Editors:Martha Collins and Kevin Prufer
Publisher: Graywolf Press
ISBN: 978-1-55597-792-4

Translating simple prose—a news article, an instruction manual, a contract—can be difficult. Translating literary prose ups the ante. And translating poetry is fraught.

(Just to see what would happen, I ran my second sentence above through Google Translate which  came up with, "Tradurre la prosa letteraria aumenta la posta." Back translate that and you get, "Translating literary prose increases the mail." In Japanese the sentence becomes, "文学的な散文を翻訳することは、分かります." Back translate that and you get, "I understand translating literary proses.")

Martha Collins, in her Introduction to Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries, writes that seeing "what different translators have done with the same poem immediately eliminates easy assumptions that beginning translators often make: that there is a single way, a most correct way, or a best way to translate a poem."

To disabuse beginning translators (and anyone interested in translation or in poetry or both) Collins and her co-editor Kevin Prufer have produced a fascinating book. It contains twenty-five commentaries on as many poems. The poems all appear in the original language and these include ancient Greek, Latin, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Italian, French, modern Greek, German, Turkish, Russian, Portuguese, German, Polish, Hebrew, Arabic, Swedish, Romanian, and Haitian Creole. The poets include Sappho, Virgil, Leopardi, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Cavafy, Rilke, Akamatova, Pasternak, Vallejo, Garcia Lorca, Celan, Szymborska, Amichai. Tranströmer.

What makes Into English unique is that there are three translations (and sometimes more) of each poem and commentary by a fourth scholar/translator/poet. These give background on the poet and the poem, an indication of the translator's challenge, and a discussion of the different translations. 

"A translation may go smoothly for a while," Collins writes, "and then come upon a section or a line that, for any number of reasons (semantic, syntactic, stylistic, cultural), runs into trouble. The trouble spots are the places where multiple translations are most apt to differ. Looking at them carefully can take us more deeply into the nuances of both the original language and English—and, more generally, challenge our assumptions about how language works." That last point alone is worth the price of the book.

I was particularly interested in a 1680 Basho haiku: 枯枝に烏のとまりたるや.秋の暮 (Kare'eda ni karasu no tomaritaru ya aki no kure).

Here's the 1902 translation by Basil Hall Chamberlain:

The end of autumn, and some rooks
Are perched on a withered branch.

 Here's Harold G. Henderson's 1925 translation:

     On a leafless bough

A crow is sitting — autumn,

     Darkening now —

And finally Nobuyuki Yuasa's 1966 translation:

A black crow

Has settled himself

On a leafless tree

Fall on an autumn day.

Three versions of the poem's four nouns and one verb—all valid. Hiroaki Sato's commentary points out the translator's immediate challenge is that most Japanese nouns don't distinguish between countable and uncountable, so one crow or many. Also, aki no kure means either "an autumn evening" or "late autumn" or both. So, as in many haiku, the meaning shimmers.

I am not a poet, and I do not translate poetry. Into English however is wonderfully stimulating with fascinating discussions of the poets, the poems, and the different attempts (always attempts, never final realizations) to render them in English.