2019.


Sharon Bryan received her BA in Philosophy and an MA in Anthropology before she began to write poetry, and then received her MFA from the University of Iowa.

She has published four books of poems: Sharp StarsFlying BlindObjects of Affection, and Salt Air, which won The Governor’s Award from the State of Washington. She received the Isabella Gardner Award for Sharp Stars. Her other awards include two NEA Fellowships in Poetry, an Academy of American Poet’s Prize, the Discovery Award from The Nation, an Artist Trust Grant from the Washington State Arts Council, a Senior Fellowship to the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, a grant from the Utah Arts Council for the film collaboration Eureka, and a Fellowship in Poetry from the Tennessee Arts Commission, among others. She was Poet-in-Residence at The Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire.

She is also the editor of two collections: Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition, and, with William Olsen, Planet on the Table: Poets on the Reading Life.

She taught at the University of Washington for seven years and at Memphis State University for six. Since then she has taught as a visiting poet in almost twenty writing programs around the country, including Dartmouth, the University of Houston, Western Michigan, Kalamazoo College, Ohio University, Wichita State, the University of Missouri at St. Louis, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, San Diego State, and Fresno State. She has also been on the faculty of low-residency MFA Programs at Pacific Lutheran Universitiy, Warren Wilson, Pacific University, and Fairfield University.

She is currently on the faculty of the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She lives in Seattle, Washington.