Poetry translations offer new insight

Writers House hosts evening of cross-cultural readings from Brazil, France and Russia

The Daily Pennsylvanian
September 18, 2003

Reading international literature is complicated by barriers of language and culture, but last night, three speakers at Kelly Writers House attempted to bridge those differences.

A bilingual poetry reading series entitled "A Night of New Translations" gave students the opportunity to embrace cross-cultural communication by exploring international poetry.

Translators Craig Dworkin, Marcella Durand and Eugene Ostashevsky offered readings that embraced the influences of modernist poetry from Brazil, France and Russia.

Organizers invited the translators specifically to represent the diversity of modernist poetry.

"It's a mixed bag," Kelly Writers House Director Jennifer Snead said about the variety of speakers.

The event's host, Caroline Crumpacker, also said that the translations' multinational scope was an important aspect of the evening.

"At a time when our country is increasingly pleased with its isolation and xenophobia... a spectrum of international dialogue is urgently needed," said Crumpacker, who herself is a poet and an organizer of a bilingual poetry reading series in New York.

In her introduction, Crumpacker emphasized the wide meaning of translation in understanding poetry.

"To read is to translate," Crumpacker said. "No two people ever read a poem the same way... we are always translating."

Dworkin particularly addressed the symbolic meaning of words in poetry before reading his translation of Brazilian poet Haroldo de Campo.

"When I am translating poetry, I am concentrating more on the words and the ideas they convey," Dworkin said.

Some members of the audience said they found Dworkin's analysis particularly useful.

"It was interesting to hear Dworkin deconstruct the original language and the link to the feelings that have no language," Engineering and College freshman M Tong said.

The other speakers of the evening offered various thoughts about the purpose of translation.

Durand, who discussed French modernist poetry, commented on the influence of such poetry on modern American writers.

"Much of our precedent comes from a place not unexpected -- but obscure in that it is foreign," Durand said. "Much of the poetry that so revolutionized American poetry remains untranslated."

Ostashevsky read his translation of Russian poetry by Nikolai Zabolotsky, who wrote in the 1930s. Ostashevsky placed the poem that he was reading in the political context of its day.

"Total adaptation of Revolutionary rhetoric and total misapplication of it," he said, commenting on the language used by Zabolotsky.

Overall, the event served to represent the diversity of poetry, as well as demonstrating the importance of translation in reading.

"Translation is not something that we study at Penn," Snead said. "As Americans, we do have an English bias."