Further Thoughts on Modern and Ancient Translations

Thinking on Lawrence Venuti's provocative entry, "Where is the foreign in "international," the last two weeks days, I tried to see whether there is a difference between translating from contemporary texts and ancient ones. My first answer was that there is not. The difference between translations of poetry in the last twenty years or so and before is that many more American poets of the last twenty years have a sense of self-sufficiency, that they are at the center of poetic universe. They do not experience the sense of lack, need, which I think is at the root of all generative translations. For instance, Ron Silliman's blog –being the most visited by experimental poets, I assume quite representative- has very few discussions of translations or of foreign writers per se. The blog reminds me of Henry Ford's famous assertion that, "history is bunk"(what would Ford have said of the events in Iraq, of Ramsfeld's "new thinking" as opposed to "old thinking"?). Ironically, Silliman's early essays consistently refer to European thinkers and writers. One key rationale for the necessity of the "new sentence," the basis of his poetics, is a European event, the invention of the printing press, which, for him, transforms a poetry for the ear (performed) to a poetry of the book.

I agree that there have been even fewer translations of ancient texts than of contemporary ones in the last twenty five years,. Nevertheless, I can add a few to the list started by Lawrence ("Men in Aida" and "War Music") and Kent ("The Tablets"): Andrew Schelling's translations of Sanskrit erotic lyrics, Vincent Katz's "The Satyricon" and Kent Johnson's "The Miseries of Poetry," which contains a group of translations of ancient Greek fragments at its core.

What is provocative and insightful about Lawrence's distinction is that it points to a real, significant difference between the translations on the list and those of contemporary texts. While the latter texts focus more on the interests and issues of poetic language, translations of ancient texts have a thematic dimension, as if the interest in the ancient text has something to do with the attempt to say something about one's own time.

All these texts revolve around the themes of war and sexuality, and the nexus of violence which connects them both. In "The Tablets," "The Miseries of Poetry" and k. Iskender's "souljam" this sadomasochistic violence connects to the fragmentation (dissolution through time) of language, that is to say, to translation.

I would like now to include a number of my translations from 13th and 16th century Turkish poetic texts, and also an adaptation from the 16th century Persian poet, Hafiz. These translations had an important place in my development of the idea of eda. I hope they will add to the discussions.

Go to the translations >>


Murat Nemet-Nejat


Ron said...

I have written before that my lack of an adequate education in any foreign language is one of my failings. It really is class-based -- nobody with my background was expected to need such knowledge. Both of my brothers (who have never actually met in person) until recently mowed lawns for a living.

I wouldn't call that confident self-centeredness.

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Murat,

The poems are wonderful, and definitely foreign, all right. Thanks for bringing them to us.

Hi Ron,

When Spicer wrote "chica," you thought he was in Italy. You'll never get laid in Tijuana. I speak 3 languages like shit, you're the maestro of one.

Score: Linh Dinh 3, Ron Silliman 1.

Murat Nemet-Nejat said...


You are aware of the effect your blog has on many poets. Only a few weeks ago, Linh and I were discussing in this blog the relevance (or irrelevance) of the term "school of quietitude." By self-sufficiency, I am not referring to any psychological state or personal intentions, but to an observable fact, that your blog has very few discussions of translations or even of foreign writers. What is even more surprising to me is that so few of the responses in the blog to your comments push back against this, to me, crucial limitation, trying to open wider horizons. When I said "self-sufficiency" I was pointing to this general focus on creating a topography of “national tradition,” avant/post avant against quietitude, first generation, second generation New York School, etc. Many other poets, not all, seem to accept or acquiesce to this classification. I was referring to the blog as a reflector, not only a propagator, of this ethos in poets of the last twenty years, an attitude quite uncharacteristic historically of American poetry and a significant part of American prose writing. I have a review of Ed Foster’s last book of poetry, What He Ought To Know, coming out in the next issue of The New Review, which deals indirectly with this subject.

As for not knowing foreign languages, I do not speak German or Japanese or Spanish and speak little French. But my interest in writers, poets in those languages, in the languages themselves, is continuous. In fact, not knowing the language adds to the element of blurring, distance, intensifies the dimension of misreading which elicits translation as a linguistic exploration, poetically generative process. What is needed is the dynamic sense of lack, of incompleteness, “wounded electricity complements the body.”

I come from an upper middle class Persian-Jewish family. My family would have done almost anything –and did a lot- to wean me from my insane involvement in writing. I remember a cousin of mine arguing with me, sitting at a kitchen table, that it was better to have a good business that being Michelangelo (who cares?), reading a book being the most foreign thing one could do. My guess is that most of us have to live with personal demons, yours being on the other side of the social spectrum than mine but not that different.

Interestingly, your passion for movies possesses none of the same nationalist focus. Your blog entry today, for instance, is on Almodovar’s “Volver.” About a year ago, if I am paraphrasing correctly, you wrote that poetry (or innovative literature in general) did not have to concern itself with narrative since movies have taken over the narrative function. The standards by which you usually judge a movie (character, plot, for instance, you write Volver’s “narrative architecture is less happenstance”) are diametrically contrary to the way you evaluate a poem. I wish this were not so. Particularly in the last fifty years, movies have expanded profoundly any concept of narrative and specifically the meaning of the relationship between what is seen and what is unseen –what is real and unreal- what is a cut, the relationship between cut and narrative, etc. Deleuze’s book “Time-Image” and Godard’s “Histoire du Cinema” give us glimmerings of the possibilities movies open. I think poetry has a lot to benefit from assimilating these conceptual forms into itself. Such a process would be a translation across media, which is only an expansion of the concept of translation itself.

Be well, ciao,


Murat Nemet-Nejat said...


Thank you. I sometimes forget how strange some of these poems must feel to an outsider; but that may be an important point, to capture that subjectivity. The Yunus Emre and Hafiz pieces are part of a poem, "A 13th Century Dream." It is on line, in the CipherJournal site, which contains a number of interesting essays on translation. Here is the address: