On Hiroaki Sato

August Kleinzahler

The act of making a poem – and it is a made thing, like an Assyrian brooch or Bolognese sauce (thus the word makar for ‘poet’ in old Scots) – requires a large set of decisions, at least dozens, more likely hundreds, even in the shortest of poems. The translation of a poem from one language to another requires a large and not dissimilar range of decisions or, slender as the distinction may be, choices, in order to deliver the poem, still breathing, into a different language, culture and often era. There is a large and fascinating literature about the act and art of translation, often described metaphorically, as by Christopher Middleton: ‘The translator has to imagine his way on the tentacles of language through to the bedrock sea bottom of the imagination of his author.’ Some translators, like Middleton, are poets, most are not, but the capabilities needed to render a first-rate translation overlap with those required in the making of the original. A translator’s decisions involve overall tone, diction, syntactical arrangement, punctuation, rhythm, lexical intent, assorted phonic elements, organisation (shape, development), formal considerations like syllabic count, lineation and rhyme and other intangibles that rely on poetic intuition or instinct. There’s more than a touch of making one’s way in the dark, no guidebook to hand. A misstep or poor decision can be ruinous. Most translations, like most poems, fail.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in