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This article is taken from Poetry Nation 1 Number 1, 1973.

On Translation James Atlas

I

ONCE, IN A Paris bookstore, I turned to the shelves that house literature in translation, and took down some volumes of Wordsworth and Yeats in French. Reading The Prelude's measured lines, with their Racinian metre and the rhetorical temper so congenial to the French language, I could discover nothing of Wordsworth's own poetic manner; the laconic, even tedious voice had been imbued with a resonance absent in the original. More than the opinions of critics and writers (Doctor Johnson once stated that poetry 'cannot be translated', though his own 'London' and 'The Vanity of Human Wishes' refute the claim), the experience of reading in translation a work composed in one's own language, especially a work that has contributed to our conception of that language, illustrates the distance between a translation and the original text.

And yet, so much of what we receive outside our own immediate literature involves translation that it could be considered the poem's essential act: either to resist translation or collaborate in its possibilities. Eliot pointed out that Laforgue (whom Pound also translated) had provided him with a useful example not only because he had explored certain modalities of colloquial speech that instructed Eliot in his own work, but also because he could appropriate influence in a more general manner through a foreign language than if he had chosen a model writing in English. The result, in this case, has been that the shaping voice of Modernism comes to us through ...


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