May 2012

Problems in Poetic Translation

How Erin Mouré redefines what it means to work between languages

Translating any kind of literature is as much of an art as writing it in the first place. Transferring tone, pace and cadence between languages requires a special kind of expertise, a thorough knowledge of the ins and outs of both the source and the resulting language. And that's just for prose. How does one even go about trying to translate a poem? Not only must the literal content of the translated work roughly match the original, but rhyme, meter and general flow must in some way be preserved. Even the very shape of the word matters in poetry--the length of the line, the sculpture of the stanza, the way the poem carves out its architecture across the blank page. I can hardly fathom the skill it must take to produce a satisfactory replica of a poem in another tongue.

Erin Mouré plays with the inherent difficulty of translation all across her work. While she does wield sharp linguistic skills, the real power of her translations comes through in her aesthetic intuition--her ability to get at the real feel of a poem without necessarily staying true to the letter of it. Her 2010 book O Resplandor is the mixed-genre result of her attempts to translate an entire book of poetry from its original Romanian--a language she does not read or speak. The poems within are the translations, cushioned with semi-fictional and wildly imaginative prose that details her creative process.