Poetry translating as expert action

Poetry translating as expert action: Processes, priorities and networks. By Francis R. Jones. (Benjamins translation library 93.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2011. Pp. xvi, 227. ISBN 9789027286819 $135 (Hb).

Reviewed by Dennis Ryan, University Writing and Language Consultants

In this book, Francis R. Jones begins by asking the commonly asked question, ‘What does a poetry translator need to know to translate a poem written in one language into another?’ The answer is ‘special expertise’ (1), referring to the book’s title and thesis. J expands upon this phrase throughout seven chapters that look at poetry translation as the work of project teams and active networking, of a complex matrix of local-to-global community involvement and political action that results in intercultural interfaces correlated to specific translation settings and situations, to writing and poetry-translation skills, and to the cultural sensitivity of the translator.

During the course of the study, J interviews a number of anonymous translators and comments incisively upon his own translation practice from Serbo-Croatian/Bosnian into English, including his fully bilingual, published translation of ‘the masterwork of Bosnian twentieth-century poetry’, (19) the politically iconic Kameni spavac ‘Stone Sleeper’. Composed by Bosnian poet Mak Dizdar, the work is a three-way dialogue that echoes the presence of Bosnian stecci—carved medieval tombstones that contain godlike figures and ‘enigmatic symbols’ (18)—when a dead religious heretic from beneath a stecak ‘taunts…heretic-hunters [of the state church] that they cannot destroy spiritual strength by physical violence’ (21).

Based on his poetry translation experiences, and those of other translators, J argues quite convincingly that neither poetry translation nor poetry as a genre should be marginalized. Rather, they should be extensively researched by translation scholars. He states that ‘poetry may have a special contribution to make, which more than compensates for its low translated word-count per annum compared to European Union legislation’ (9). By way of fellow translator Maria Tymoczko, J reasons that ‘literary translation [particularly poetry translation] gives better evidence than non-literary translation about interfaces between cultures because it happens less “sporadically” and “locally”, and shows “greater cultural complexity and … involvement” … richer material for analysing intercultural processes’ (9). Because of this rich complexity, literary translation can be foundational in training translators in many areas, from literature to advertising to journalism. His point is well taken.

Perhaps most importantly, translation enables ‘a writer of one language to communicate with readers of another’ (3) so that they may better understand and learn from one another both on the cultural and sub-cultural levels. J cites the web journal Spirit of Bosnia ‘as belonging to an imagined sub-community defined by its belief in Bosnia’s cultural unity’ (194). Finally, as J emphasizes, poetry translators bring their personal histories to the act of translating, yet they also merge their identities biculturally, ‘see themselves as using their poetry-translating skills to perform the role of “ambassador” or of a “bridge” between their two areas of allegiance—the source and receptor culture/country’ (196). This is only as it should be, as poetry—including its translation—is a powerful force for change.

 This book is an expert, seasoned analysis of the art of poetry translation, thoroughly researched, and is highly recommended.