Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Kirsch & Kaminsky on Poetry in Translation

At The Poetry Foundation website, poet / critic Adam Kirsch and poet / translator Ilya Kaminsky discuss the nature of, problems with, and possibilities for poetry in translation. They raise the common questions: how can one effectively translate formal techniques? is translation more re-imagining than transmogrification? what role does the personality of the translator play? These questions are fairly banal — they exist more for the critics to opine than as real practical problems for a translator. This is not to say that translators don't encounter them in their work. They do. But if a translator's approach is as programmatic as any answer, then they've almost certainly failed. As Kaminsky writes, ‘what interests me is not only the genius of the poet translated but also the genius of what is possible in English as it bends to accommodate or digest various new forms. By translating, we learn how the limits of our minds can be stretched to absorb the foreign, and how thereby we are able to make our language beautiful in a new way.’

Post Script
I agree with this aside whole-heartedly: ‘A side note about irony, which is a very popular device in American poetry today: I think when someone like Herbert used it in Poland in the time of martial law, when saying something straightforwardly meant being killed, it was a powerful thing. But when I see a thirty-something in Manhattan writing poems that are so overtly ironic they remind me of Seinfeld, I wonder if there is an overuse of this device in the work of our contemporaries.’


Toast said...

Hi Spoonie,

Your first paragraph is absolutely right and nicely phrased. The sentiment you cite in your second, however, is silly (which is not to say that you are silly, and nor is Kaminsky, but he should know better): it may be true that Kaminsky experienced totalitarian and post-totalitarian trauma as a young man, but he does not trade on it, nor would he claim it as any kind of authority for the aesthetic merit of his work — he is much too smart and skilled a poet to require such a blunt instrument. But I think this suspicion of irony that is not authorized by real consequence, by the necessity of speaking to brute power out of the side of one's mouth, is a misapprehension of the aesthetic purposes of irony. Effective irony is generous — it invites its audience to share the pleasure of wit, humor-inflected recognition (or tragic recognition). It asks us to join (but only with our understanding and consent) a solidarity in knowing what is just or at least what really makes sense. Jonathan Ames' irony is not crap because it doesn't respond bravely to real danger; it's crap because it is not generous. Ames' irony doesn't invite us to join any solidarity, but celebrates a solipsistic privilege that readers can only share by imaginatively excluding themselves from most of the rest of us through the license Ames' texts grant themselves to play at satire while forgetting that they are actually celebrating what they purport to satirize. Think of Adorno's claim: "to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric." Adorno recanted, but that proposal is itself a kind of poetry because its challenge does invite its audience into a solidarity, devastated and bleak as it is. Kaminsky is playing the same game as Ames, sneering at privilege which is fundamentally his own, like white guys who hate white guys who can't dance. Even Seinfeld is not guilty of that kind of solipsism. Think about one case of holocaust humor from the show, for instance: the make-out scene in the audience at Schindler's List. That example of irony does confront the conditions from which it emerges, tweaking the very smugness that allows viewers of Schindler's List to feel that their sentiments make them witnesses of the holocaust and guardians against its recurrence, disregarding the manipulation and conventionality that the film uses to generate those feelings (which are hardly more substantial or "real" than what we feel at the end of E.T.) — substituting moral disdain towards social impropriety for the unencompassable outrage that the holocaust requires. Schindler's List allows very lazy disapproval and very limited "shock" to take the place of confrontation with the unimaginable, particularly because it is so effusively comforting and morally self-righteous in its conclusion. Jane Austen's irony does not fail because it is not vulnerable to suppression, it succeeds because it illuminates and reshapes genres, social relations, and the textures of literary expression. Irony is not a sign of decadence or a moribund artistic culture. It never has been. It is essential to lively aesthetic foment. But like all spheres of literary enterprise, Brooklyn has its strong aestheticians and its weak ones and so it also has strong ironists and weak ones. Irony itself is never the problem. Amorphous attacks on irony have a real aesthetic (and you can see also political) conservatism about them. I don't recommend them. Or don't you think so?

Daniel E. Pritchard said...


I definitely agree with you that irony as a device is only as good as it is employment in a work -- it's an aesthetic element. K. certainly speaks too broadly of both irony and American poets.

In the context of the discussion, I assumed, maybe too generously, that he was trying to criticize the kind of blasé, superior, anti-consumerist, anti-middle class, hipster-ironic sentiment that's common enough in American poetry to annoy. A less skillful form of irony, I think, can still arrest ethically or emotionally in the right context, as is the case with the poets he praises from Eastern Europe -- but, not on Park Slope. They ape an effect wholly outside their grasp, one reliant on the world around them to inform irony with ethics. But K. was too broad in his criticism, and I was too readily on the same track.

The justice of reading poets wholly in light of their socio-historical context is a separate question, which worth raising another time.

I'm not sure I find any inherent connection between irony or criticisms thereof and social / political ethics: one can be sincere and progressive, ironic and conservative, or vice-versa. Amorphous criticisms are, in my experience, just as often a sign of a poorly-constructed thought as they are of any political agenda.

Toast said...

Yep, I agree back. You're right too that there is no "inherent connection between irony or criticisms thereof and social / political ethics," but since Kaminsky effectively implied that there was, my examples focused on the points at which irony does venture into those areas. I guess the way I would frame an offhand critique of Ames and others like him is that they are smug and smugness does not technically extinguish irony (since irony is at base a trope -- an expression that means other than what it literally denotes), but because it flattens the literal denotation so thoroughly, the Amesian irony isn't really anything other than itself: a bland, aimless superiority. Does that make sense?