385: A Translator Introduces “Me To The World” (Italo Calvino)

                “Without translation I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.” -Italo Calvino in conversation with Frank MacShane, 1983

                I’ve heard a lot about the difficulty of translating poetry, and lots of it is pretty absolute and fatalistic. (People quote Mark Twain as saying, “Poetry is what’s lost in translation,” though I’m not sure if he ever said). One common idea, as far as I can tell, is that there is something ineffable and irrational and sentimental and only itself about poetry, and no one could translate that.
                Over the last month’s I’ve been helping my friend Rachel Gu translate her poetry from Mandarin into English, and it’s absolutely wonderful. We sit side by side. Rachel reads the Mandarin out loud, and I don’t understand a word, but I listen. Then we talk about the poem in a general way, and each line, and different important words, and the experiences she’s thinking about. We play together with English words and phrases, approaches and forms. “What if we focused on what this character was doing? What if we described the scene a little more? What image is important here?” In a way, you could say Rachel and I have been translating these poems since before they were written. We’ve been friends for a while now. We’ve done art together. As we play together with another translation, Rachel laughs and says, “You already know me so well.” And some things we don’t know. Sometimes we don’t translate a key word, and instead add a translation note at the end, talking about that word and all the different things it can mean within the complex beautiful web of the language and experience it’s written in.
                For me, the whole “poetry can’t be translated” thing feels connected to a strict attachment to (and understanding of) self. As though something is itself and clearly itself and isn’t ever also something else,  and any letting go, any mixing or washing about of colors and sounds, takes away what “it” was. That feels connected to a Greek mereological essentialism that would say your car isn’t your car anymore if a single screw is replaced. (The Ship of Theseus). In my teens that kind of attachment, that attempted certainty, seemed enticing. Now I’m so much happier to sit next to Rachel laughing, wondering, confused, sometimes hurt, swapping words back and forth. The English “version” and the Mandarin “version” are not the same. The lines don’t line up. But Rachel reads the English and says, “Yes, that’s it,” and I listen to the Mandarin like an ocean I can’t quite touch, and then get to find the English, phrase by phrase, as a field where we wander together. The two poems aren’t the same. They change in our hands. They change in translation. And I absolutely love that. I love the opportunity to be otherwise, to be touched, to be held, to be different as we talk and learn together. I suppose something might be lost. So much more feels found.

2 thoughts on “385: A Translator Introduces “Me To The World” (Italo Calvino)

  1. Azlan, I comment so much less often than I think to, to your wonderful posts. This one in particular is wonderful and gives me joy and something like creative contentment, if I can use that to describe a feeling. Hooray to you and Rachel for your collaboration and to you for describing and celebrating it.


    1. Rosie,
      I’m always so happy when I see your name pop up 🙂 thank you for sharing joy and creativity with me. Collaborations and connections are wonderful–translating poetry with friends, or meeting friends every once in a long time in the Oregon woods. Hopefully I’ll get to see you again soon! And then I’ll get to ask about where you’ve been finding creative contentment 🙂


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