Online Edition: Summer 2004

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Writing Through

Translations and Variations

Jerome Rothenberg

Wesleyan University Press ($24.95)

by Jen Besemer

I had thought for a long time of preparing a book of selected translations and was faced again and again by the dilemma of where translations end and my other writings begin.... I have had a need (I emphasize: a need) to translate and, by translating, to connect with the work and the thought of other poets—a matter of singular importance to me in what I have long taken to be my "project" and the central activity of my life as a poet.
               —Jerome Rothenberg

“Selected works” volumes are often challenging for their authors, as Jerome Rothenberg suggests above, but for readers, especially those seeking a good overview of a person's oeuvre, they can be extremely valuable. Writing Through, which covers Rothenberg's masterful "translations and variations" of the works of other poets, is an unusual collection, as is fitting for a poet of unusual range. In a sense, these provide a much more intimate portrait of Jerome Rothenberg than that offered by his original poems—whatever "original" might mean for a poet whose process involves an active dialogue with otherness, whether cultural or outside the conventional definition of poetry or language, having little relation to the popular "hermetic" notion of poetic composition.

Focusing on translations allows readers to gain an appreciation of Jerome Rothenberg as a poet, certainly, but also (and perhaps more intriguingly) as an editor and above all, as a reader of poetry. (This word, "reader," is inadequate especially when discussing Rothenberg's translations of non-written or non-verbal poetry, so it must be understood here as meaning something more akin to participant.) Writing Through is a great help to those who may be unfamiliar with Rothenberg's large, exciting, translation-heavy anthologies, such as Technicians of the Sacred and the two-volume Poems for the Millennium.

One particularly engaging aspect of Writing Through is the occasional commentary introducing sections of work or illuminating individual poems. This is an area in which we clearly see Rothenberg-as-reader, as he lets us inside his translation process. Translation begins with the reading or experience of what is being translated, of course; depending on one's relationship to the language, the first translation any work receives is the private, "silent" one taking place in the mind of the translator. In his commentaries, Rothenberg gives us a glimpse into not only his process of choosing how to render his translations, but also lets us in on the very private experience of a poet encountering what would be, in many cases, life-changing poems. Poets speak like lovers in discussing what other poets and poetries mean to them, because love is the foundation of that meaning, in many ways. It may be mixed with intellectual interpretation, philosophical coloring, or political concerns, but underneath all of that is the original passion which demands that the poet form the ongoing relationship to the work which is essential to the translation process.

Consider the emphasized word in Rothenberg's "Pre-Face:" need. The most careful and passionate translators of poets can only be other poets. Tristan Tzara wrote, in the 1940s, of "poetic necessity," and this is the need that Rothenberg identifies; for poet/translators the need may be magnified and intensified by a kind of desperation or frustration at the unavailability of beloved poets in one's home language. When the poetry in question is dynamic, alive, and unconstrained by the narrativist pressures of the English language (and the Cartesian obsession for the rational in European literature)—specifically, in Rothenberg's ethnopoetic work—this passionate/poetic necessity becomes even clearer.

The effectiveness of Rothenberg's translations derives in large part from the sense of need which drove them. Without that need the result would have been cold texts—reports, accounts, records—and not poems. Whether the poetic ethnography is more accurate than the "objective" is a fine and fascinating debate. However, Rothenberg prefers to focus on the poetry itself, and on its making. His translation never cheats the reader out of the imaginative experience, nor does it claim some faux-scientific distancing, and yet it is respectful and an act of honoring in itself. More than that, it contains information, often in great detail. Look at this section from the sequence "15 Flower World Variations," based on Yaqui Deer Dance songs:

o flower fawn
               about to come out playing
                              in this flower water
out there
               in the flower world
                              the patio of flowers
in the flower water
               playing
                              flower fawn
about to come out playing
               in this flower water

This "variation" preserves and carries forward the Yaqui love for the deer honored in the Deer Dance, the sense of unity in the many worlds of the Yaqui culture, and the feeling of the dance itself, in the cyclical repetitions of phrases. But it is clearly not meant to be a narrative or observational record of a dance ritual event. The event, the dance, makes itself felt through the arrangement of the lines, choices of certain words, etc., all of which are standard elements of poetic composition and entirely within the hands of the poet.

Jerome Rothenberg is one of a very few contemporary U.S. poets who really examine, explore, and explode the question, "What is poetry and what is it for?" His answers are constantly evolving and always compelling. Writing Through shares some of those answers, and leaves readers themselves asking good questions. Through the work of poets like Rothenberg, poetry is immediate, ever new, and necessary.

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Summer 2004 Table of Contents