An Interview With Translator Wyatt Mason

Max Winter

P&W: Some would argue that literal translation is the only acceptable way of proceeding without losing the poem.

WM: Literal translation is a necessary fiction. Borges says the idea of literal translation comes from translations of the Bible: "If we think of the infinite intelligence of God undertaking a literary task, then every word, every letter, must have been thought out. It might be blasphemy to tamper with the text written by an endless, eternal intelligence." Borges found the idea of literal translation distasteful. He liked to imagine a time when "translation will be considered something in itself . . . when men will care for beauty, not for the circumstances of beauty." Because: A poem is always lost in translation. So the key is finding it again in the language you're translating into. The whole "literalism and its discontents" kerfuffle can't be resolved-both sides have their points-but at least it can be anecdotally fun.

There's the story about Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson. Nabokov, who never spent more than six years on a novel, spent twelve on his translation of Pushkin's Onegin. He considered it the most important work of Russian literature, and dedicated himself to seeing justice done to it in English. The whole thing-notes, introduction, commentary-ends up being four volumes, around a thousand pages, Nabokov's longest work. A masterpiece, one would think. When it comes out, Nabokov's old friend Wilson reviews it. And trashes it. Says Nabokov doesn't know Russian, gets words wrong. He also accuses Nabokov of being too literal, of stubbornly and pedantically refusing to put his considerable poetical gifts at the service of approximating the beauty of Pushkin's Russian in English.

On one hand, Wilson's response is just silly. Nabokov spoke and wrote English, French, and Russian with equal facility: In his phrase, he was born "a perfectly normal tri-lingual child." Wilson was a dedicated student of Russian, but the idea of him correcting Nabokov on that count is comical. What isn't so ridiculous is for Wilson to chastise Nabokov's reluctance to come up with more lyrical solutions than he does. That's an entirely reasonable point of view, one philosophically at odds with Nabokov's position: He wasn't trying to be lyrical. He was trying to be exact, to create a useful book for students, not a poem of equal value, which he believed was impossible. If he'd had the time, Nabokov would have translated a great deal more, and with the same objective. This was a man who taught comp-lit for over a decade at Cornell, fighting through what he considered abominable translations. If we look at his copies of the Constance Garnett Anna Karenina or the Muirs' Kafka, he's always correcting them. Nabokov's allegiance, as a translator, was to students of the original, of whom he was one. Any translator's ultimate allegiance must be to his readers, but always in the service of his writers.

Literal translations, like Nabokov's Onegin, Wallace Fowlie's Rimbaud, or Donald Frame's Montaigne, are valuable scholarly works of unimpeachable integrity and seriousness. But none captures the very quality that makes each writer most unique: his style. Since most readers of works in translation will never read the original, translations destined for the general reader must convey style and substance in equal measure. To do so, the translator requires (in Nabokov's famous formula) "a scholar's passion and a poet's patience blent." How each of us interprets that equation is, of course, where the fun begins.

P&W: What value do you think reconsidering Rimbaud would have for contemporary readers and writers?

WM: When we look at Rimbaud, we can't see him. There's the same problem with Van Gogh. Van Gogh isn't a painter anymore: He's "the patron saint of the beaux-arts." We look at a wheatfield and see a suicide; we look at a self-portrait and think about the whore he gave a piece of his ear to as a Christmas gift; we see squiggles and think of him dying for his art. We don't see pictures: We see fame. Rimbaud's mythic posterity has done a similar disservice to his poetry.

If we think of Rimbaud at all we think of the gay poet, or the adolescent poet, or the drug-addicted poet. These labels are problematic for all sorts of reasons, beginning with the facts of his life, which often don't support the more exotic claims made for his biography. Regardless of what he may or may not have lived, we know without a doubt that he wrote poems. We even have them available to us. Yet it's inevitable that when we go to the poems with such preconceptions, they're all we end up finding.

The basic example: Letters and manuscripts bear out beyond any doubting that Rimbaud and poet Paul Verlaine were close friends. What follows from these facts is instructive: first, a supposition made by most of the biographers (variously corroborated through anecdote and documentation), that Verlaine and Rimbaud were lovers; then, in the hands of recent biographers such as Graham Robb, a deduction that Rimbaud was firmly gay; followed by an interpretation by writers such as Benjamin Ivry (in his Rimbaud of a few years back), that Rimbaud's poems are gay poems; and finally, by Rimbaud critic Robert Greer Cohen, a conclusion that A Season in Hell, Rimbaud's best-known work, should be read as the story of Verlaine and Rimbaud's affair. This maddening plunge into conjecture, assumption, and narrow-mindedness is the rule of law in reading Rimbaud. Take the pages of critical space devoted to his self-proclaimed "long, involved, and logical derangement of all the senses." It makes him seem like a wild-man, a hell-raiser, an image to which many have grown attached: poet as party-animal.

I am not saying that Rimbaud wasn't a wild-man. Rather, that I neither know nor care. What I know, after the chronological study that translating his complete works entailed, is evidence of an entirely different sort of fellow: a methodical poet who underwent a long, involved and logical engagement with the history of poetry. For when I translated those parts of his legacy that no one had bothered to translate before, a new Rimbaud emerged. Translating his student works, an early notebook, multiple drafts of key poems, and his fragmentary rough draft of A Season in Hell, I watched a poet deliberately forge an individual style by stealing from his predecessors. By looking, I saw-perhaps more clearly than with any other poet-how Rimbaud became Rimbaud. So many collected works of the Great Poets are these unassailable tomes. Eliot and Yeats and so many others pruned their Complete Works into a final, canonical form, discarding lesser efforts, or adjusting lines here and there, or, as with Whitman, rewriting one poem for 37 years. Rimbaud's complete works are a partial mess, full of perfect and imperfect things. I don't claim this makes him better or worse, only unique: His art remains forever unfinished. It's full of false starts and wrong turns, and even a surprisingly happy ending. That happy ending, in the form of A Season in Hell and Illuminations, is the creation of a unique poetic voice, that, like all art, is one imagination speaking to another. And that's always worth reconsideration.