Selected Translations by W. S. Merwin

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The translation of poetry requires justification. Not necessarily for conceptual reasons, but because the experience of reading translated poetry however transcendent and beautiful always feels lacking, incomplete, like living in a body missing some essential organ. Of course, this remains true of prose as well, but poetry, which depends more on the idiosyncratic musicality, imagery, and idioms of a specific language and culture, makes it near impossible to create anything even close to a “faithful” translation. In a sense our only options lies in the acceptance of translation as adaptation and commentary, however close it hews to the original. Pragmatically, we will always opt for translation over a complete ignorance of the poetry of the world, but we can never outrun the chasm between the original and the translation. Few know this better than W.S. Merwin, recent American poet laureate, author of over 20 books of poetry, 20 books of translations of poetry, and numerous other books of prose. Yet as Merwin explains in his new Selected Translations he doesn’t cower from this fact, but takes inspiration:

This indecisiveness, I realize, is quite consistent with the impossible art of translating poetry at all, for there is no such thing as a final translation. Only the original is unique and absolute, and essentially cannot exist in “other words.” And one part of the impossibility of translating any poem is the fact that we want the translation to be is exactly what it never can be: the original. Yet the impossibility of the whole enterprise is part of the perennial temptation to try again.

In a way that Merwin doesn’t elucidate, an understanding of the nature of language provides the best justification for the continuous effort to translate poetry. In a sense, translation most aptly describes the use of language in general, but more specifically the nature of artistic writing. If poetry attempts to give voice and shape to ineffable experiences, to that which lies outside the range of simple expression, then all poetry already entails an act of translation, something that cannot simply reproduce the original feeling. Poetry as the externalization of our infinite inner world already represents a misrepresentation of sorts, but a necessary evil to allow for artistic expression and communication. If so, then translation, albeit removed from the original experience, represents a poem through the prism of one artist interpreting the other. Merwin’s new book, a collection of his selected translations from his brilliant and prolific career, proves this point and then some.

On a poem to poem level the books achieves wonders, and on a more holistic level it accomplishes numerous feats. The book offers a true treasure trove of representative poetry from an array of different cultures throughout the ages. Set up less by era and more by culture, Merwin provides access to the Egyptian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Eskimo, Quechan, Welsh, Caxinua, Irish, Greek, Latin, Spanish-Jewish, Spanish, French, Italian, Russian, German and the list goes on.

What makes this effort unique is not only the ability to glimpse a taste of the singularity of each culture, of its poetic output, but to realize that which ultimately persists across boundaries, the artistic vision that transcends both time and space to create a compelling case for Yeat’s Spiritus Mundi. While it’s hard to prove this any substantive manner, it’s more of an ineffable feeling that these poems emanate, a sense that they are all woven from the same fabric. This universalistic sense struck me in the use of a metaphor that crossed 1000 years and disparate cultures. Both poets use the elegant phrase of “wrapped in mourning,” and this type of serendipitous overlap occurs numerous times throughout the book.

Merwin, in his astute selections, also makes a case for a resuscitation for a type of poetry, dare we call it a more spiritual type of poetry than we tend to see these days. Spiritual writing carries many connotations, here, I intend to use it in its most expansive form. For example, in a simple, eloquent anonymous Eskimo poem, we feel this sense of expansiveness:

Into my head rose/the nothings/my life day after day/but I am leaving the shore/in my skin boat/ It came to me that I was in danger/and now the small troubles/look big/and the ache/that comes from the things/I have to do every day/big. But only one thing/is great/only one/This/in the hut by the path/to see the day/coming out if its mother/and the light filling the world.

This type of poetry, more common in the centuries before our collective disenchantment with religion, made room for a wider range of experiences. Think of it this way, if all we only write about that which we can touch and feel then we will not write about the world to come, or God, about prayer, or angels, or Satan, or the spiritual world, or religious guilt, or sublime awe in the face of the majesty of the infinite. Now, we cannot just conjure up the relevance of these ideas given the intellectual climate we live in, but we can in a manner similar to the philosophical shift of non-realist theology treat these ideas and realms as grand metaphors.

Much of today’s contemporary poets focus on the minutiae of mundane life, which still acts as a needed corrective to the often highfalutin conceptual, or melodramatic poetry of yore. However, as often happens when a culture reacts to an overbearing style, it attempts to negate it completely. Consequently, we go overboard in our zealousness so that we dismiss even the more redemptive parts of a previous style. Think of Walt Whitman; if someone attempted to write his poetry today, even anything close to his confident, prophetic, spiritual and nature obsessed poetry we would think of them as naive, childish, arrogant and perhaps, slightly insane. I miss this though. I want a poet unafraid to shed their cynicism, to let go of our collective fear appearing stupid, or incorrect, to explore realms that we cannot see, or feel, or quantify besides our obsession with love and self-awareness. Merwin’s translations and choices speak to a poet acutely attuned to these less prominent voices in today’s culture. A poet who collects the desiccated bones of discarded themes and forms and reinvigorates them for the contemporary mind.

However, given the staggering potential of this type of book I can’t but consider this an essentially lacking effort. Merwin, one of the world’s best and prolific translator of poetry, in his introduction only hints as his process, only draws the haziest sketches of the necessary wisdom required in translation. With some more editorial insight, coupled with considerably more extensive explication of methods commentary on both the larger picture and the individual poems from Merwin himself might have changed this book from an important collection into a masterful/masterpiece of translation. How did Merwin and his editors choose the selections? Merwin describes some of the joy and frustrations of translation, but as a reader I wanted him to show us a full translation from inception to execution. He, implicitly, plants beautiful questions in our mind on the nature of translation, on the complexity of the job, the nature of language and its relationship to poetry, but just provides hint, as if to leave it up the reader to answer these idiosyncratic riddles. Merwin as a guide, not to explain the poems, but to comment on the process of translation would provide the missing insight that this type of books could offer. In this vein, I cannot help but notice that the internet often makes anthologies or collections such as this obsolete. We don’t need an editor or a writer, for the most part, to collect their works because we can or someone has already done so on the endless abyss of the Internet. Consequently, this requires that collections to provide something novel (think of the need for commentary on DVDs. Here, I felt, some explanation of the components of the book: the order of the poems, the standards of selection(are these poems selected to display the progress and nature of Merwin as a translator of for their connective commentary on the poems on the page before and after?) perhaps a commentary of Merwin’s progression as a translator would make this effort all the more valuable.

Some might contend in response that to require the heavy hand of Merwin on top of these gorgeous poems would stifle the poems’ autonomy. In general, I might agree with this idea, but in the dense world of translations, steps removed from the original we the readers cannot do the work normally enjoyed by us in other books. Without a knowledge of 15 languages, or access to the originals, or the work of other translators we cannot even begin to judge Merwin by his own standards of achievement. With the poems I love in this collection, which are many, I feel a distance between me and its beauty because I think about the possible variations on the relationship between the original writer and Merwin in this translation. Does the original evince the same mystery of language, the same abiding simplicity? What roles does Merwin play? Does the fact that many of these selections sound singularly similar stem from the relationship of the originals or the style of Merwin? Can we see this evocative overlap as a sort of universal artistic soul transcending even the strongest of boundaries and difference, or does it signify the choices of Merwin as the translator? One speaks to a stunning and jarring idea about the universality of art, while the might speak to the limitations of the translator. We cannot know, but for Merwin to discussed this issue past pithy references to this question would have been divine.

Yet, I cannot begrudge Merwin for what he did not do. A translator of poetry, especially of the esoteric kind, is a thankless task. We cannot measure their achievement through any of our regular standards. Even if we like a poem, how can we tell what we like about the poem, the original or the translation? In a sense, this is often the case with all translations, but in other realms we can at least gauge part of their achievement. When Lydia Davis translates Swann’s Way readers can at least compare her translation to the previous reigning champion. Yet, even this only speaks to which translation appeals to our sensibilities, not which translation captures what of the original. With Merwin we are two steps removed from his talents, his process. We cannot even begin to compare it to the original Persian or Japanese etc, and we, for the most part cannot compare it to other translations. We read in the dark reaping the benefits of someone else’s work, uncertain who to praise or thank or for what. This more academic question need not hamper your enjoyment of this important volume. Instead, you can choose to see it as a impressive testament to the enduring value and beauty of the poetry permeating the globe.

Joe Winkler is a freelance writer living in the Upper West Side. When not ingesting all things cultural, he attends classes for a Masters in English Literature at City College. To support this extravagant lifestyle, Joe teaches, tutors and babysits, unabashedly. He started writing with a personal blog -, which allows him to indulge the ramblings of his mind. He began his writing career after he quit a Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology because he realized that he likes people more in the abstract than in reality. More from this author →