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This report is taken from PN Review 46, Volume 12 Number 2, November - December 1985.

Translating Poetry Yves Bonnefoy
translated by John Alexander and Clive Wilmer

You can translate by simply declaring one poem the translation of another. For example, Wladimir Weidlé once said to me, jokingly, that Baudelaire's poem, 'Je n'ai pas oublié, voisine de la ville . . .', renders the sound of Pushkin: it has his clarity, it is the 'best' translation of him. But is it possible to reduce a poem to its clarity?

The answer to the question, 'Can one translate a poem?', is of course no. The translator meets too many contradictions which he cannot eliminate; he must make too many sacrifices.

For example (drawing on my own experience), Yeats's 'Sailing to Byzantium'. Straight away, the title presents a problem . . . 'L'embarquement pour Byzance'? Inconceivable. Watteau would get in the way. What's more, 'sailing' has the energy of a verb. Baudelaire's 'A Honfleur! le plus tôt possible avant de tomber plus bas' comes to mind, but 'A Byzance' would be ridiculous: the myth rules out such brevities . . . Finally, 'to sail' makes one think not only of departure, but also of the sea to be crossed - difficult, troubled like passion - and the distant port: commerce, labour, works, the conquest of nature, spirit. None of the things appareiller might convey, and faire voile isn't strong enough, over these distances. I resigned myself to 'Byzance - l'autre rive'. A certain tension is perhaps salvaged, but not the energy, the (at least unconscious) wrenching away ...


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