Thursday, October 16, 2008

Slowly but surely the excrement of foreign poets will come to your village

Slowly but surely the excrement of foreign poets will come to your village -- Mali proverb

Could be that's a bad translation of the proverb - but I love it. And speaking of translation... (bad segue alert!) ... Did you know that Robert Frost never actually wrote the words, "Poetry is what gets lost in translation?"

According to Frost scholar (and Poetry Foundation Archive Editor) James Sitar, "It is not found anywhere in his prose, and probably nowhere in his notebooks, but instead he said it (or versions of it) probably dozens of times in public talks/lectures. As a result, a search for the first mention or reference to Frost’s saying this phrase would have to rely on the retelling of it through a reporter in a news story."
Here’s the one mention of the lost-in-translation idea in print; it's from a Frost interview published by the Paris Review in 1960: “I could define poetry this way: It is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.”

Here’s a link to a summary of the search for Frost’s original and actual quotation.
Jim adds that Frost delivered over 300 lectures in the last 15 years of his life, and points out that he frequently repeated himself in these appearances. And so:

Exhibit A: Frost at Dartmouth College, May 18, 1953: "Let me say one more thing that poetry is: poetry is that that evaporates from both prose and verse when it’s translated."

Exhibit B: Frost at Dartmouth College, December 15, 1954
"And among the little liberties is this one: to say that poetry is that which from both prose and verse evaporates when translated. Or put it a little better if I say it the other way (put the words in a different order): poetry is that which evaporates from both prose and verse when translated. It’s that sort of something in both prose and verse that defies the translator. That’s all. And you can come on me and say 'do you mean that you don’t read any in translation?' And the answer is 'I don’t any more than I can help.' I’m not a purist exactly—I don’t go on absolutes—but I’m always ... say this again: I think poorly of any reader that didn’t confess he was troubled at least once a page in translation, on some word, saying to himself 'if this is as good as they say it is, it can’t be a correct translation of it.'"

"Of course," Jim adds, "it’s one (difficult) thing to document what he said; it’s a different one to interpret what he actually meant."

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