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November 2016 and November 2018

The idea of translating was also a prompt here two years ago. This month's poems reflects the best of both submission periods.

This year we said that one poem in Charles Baudelaire's collection Fleurs du mal  (a title that easily translates to Flowers of Evil) is "Harmonie du soir," and just looking at the first stanza of that poem in several translations shows us the "problem" with translations.

Baudelaire wrote:

Voici venir les temps où vibrant sur sa tige
Chaque fleur s'évapore ainsi qu'un encensoir;
Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l'air du soir;
Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!

That stanza was translated by William Aggeler as:

The season is at hand when swaying on its stem
Every flower exhales perfume like a censer;
Sounds and perfumes turn in the evening air;
Melancholy waltz and languid vertigo!

But in the translation by Roy Campbell, the stanza becomes:

Now comes the eve, when on its stem vibrates
Each flower, evaporating like a censer;
When sounds and scents in the dark air grow denser;
Drowsed swoon through which a mournful waltz pulsates!

Cyril Scott translated that stanza in this way:

The hour approacheth, when, as their stems incline,
The flowers evaporate like an incense urn,
And sounds and scents in the vesper breezes turn;
A melancholy waltz — and a drowsiness divine.

And the version translated by Lewis Piaget Shanks looks like this:

the hours approach when vibrant in the breeze,
a censer swoons to every swaying flower;
blown tunes and scents in turn enchant the bower;
languorous waltz of swirling fancies these!

Which translation is the right one, or the best one, or the closest to what Baudelaire would have wanted to say in English?

We didn't ask poets to do actual translations of poems since many of us don't have multiple languages to use. Let us think about other instances of translation in our lives.

In "Elegy in Translation" by Meg Day, she notes something we have all done - hearing a song lyric incorrectly:  "I saw Joni [Mitchel] live and still thought a gay pair of guys put up a parking lot."  Even after hearing the song sung live - like hearing a poet at a reading - she didn't hear the correct Joni Mitchell lyric ("They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.") though she may have known by then that was the actual line.

In the haiku-like "Elvis in Translation" by Elaine Equi, she writes about one of the other kinds of translations we do in our lives.

"Sometimes the blue in Blue Hawaii
gets lost. But Elvis’s eyes speak
pure Esperanto."

My own thought is that we are all translators, whether it be in our everyday lives or in the ways that we take experiences and translate them into poems for others to read and experience. So, in 2018, we asked poets to focus on the act of translation in any form - actually translating from one language to another, interpreting and translating a conversation in our own language or a gesture or a facial reaction, a baby's cry, a pet's attitude, the meaning of clouds moving towards you - the possibilities are wide open and many. Is that translation accurate, successful, or is something lost or mistranslated?

Back in 2016, we asked poets to think about translation in a somewhat different way.

"As you know, translation is really a problem-solving task. Every once in a while you see the original and something comes into your head that is also a formal solution to the problem of getting it into lively English, and you feel like you've written a poem. But that's pretty rare. I wouldn't exactly say it's more like doing crossword puzzles than it is like writing poetry, but it's a mix of the two. "   - Robert Hass, "Interview: A Common Language"

Ask Google Translate to do its work on "poets online" and you will get in Italian "poeti in linea" and in French "poètes en ligne" and, though I can't read Japanese, I'm sure that  詩人オンライン is also a "poet on a line" of some type. Something is certainly "lost in translation." 

Translation is difficult. Edward Hirsch says that "Strictly speaking, total translation is impossible, since languages differ and each language carries its own complex of linguistic resources, historical and social values. This is especially true in poetry, the maximal of language."

The translation of poetry needs something more than simply translating words and getting the same general meaning. In defining "translation" for his Poets Glossary, Edward Hirsch notes: 

"That’s why its untranslatability has been one of the defining features of poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the word untranslatableness. Robert Frost famously said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” An Italian pun captures the idea: traduttore/traditore, translator/traitor. You can find advice about translating poetry, but I am interested here more in using poetry to talk about translation."

We sometimes say, "Let me translate that for you" meaning that we will rephrase something complex into a more understandable form.  We use the expression "in simple English" in this way.

Richard Blanco's poem"Translation for Mamá" begins:

"What I’ve written for you, I have always written
in English, my language of silent vowel endings
never translated into your language of silent h’s.
     Lo que he escrito para ti, siempre lo he escrito
en inglés, en mi lengua llena de vocales mudas
nunca traducidas a tu idioma de haches mudas
. "

He writes his poems and he also translates the words into his mother's Spanish.

But "How do I say it?” is what Joy Harjo is really concerned with in her prose poem “Deer Dancer..”  Though she can be referring to the language of her own Mvskoke/Creek Nation, she is also talking about the inadequacies of all languages.  

"How do I say it?  In this language there are no words for how the real world collapses.  I could say it in my own and the sacred mounds would come into focus, but I couldn’t take it in this dingy envelope.  So I look at the stars in this strange city, frozen to the back of the sky, the only promises that ever make sense."

Harjo is trying to tell a story about an incident in a bar, but language can't quite convey all that happened there that night.

"Nearly everyone had left that bar in the middle of winter except the hardcore.  It was the coldest night of the year, every place shut down, but not us.  Of course we noticed when she came in.  We were Indian ruins.  She was the end of beauty.  No one knew her, the stranger whose tribe we recognized, her family related to deer, if that’s who she was, a people accustomed to hearing songs in pine trees, and making them hearts."

The word "translation" derives from the Latin translatio, which in turn comes from trans- and fero, meaning “to carry across” or “to bring across.” It usually mean the transfer of meaning from one language to another, but it also is what we do in interpreting the world around us every day.

One of my poems is about this everyday translating we do - from other languages, in interpreting the world and certainly in writing and reading poetry.


My grandparents would speak Slovak
with my father, the aunts and the uncles
at the Sunday dinners at their home in Newark
when they didn’t want us to know.
In those days, the priests spoke Latin.
That was the mystery of the faith.
The boys on the #42 bus spoke Spanish
as I rode to my afterschool job
and when they laughed, looking in my direction.
Too fast for my B+  Spanish III  understanding
but enough that it hurt.
The waiter at the Chinese restaurant
changes my order into words
that I want to understand, 
but will  never know.
This is the poet’s job, 
and the job of the reader too.
We have been in training
all our lives.
  - Kenneth Ronkowitz

Our 2016 writing prompt was to write a poem about translation in any of those three ways: from other languages, in interpreting the world, or in writing and reading poetry.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


In this place of precipice are horses.
Flanks glistening sun on silver stone,
eyes blazing wise.
One is magnificent, one is wild
and shaggy as a woolly mammoth.
They run on the wordless wind.
Are they trainable?
Enormous nostrils and hooves.
They don’t fit your halters.
They have no English.
They were bred of precipice
before you were born.
Can you handle them? Teach them
to dance with you? What music,
what steps in this place of precipice?

Taylor Graham


The aroma of oyster stew
fills the apartment.
The TV carries the news.
In his wooden tub Poseidon sings
dirges for the Achaeans.
Over dinner Ajax remarks,
“I have no idea
what you’re singing about.”

The Rosy Finger. The pink blush.
Hera turns her eyes away.
No more of this bloody war.
Her husband exhausted
by her side. “Zeus Stormgatherer,”
she thinks, laughing,
“Zeus Woolgatherer.”
She returns to the business at hand,
knocking Hector senseless.
Where is the poetry in that?

Daniel Spinella


Do you remember how it all began?
How we could read each other’s thoughts
Complete each other’s sentences
Back then, we could communicate
Knew exactly what the other meant
We hardly needed words

When did we begin to change?
Begin to drift apart
Did you even notice?
Recognize the part you played
In losing some of what we had
That perfect marriage we had made?

I’m not saying that it was your fault
Not blaming you for this
I think we were distracted
There were warning signs we missed
The stress that crept into our lives
A lack of passion when we kissed

It didn’t happen overnight
We didn’t lose it all at once
It broke apart in little chunks
We hardly noticed they were gone
Until we couldn’t overlook
The effort that it took to understand

But now there’s no denying
The growing gap between
What I say and what you hear
Hurt feelings, anger, frequent tears
I ask myself if it’s too late
For us to reconnect

It’s not that I don’t love you
Don’t cherish what we had
I just don’t know what I can do
You always seem so sad

Frank Kelly


She sat, mute, looking at the kitchen floor
as if studying a specimen in a jar,
shoulders hunched forward, feet apart,
hair hanging down hiding her face.

I could not see her eyes, but her hands
twisted and untwisted a dirty towel,
forwards and backwards, taut and lax,
the only movement of her rigid pose.

A fly landed on a plate, scraping its legs,
and children’s voices floated in the door,
while off in the soft evening air the sound
of a train moaned as it crossed a road.

On the floor, completing the tableaux,
an overturned chair, with red, viscous
blood spreading out in all directions
from a kitchen knife, squarely in his chest.

Robert Miller


YOU are the language that you speak
taken in with mother's milk
before you've even lived a week
or taken a peek
at what you'll later call green or blue
That's YOU
more than you will ever know
if you never venture forth - never go
to someplace where, for instance,
there's fifteen words for what you call snow!
Since the first time you read the first line
of the Gospel according to John
you believed he said that God was a word -
at least that's all I ever heard
until I went to France
where the Greek was rendered
as verb.
Well, I don't know about you,
but that sounds a bit more true
to my ears.
And it opened my eyes
to the danger of transmitting lies
even without meaning to.

Timea Deinhardt


As I walked through the gate, I set my intention,
Before setting off across the field.
I walk consciously. Mindfully. And slowly,
To avoid disturbing the cows, peacefully grazing
In the soft, summer light.

I walk in innocence, in a meditative state,
Acutely aware of the swooping swallows,
The calls from the rookery in the trees to my left,
The smell of warm cow, of warm cow-pat,
And of fresh-cut grass in the next field over,
Gently mellowing into hay.

I’m alert, scanning for the smallest sign
That may be a message, or part of a message,
From the Universe, from Great Spirit.
Maybe from God, but that’s not a name I use,
Buried as it is beneath millennia of baggage and bloodshed.

Circling back now, back towards the gate,
I am moved to rest beneath a magnificent oak,
My back against its ancient trunk,
To sit. To be. To observe.
I close my eyes to further empower my ears.
When there’s sound and movement in front of me,
I keep them closed, aware of something unfolding
For my benefit, in service to my intention.

When the footsteps and shuffles and grunts have stopped,
And there’s only snuffly breathing to be heard,
I open my eyes - slowly,
Lest even my moving eyelids break the spell -
And there, lying right at my feet,
Looking straight at me,
Is a beautiful Jersey cow, with a horribly runny nose.

It feels like her huge, dark eyes are looking
Deep into my soul.
She’s so close, I can almost touch her,
And her breathing is laboured and rasping.

On a medicine walk, one of my key guiding principles is this:
The more unusual the event, the more important the message.
As she gazed at me, and I looked at her,
I silently asked - What are you here to tell me?
The answer came back almost immediately -
I represent your feminine side. And I am sick.

I let the revelation sink in,
Hearing the clear, soft, persistent ring of truth.
I sat still, under that beautiful oak,
Long after she’d got to her feet and wandered away,
Right till the sun was low in the sky,
By which time I’d vowed to connect
With the female aspect of my being,
To love, to nurture, to engage and to heal.

As I headed home, it struck me
That she was the only Jersey in the entire herd.
As I passed her, she completely ignored me,
And her nose had regained a healthy shine.

Damon Leigh


The oak rocker swayed to a
slow, but steady rhythm
controlled by my grandfather's
feet. It creaked over the
gaudy, green linoleum floor.
I was young, maybe five,
sitting on his knee as
he patiently taught me
how to count in Italian.
Uno, due, tre, quattro,
cinque and Grandma
waiting to fill my belly
with apricot nectar and
chocolate wafers.

Marie A. Mennuto-Rovello


She sat, mute, looking at the kitchen floor
as if studying a specimen in a jar,
shoulders hunched forward, feet apart,
hair hanging down hiding her face.

I could not see her eyes, but her hands
twisted and untwisted a dirty towel,
forwards and backwards, taut and lax,
the only movement of her rigid pose.

A fly landed on a plate, scraping its legs,
and children’s voices floated in the door,
while off in the soft evening air the sound
of a train moaned as it crossed a road.

On the floor, completing the tableaux,
an overturned chair, with red, viscous
blood spreading out in all directions
from a kitchen knife, squarely in his chest.

Robert Miller


Music may be a universal language,
but lyrics need translation.
The notes never became a language for me.
Just odd little birds sitting on power lines.
My teacher scolded me for thumbs on black notes
and wasn’t happy when I pointed out later
that it worked out okay for those first notes
of “Moonlight Sonata.”
The meter never carried over to poetry for me.
4/5 time made my pinkie and ring finger tire.
I never became fluent.
Never translated without thinking about translating.
Each performance was a trapeze act without a net,
but every poetry reading is a series of flying moves,
A Straddle Whip, Bird's Nest, Shooting Star,
even a Triple Twisting Double and no fear,
because there is a net and I can fall
flat on my face and bounce to my feet.
I have heard that when you master a language,
you begin to dream in that language.
There is never music in my dreams.
No sonatas while sleeping.
But sonnets slip into and out,
and always in a language I fully understand.

Lianna Wright


“Impatient déjà d’expier son offense,
Au devant de ton bras je le sens qui s’avance.”
(Racine. Phèdre II. v. 705-6.)

“In haste to expiate its wicked lust,
My heart already leaps to meet your thrust.”
(Translated by. Richard Wilbur.)

“I feel it now, eager to expiate
Its sin, advance toward your arm.”
(Trans. Kenneth Muir) Heart-to-heart is but a poet’s dream—
Or tête-à-tête, perhaps a better name.
Through words to make inchoate sense alive,
Lift passion up and make it thrive.
To take the raw and hidden urge below
And cloak its strength to pacify its foe.
But “what is love?” the driven poet asks—
He cannot tell, but labors at the task.
Love and lust, so intertwined and caught,
Like Psyche’s grains we cannot tease them out
But must use words to mediate our bent,
And words, themselves, but pale reflections sent,
Poor ambassadors of what is meant.
Even flesh and blood, as Berkeley knew,
Are percepts in the mind, a bubbling stew
Where synapses fire to create mind—
Another faulty construct of our kind.
At last, we’re left alone to seek a mate,
Fulfill our destiny, speak, translate.

Robert Miller


The Deaf man in the waiting room
asks me how long I’ve been working
as an interpreter. I tell him
many years. Awesome, he says.
We sit there chatting, waiting
for the doctor to come.

He tells me a little about himself.
His parents and grandparents are Deaf.
His siblings are Deaf. His two young children
are fourth generation Deaf. The hereditary
master status of a kind of Deaf aristocracy
in the Deaf world. And I am duly
impressed. My turn to say: Awesome.

He is getting his Ph.D. in sociolinguistics.
His signing is graceful, fluid, symphonic--
like water everywhere seeking its own
level. Chatting him up in the waiting room
is a pure joy, one of the perks
of my profession.

But the doctor is dumb about Deaf people.
In the little examining room
he doesn’t address the Deaf man directly
but tells me to “tell him” this, “ask him” that.
The Deaf man notices, tells the doctor
to tell him himself, in the second person.
But the doctor doesn’t know what the second person is.

He examines the Deaf man but he doesn’t
see him. He doesn’t look in his eyes.
He says to say “Ahh,” but the Deaf man
refuses to vocalize, mouth wide open,
fists forming at his sides, uvula
hanging there like a punching bag,
silent and motionless,
while we wait.

Paul Hostovsky


love is a river that runs south to north/l'amour est un fleuve qui fonctionne au sud
au nord/it grows wilder and colder the edges are the color of new paper bleached
and dried/il se développe plus sauvage et plus froid les bords sont la couleur
du nouveau papier blanchie et sèche/stacked with smooth hard edges like the bones
of the eaten fish tossed into a pile, as if they were the prize/empilé avec les bords
durs doux aimez les os des poissons mangés, jetés en l'air dans une pile, comme
s'ils étaient le prix/not like the conch shells who show their wealth and mystery
in their hollow darkness, instead these inner’s of desire, the picked over bones
of pink flesh, this is what is left. this white edge separates the river from me/pas
comme les coquilles de conque qui montrent leur richesse et mystère dans leur
obscurité creuse, au lieu de cela ceci intérieure du désir, les os finis sélectionnés
de la chair rose, ceci est ce qui est laissé. ce bord blanc sépare le fleuve de moiit/
is this thin line one day i must cross that will carry me away/c'est cette ligne mince
pendant un jour où je dois croiser qui m'emportera

Patty Joslyn


I am the site
of translation
of communal gasp
into trembling arms
the moment air turns cold
into slowing
My eyes don’t focus.
Prism glasses translate
the shapes of raised eyebrows
text on a screen
into the quickening of pulse—
my heart beats the earthquake
into human terms
the shattered glass
into breath.

Michelle Lerner


The interpretive sign says
the indigenous name of this place
is from the Nisenan, who ground acorns
in bedrock mortars above these waterways,
whose far-thinking chieftain kept them
from war and alcohol, and the pox.
This place in the fertile, rolling hill-country
they called Ek-al Pakan, which
the sign translates to “dry spring” or
“where the spring dries.” I want to know,
is “spring” the season? brief glorious
green-gushy time when the lake fledges
full and swallows swoop, the egret’s
a white El Greco motionless in wetlands
where the creek flows in. Or is “spring”
a source bubbling out of earth,
in this land so prone to drought, between
river canyon and high mountains?
The question hangs in the way
of interpretation, translation, carrying
water in a basket of tule roots
and willow twigs woven by
a hand not graced in the wise old ways.

Taylor Graham


Long ago, in Psych 101,
I studied many fanciful things,
Like the ego, the superego and the id.

Scraps of that education have marred me,
Like embarrassing acne scars, ever since,
As today, at the local Publix,
I notice on the young cashier’s breast
A badge reading “We check ID’s.”

Initially, I feel guilty for staring at her,
Then annoyed, that her company is pushing the corporate Jesus thing too far,
Assuring me that, even if I can’t, it can control my desires.

Only, after a moment, do I interpret the badge
As a notice to underage drinkers,
That before buying the beer they need
For a night of clumsy groping in their father’s pick-up,
They must document their age.

As I decline the bag boy’s offer to carry my groceries to the car,
I sneak a second glimpse at the cashier’s small breasts,
Which, as she hands me my slip, she notices,
Her smile saying she has no need for my id.

Ron Yazinski


"Vinegar!" "Vinegar!" My sister and I called to the little dog belonging to our Aunt Honey (Antoinette) and Uncle Nick (Nicola)
"Vieni qua!" my Italian uncle amusingly corrected - "Come here!" And with that voila! Ta-da! Little Lila appeared
Ahh the power of one word - at least when spoken correctly

"!Ven Aqui!" shouted the Puerto Rican parents of my friend Millie (Milagros) when she was being beckoned for some mischievous transgression
"!Oye!" "!Mira!" - Listen! Look! Or less literally stated "Hey!" Both employed by Mr. Martinez though not as frequently as "Déjalo"- leave your little brother alone

I remember my dad, after another long Italian family goodbye, after another long Italian family dinner
with his "let's make a break" - first relayed to my mom and then transmitted down the ranks to us kids
So in contrast to the poly-syllabic and molto-melodic "andiamo!" or "let's go!"

"!Espera!"- Wait! - let's linger a bit here
"Andiamo" Say it - Ahn-dee-ah-moh
Now "!digame!" Tell me - can you hear the promise of adventure? Something beginning rather than ending?
Might you be tempted to take the hand of a stranger who offered up that one word?
And perhaps, like Lila, you just might follow

Words that call for immediate action and others that stop us and shut us down just as quickly
as when Mrs. Martinez had enough of her bickering "hijos" it was "!Guyate!"
which basically means, be it filled with flan or apple pie - child, "shut your pie hole"

Once on a train headed back from Coney Island a Greek neighbor calmly and efficiently peeled hard-boiled eggs
As I ate my now crunchy peanut butter and jelly sand-wich on white,
she urged her children Costa and Maria, with "Éla!" "Come!" and eat
Eat as in the no introduction needed "Mangia!" - or the Spanish "!Come!"or the Greek "Fáo!"

I remember them all - the once unknown known
Not just decoded but transformed - by speaker and receiver (intended or not)
Words and moments connected forever - my words, my moments, my forever
Requests, commands, fierce invitations to partake, to commune
To accept - not just what is being asked or offered
but to embrace the unspoken, the untranslatable
- that which we sometimes call "Amore," "Amor," "Agape"

Terri J. Guttilla


My business is to translate
Listen or read carefully,
Even simply looking
At the gestures, if only to
Understand the verbal tone.
Everyone is supposed to be
On the same base
Except the people who wash
And dry their dirty laundry
In public despite family rules.
Inappropriate translator
Meant anything but the missionary
Position when it came to love.
Ambivalent translator
Who put life’s preposition
In mock parenthesis
As if each translator
Goes about business on their own.
What about the lie
Among all who have this task
Are we to be comedian
With fingers touching one side
Of an expanding bridge
While our toes play footsie
With a rigid gird
Hoping we can stay in place
Or are we doomed to fall away.

Edward Halperin


How do I possibly translate
All the words and body language
Thrown at me,
Slapping me in the face,
Kicking me in the stomach
And shutting my now silent voice
Away in a locked box
Yet again?
How do I possibly translate
My own broken responses
Into something that I can
Soothe and calm and offer
As my own?
How do I possibly translate
My new truly sober life
Into dreams that I can’t seem to find?
How do I possibly translate?
I don’t.

Kristen Boothe