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Poet Marianne Moore, 1887-1872

Poet Marianne Moore, 1887-1972

Interviewer: I wonder if the act of translating La Fontaine’s Fables helped you as a writer:

Moore: Indeed it did. It was the best help I’ve ever had. I suffered frustration. I’m so naive, so docile, and I tend to take anybody’s word for anything the person says, even in matters of art. The publisher who had commissioned the Fables died. I had no publisher. Well, I struggled on for a time and it didn’t go very well. I thought, well I’ll ask if they don’t want to terminate the contract. Then I’ll offer it elsewhere. I thought Macmillan, who took such an interest in me, would like it. And the editor there in charge of translations said, “Well, I studied French at Cornell, took a degree in French. I love French, and–well, I think I would put it away for a while, about ten years. And besides, it will hurt your own work. You won’t be able to write yourself.”

Marc Chagall, Two Bulls, from the Fables of La Fontaine

Marc Chagall, Two Bulls, from the Fables of La Fontaine

“Oh,” I said, “that’s one reason I was undertaking it. I thought it would train me, assist me, give me incentive.”

“Oh no, you won’t be able to write anything on your own.”

I was most dejected by this, and said, “Tell me what’s wrong? Are the meanings not sound or the rhythms?”

“Well, there are conflicts.” And the editor reiterated, many times, “There are conflicts.” And I yet don’t know what the are or were. A little editorial, I think.

I said, “Don’t write me a letter extenuating the return of them. Just send the material in the envelope I put with it.” I had submitted it in January and this was May. And I had had a kind of uneasy hope that all would be well. Meanwhile I had volumes, hours, and years of work yet to do and I might as well go on and do it, I had thought. To have this ultimatum was devastating.

Marc Chagall, Lion, from the Fables of La Fontaine

Marc Chagall, Lion, from the Fables of La Fontaine

At the same time Monroe Engle of the Viking Press wrote to me and said that he had supposed I had a commitment for my Fables, but if I hadn’t would I let the Viking Press see them? I feel an everlasting gratitude to him.

However I said, “I can’t offer you something when somebody else thinks it isn’t fit to print. I would have to have someone to stabilize it and guarantee that the meanings are sound.”

And Mr. Engle said, “Who do you think could do that? Whom would you like?”

And I said, “Well, Harry Levin,” because he had written a very shrewd review of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s and George Dillon’s translation of Baudelaire. I admired the finesse of that review.

Mr. Engle said, “I’ll ask him. But you won’t hear for a long time. He’s very busy. And how much do you think we ought to offer him?”

“Well,” I said, “not less than ten dollars a book, and there wouldn’t be any incentive in it, to undertake the bother of it, if he weren’t given twenty.”

“Oh,” he said, “that will reduce your royalties, supposing we have you an advance.”

I said, “I don’t want an advance, I don’t want even to consider it.”

“Well,” he said, “that is like you.”

And then Harry Levin said, right away, that he would be glad to do it as a refreshment against the chores of the term. It was a very dubious refreshment, let me tell you. He is precise without being abusive, and did not ‘resign.'”

Marc Chagall, Two Doves, from the Fables of La Fontaine

Marc Chagall, Two Doves, from the Fables of La Fontaine

La Fontaine has ‘Un ignorant hérita / D’un manuscrit, qu’il porta / Chez son voisin le libraire. / “Je crois, dit-il, qu’il est bon; / Mais le moindre ducaton / Serait bien mieux mon affaire.”‘ James Michie has:

An ignoramus took
An old manuscript book
Left to him in a will
To his neighbour the bibliophile:
‘I think it’s very fine,
But money’s more in my line.’

Moore’s version is like the ghost of a limerick:

A blockhead was bequeathed a book
In Manuscript, which he took
To a nearby connoisseur.
Remarking, ‘A rarity–
But a mere ha’penny
Would afford what I prefer.”

Moore’s translation of the Fables of La Fontaine was published in 1954.

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The following are excerpts from a workshop on translation with poets David Ferry, Richard Jackson, Jess Row and Tim Kercher:

Dennis Jackson: “If you’re going to translate something, you have to get into the mind of the person who wrote it.”

Jess Row: “In the ancient dialects of Chinese I work with, I am saying something that has never been spoken before in a language from an unimaginably distant past. Some works have been translated so many times the reader brings knowledge of those translations and his awareness of Taoism and those concepts to the text. One word can make a difference in how we hear a text:

If we make lovingkindness a weapon,
lovingkindness reeks,
and if lovingkindness reeks,
what good is it.

If the word lovingkindness is translated as righteousness, it has a very different meaning in our culture.”

Tim Kercher: “Translation is like playing a game of discovery in a poem. You have a much more intimate relationship with a poem when you are reinventing it through translation.”

David Ferry: “English is not Latin, and I am not Horace. Every placement of a word [in my translation of Horace] is made in obedience to English, not Latin. It reinforces the differences between translation and the original text. I realized the crucial ways I didn’t and couldn’t get it right.”

Ferry shared a failure and a success in translating in which Latin offers the line a little more. In an example from Horace, he showed how Latin allowed the word wolf to be in the middle of a line about sheep. In English, the word couldn’t be placed in the middle of the line. In another example, the English is, “The shadow of the hills are lengthening as they form.” Here hill is in the middle of the line. The line rises and falls from that word.

When Ferry was asked if he thought of translation as reinventing or reimagining a poem, he said, “I prefer the word reimagining. It is not as much about substitution but a complex reading experience. Translation is, in my view, the most intense and highest form of reading.”

When the panel was asked how important it is to know the language of the work being translated, they all agreed it’s not very important. Jackson pointed out that the poet W.S. Merwin translates everything from Arctic to Brazilian poems but doesn’t know those languages.

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