The Poetics of Translation: An Introduction by Nancy Naomi Carlson

Others before me have eloquently discussed the theory, history, and practice of the art of literary translation. This brief introduction to the translations in our inaugural issue will not provide such a broad overview, but rather will focus on my own individual sensibilities regarding poetry translation.

Ortega y Gasset, Spanish philosopher, had it right when he said that all translation was “utopian,” which is to say impossible. Translators must wrestle and balance the source text’s semantic meaning, diction, tone, sound patterns, personal connotations, historical and cultural contexts, and world view, among other considerations, and can only be sure of one thing: the translated version will never be accurate in all respects. However, since much of the world’s greatest literature originates from a multitude of languages, translation is a necessary art.

What do I look for in translations? First, they must sound as if they were originally written in English, rather than sounding like a translation. They can take me to places all over the globe, but the flight should be seamless. Second, they must be accurate, with all “liberties” justified for the purpose of artistic quality. Third, they must maintain the musicality of the original language. For example, while exact sounds, rhymes, and rhythm cannot usually be replicated in the English version, patterns of these elements must be honored. Fourth, original texts must be of high literary worth. Finally, translations must literally stun me, as do the ones that follow.


Duo Duo (translated by Ming Di and Katie Farris)



Guy Jean (translated by Ilya Kaminsky and Katie Farris)

If I were Born In Prague

Sarah Kirsch (translated by Abigail Wender and Hellen Von Bonin)

The Catfish, the Fish That Lives on the Bottom


Legend About Lilja

The Little Prince

Edmundo Paz Soldán (translated by Kirk Nesset)

The Continuity of Parks