Tuesday, May 22, 2007

On Translating Herbert

In response to my post on The Selected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert, Andrew Shields asked if I had read the essay by Michael Hofmann in the current POETRY* which is so critical of translator Alissa Valles' work in the new Zbigniew Herbert: Collected Poems 1956-1998 (Ecco-Harper Collins, 2007). I have since read the essay, and I also picked up a copy of the book in Iowa City. I can't read Polish (neither can Hofmann, for that matter), so I have no way to judge the literal merits of Hofmann's claims, though there seems little doubt that Hofmann is sincere in his belief that Herbert's legacy would have been better served had this translation been left to John and Bogdana Carpenter, who have translated all of Herbert's books other than The Selected Poems.

Still, I think The Collected Poems is worth owning. First, The Collected Poems does include (almost verbatim) the entire Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott translations of The Selected Poems (an effort Hofmann sniffs at but expresses no real criticism of). Secondly, the translations by Alissa Valles may not be the ideal Herbert, but they are the Herbert we are likely to have in English and in one place for the forseeable future, and you ought not deny yourself the ready exposure to Herbert's work. I agree that the examples given by Hofmann suggest that the Carpenters may offer superior English renderings of Herbert's work; the Valles translations are still worthwhile.

For whatever flaws it may have, this is an important book.


"A Dead Necktie" by Michael Hofmann, POETRY, (May, 2007)

For an admiring review of the Valles translations, see Mark Rudman's comments in BOOKFORUM.

Here is a link:

Mark Rudman


Blogger Robert said...

You've got to love this line from Rudman's review: "If anybody was ever 'stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again,' it was Zbigniew Herbert of Warsaw"!

12:17 PM  
Blogger Talia said...

I picked that book up in B&N the other day and thumbed through it, and it did look interesting. But I have this unreloved problem with translated poetry. I just don't get it. It isn't the same as writing your own original poetry, but it isn't like dictation, either. So until I get it resolved, I can't read it. Am I missing out on much? I'm too American.

2:18 PM  
Blogger Anna said...

I read the essay in POETRY as well, and while I don't entirely disagree with it, I felt the author didn't make a fair case. His translation comparisons generally amounted to a list of "good" adjectives for the Carpenter translations and "bad" adjectives for the Valles translations. Despite pages and pages of increasingly irritating clauses and restatements, his review didn't include any expanded close reading that would've justified coming down so hard on Valles. I appreciate his claim that some explanation of "why Valles, why now" would be appropriate, I came away from his essay thinking that he simply preferred the Herbert poems in the version he fell in love with first. Poor Valles didn't have a chance.

12:45 AM  

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