David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Marilyn Hacker Is No Hack

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Here’s hoping more people read the concise and precise interview about translation up on Guernica between Erica Wright and Marilyn Hacker.

When we talk about someone being a prolific translator, Marilyn Hacker — who is a fantastic poet, let’s not forget that — is the poster child: “In the past five years alone, she’s brought the work of Hedi Kaddour, Guy Goffette, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Marie Etienne,” plus (as Hacker notes), Amina Saïd and Habib Tengour.

Of these, I know Kaddour a little and the Khoury-Ghata a lot. Admittedly, I am woefully lacking in the others (note to self: track down books). For my lights, Hacker’s translations of Khoury-Ghata, in particular, are singular. They spirit the Lebanese-French poet’s sensual and political mind from French into English with generosity and grace.

Hacker offers a would-be translator two important about translation that are spot on. First, that language is a pathway outside one’s national drama into the history of other cultures and other national literatures, both historically and contemporaneously. This idea seems self-evident — but the implication, as I read it, is that American readers are disinclined to wander into the ‘other.’ Translation, Hacker points out, is “a door onto branching corridors of other histories, other ways of thinking, other linguistic echoes.”

Second, translating requires the translator to be both cautious and bold. Hacker again: “The possibility of working with it outside one’s own frames of reference, connotations, formal or historical concerns — in that way it’s like attempting to write within, and straining against or stretching out into, an unfamiliar formal structure.”

This last insight is terrific. Whether within a poetic tradition or across traditions and across languages, form aligns with the poetic organism. Form is not necessarily seamless, and it shouldn’t be, or needn’t be. Form is not necessarily clarifying. But form is unifying. And, within the unity of formal structure, the “unfamiliar,” the “straining against,” and the “frames” of perception are vivified.

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Poetry Wire Head Snap: Poetry Wire notes with some humor the strangeness of reading a British critic “discover” Jorie Graham over on the Daily Beast now that she’s won the Forward prize for her latest book, Place. Got to ask: Um, how could you have missed her? It goes to show, as a sort of Side B to the translation question, that even within a single language, English, but also across literary nationalities, writers have trouble keeping up. So noted.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry: Charming Gardeners, The Book of Men and Women, Wild Civility, Pilgrims & Beggars, and Shattering Air. More from this author →