Review: Translations in 'Collected Poems: 1943-2004'

Review: Translations from Collected Poems: 1943-2004 by Richard Wilbur

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Richard Wilbur, a former American Poet Laureate, is a very hit-or-miss artist, generally, and he tends toward the miss end of the spectrum. Most of his poetry is technically and musically okay but often rendered absurdly boring by his inability to say anything worth reading. That said, he has a very small handful of poems (such as Advice for a Prophet) which I wish I had written.

But what is far more likely to ensure Wilbur a perduring place in American letters is his translations (which are in truth his greatest literary achievement.) In fact, reading his translation of Molière's Le Misanthrope is one of the precious few times I've ever had the sense that the translator had consistently done a better job than I ever could have1. What's more, Wilbur’s version of Misanthrope (which he wrote while living off a Guggenheim fellowship in 1955) was so successful that it inaugurated what is probably the greatest single-handed literary translation project in all of American literature. Over the course of forty years he produced ace versions of all of Molière’s major comedies–Tartuffe (1963), The School for Wives (1971), The Learned Ladies (1978), The School for Husbands (1992), Sganarelle or The Imaginary Cuckold (1993), and Amphitryon (1995) as well as neo-classical verse tragedies by Racine and Corneille. Widely produced from Broadway to college campuses, the royalties generated by Wilbur's drama-translations eventually enabled him to teach only half time. How many verse-translators wish their work could actually turn a profit?

But what Wilbur hasn't gotten nearly enough credit for (which is also the focus of the current review) is his translations of shorter lyrical poems from various languages. Wilbur's Collected Poems not only contains some real original gems amid the vastitudes of literary dross, but also serves as a small anthology of translated poetry. Interspersed throughout this volume are 42 translations from 8 languages: Russian, French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Latin, Portuguese and Bulgarian.

Now, you may be wondering why I'm devoting a review in a translation blog to a book which does not primarily contain translations. The reason is, quite simply, that the translations, few though they may be, deserve it. Not that they're perfect or without fault, but their faults are so hugely outclassed by their merits that, even if Wilbur had written nothing else in his life, these few translations would be a major literary achievement.

Warning: this will be a really long review, as Wilbur's translations deserve a lot of comment on how they succeed (and fail.) So, if you get bored, you needn't feel guilty about closing this window at any time to go check out the gay asian midget porn you just finished downloading. I promise I won't think any less of you.


Many of the translations in this volume are renditions of works which have been subject to dozens (and, in a few cases, probably hundreds) of previous attempts. Wilbur aces or matches nearly all of his predecessors. Only in about a half dozen cases, such as the excerpt from Dante's Inferno, have other translators of the same material really surpassed him in any way. (In case you're curious, my money is on Michael Palma as the reigning Dante-champion, whose moonshot translation of the Inferno will be the subject of a later review.)

In order to fully appreciate just how impressive Wilbur's accomplishment in this area is, we should take a look at how a few others have handled some of his same material. For comparison, I'll use the first stanza of Baudelaire's oft-translated (and oft-traduced) L'Invitation au Voyage (which, by the way, I have struggled to translate for well-nigh a decade2). We'll do a very close reading of a number of other English translations before we get to Wilbur's version. First, here's Baudelaire's French (with my prose gloss in parentheses underneath, as usual):

Mon enfant, ma soeur,
Songe à la douceur
D'aller là-bas vivre ensemble!
Aimer à loisir,
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble!
Les soleils mouillés
De ces ciels brouillés
Pour mon esprit ont les charmes
Si mystérieux
De tes traîtres yeux,
Brillant à travers leurs larmes.

Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

(My child, my sister, just think/dream of the sweet gentleness of going over there to live together! To love at will/leisure, to love and to die in the land which looks like you! The soaked suns of blurred/jumbled skies have for my spirit/mind the charms, so mysterious, of your treacherous eyes shining through their tears. // There all is but order and beauty, richness, peace and sensuousness/voluptuousness/pleasure.)

This first translation we'll look at is by Roy Campbell, a severely under-appreciated poet and a generally good translator of poetry (though you wouldn't know it from the dreck you're about to read)-

My daughter, my sister,
Consider the vista
Of living out there, you and I,
To love at our leisure,
Then, ending our pleasure,
In climes you resemble to die.
There the suns, rainy-wet,
Through clouds rise and set
With the selfsame enchantment to charm me
That my senses receive
From your eyes, that deceive,
When they shine through your tears to disarm me.

There'll be nothing but beauty, wealth, pleasure,
With all things in order and measure.

HILARIOUS! Hi-fucking-larious. If translations were films, this so-bad-it's-good version of Baudelaire's Invitation would win a Golden Raspberry Award in every category. Even if we try our hardest to ignore the badly handled language (if you have "enchantment" do you really need to add that it can "charm" you?), the pant-pissingly comical jingle of the first rhyme, the recycled rhyme-word ("pleasure" used twice) and the fact that he's botched just about every other line in some way, you can't escape the fact that the translation's amphibrach meter (used mainly for light or narrative verse in English, such as limericks, and would require some content-level effort to make readers sense something darker in it as is the case in other traditions such as Russian) gives a rollicking, sing-song flavor to the whole affair which makes me wonder if Campbell wasn't trying to write the lyrics for some future retelling of Baudelaire's life in the format of a Broadway musical. (Just imagine Mel Brooks along with the understudy cast of Springtime for Hitler singing "My dawtah! My sistaaaaah! Considah the vistaaaaa!")

I remind you: Campbell is actually a good poet, knew French quite well and is responsible for some very successful translations of several other poems from French and Spanish. And yet this poem has reduced him to writing like the kind of hack doggerelist whose jingles are rejected for dogfood commercials!

Campbell's translation also betrays at least two slight misreadings of the French. But when it comes to poetry translation, even slight misreadings can kibosh the whole project (not that this poem needs any help in kiboshing itself!) He seems to think of "Ciels brouillés" as describing clouds, as if brouillé meant just meant "clouded". But that adjective's primary meaning in French is actually "mixed up" or "confounded." In fact, brouillé is the adjective you would use in military French to describe a radio signal that had been jammed. (And a brouilleur is a jamming device.) The adjective also means things like "shuffled" when used to describe a deck of cards or "scrambled" when referring to the way one likes one's eggs. The adjective's secondary meaning, by extension, translates as "blurry" or "fuzzy" (i.e. bad eyesight, or looking through a dirty window.) As an extension of this meaning, one can use brouillé to describe a sky that is not just cloudy, but so completely covered in clouds that one cannot see anything else. Furthermore, in this particular case, the use of the plural pulls the word's connotations further into "mixed up" territory, since, when the adjective is used to mean "blurry" it is almost always in the singular. In addition, the plural calls to mind idioms like ils se sont brouillés "they got into a fight."

Also, Campbell has rendered luxe as "wealth," as if the word referred to some sort of material accrual. But it doesn't usually, and certainly not in this context. "Luxe" refers to the kind of richness that could be described as sumptuous (much like its cognate "luxury" in English, actually.) However, it also carries the figurative meaning of "extravagance" or "surfeit," and has a somewhat sensuous flavor because it shares a root with words like luxure ("lechery") and luxurieux ("lascivious"). It is not the kind of monetary abundance connoted by the English "wealth."

Now, here's a better version done by Norman Shapiro (whose volume of Baudelaire translations I have reviewed here.)

Imagine, ma petite,
Dear sister mine, how sweet
Were we to go and take our pleasure
Leisurely, you and I—
To lie, to love, to die
Off in that land made to your measure!
A land whose suns' moist rays,
Through the skies' misty haze,
Hold quite the same dark charms for me
As do your scheming eyes
When they, in their like wise,
Shine through your tears, perfidiously.

There all is order, naught amiss:
Comfort and beauty, calm and bliss.

As with Campbell, the first couplet is the worst. The use of a French phrase (ma petite) in an English translation of a French poem which doesn't even contain said phrase is at least interesting, and there are certain schools of translation theory that would approve of such techniques to call the reader's attention to the fact that they're reading a translation, but even as an intentional violation of anglophone decorum, it doesn't really add much to the reader's experience.

"Skies' misty haze" for "ciels brouillés" is at least better than Campbell's version, but it still underprivileges the "jumbled" nuance caused by the plural which, in addition to being what makes the phrase interesting in context, also saves the French phrase from being as cliché and redundant as Shapiro's English version of it ("misty" and "haze" are two of the most obvious words one can use to describe the weather, and in any event who needs to be told that something "misty" is also a "haze?")

"In their like wise" may seem a bit archaic, but it actually works here, and is formally justified. Redundancy again: there is no reason, when one has already said that the eyes are "scheming," to also say that they shine "perfidiously." "Dark charms" is a cliché. I am not a bad enough poet to understand why Shapiro has used "your tears" (redundantly echoing "your eyes") when he could have followed the French and said "their tears." The couplet refrain also contains an unfortunate rhyme-spawned redundancy. When "all is order" it stands to reason that there's "naught amiss." In translating a poem that uses language this sparingly, one does not need to say the same thing twice like a classical rhetorician.

Now then, let's have a look at a freer (but much better) version by the great poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. It may be worth noting that Paul Valéry himself, one of France's literary greats, thought very highly of it.

Think, would it not be
Sweet to live with me
All alone, my child, my love? —
Sleep together, share
All things, in that fair
Country you remind me of?
Charming in the dawn
There, the half-withdrawn
Drenched, mysterious sun appears
In the curdled skies,
Treacherous as your eyes
Shining from behind their tears.

There, restraint and order bless
Luxury and voluptuousness.

It's certainly a much better poem than the two we've discussed so far. The only cliché is "fair country." One of the few otherwise questionable phrases is "curdled skies" which has a flavor of putrefaction to it and mars the dreaminess of the poem. That said, as a translation for "ciels brouillés" it is still the best we've seen yet, since it avoids cliché and suggests something slightly awry. Also, "voluptuousness" in modern English probably connotes too much curvaciousness and bodaciousness to be a worthwhile translation of volupté, for which (to be fair to Millay) we don't really have a good word in modern English. "Sensuousness" is fairly close, but doesn't connote profusion enough. "Lushness" takes us too far into botanical territory, and "bliss" is too peaceful. That notwithstanding, the sinuous surfeit of S's in the word makes it totally wrong in terms of sound.

Other than that, there's not much to quibble with here technically. The tone isn't all that far off from Baudelaire's, the trochaic meters are a good equivalent for Baudelaire's unorthodox vers impairs, and it doesn't sound like translationese. The only problem is that it is too free. I get the sense that Millay has not just rewritten the poem in English, but also altered it with her own talent (always a problem for a great poet translating another great poet) so much so that at times (such as in the first half especially, and also in other sections of the poem not copied here) this poem seems less like a translation than a Lowellesque imitation. Which is fine- don't get me wrong. But at some level this seems like way more Millay than Baudelaire. Ideally, a translator should subordinate his/her talent a little more to that of his/her subject, in order to keep the formal and dynamic equivalences both in balance.

Now, at long-fucking-last we come to WIlbur's version:

My child, my sister, dream
How sweet all things would seem
Were we in that kind land to live together
And there love slow and long,
There love and die among
Those scenes that image you, that sumptuous weather.
Drowned suns that glimmer there
Through cloud-disheveled air
Move me with such a mystery as appears
Within those other skies
Of your treacherous eyes
When I behold them shining through their tears.

There, there is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.

For the first time we don't have a single cliché introduced by the translator. (Compare Wilbur's "kind land" to Millay's yawn-inducing "fair country.") What clichés are there, however, actually work for the poem by being subverted3.

"Cloud-disheveled air" is brilliant. (I wish I had thought of it!) Not only does it capture the "jumbled" nuance of "brouillés" but it actually subverts the cliché of "disheveled hair" by replacing "hair" with a near-homonym, yielding an image of the skies as the hair through which the suns peer, which is actually in a way much cooler than Baudelaire's original French! The "skies/eyes" rhyme (as well as "suns that glimmer") would also be a cliché in any other poem. Like Shapiro, Wilbur hasn't fully modernized Baudelaire by making him speak 20th century English, and has actually left a few poetick archaisms here and there: "long" as an adverb, "behold" as a lexical item, and "image" as a verb. But all of them are well-used.

Wilbur departs from the text, but no more than he needs to. And, when he does so, he (like John Ciardi, Robert Fitzgerald and Stephen Mitchell) turns his flaws into assets as he vivifies his own usually dull voice by ventriloquizing Baudelaire. "Sumptuous weather" may not be there in the original, but it isn't replacing anything, it works nicely where it is and the word "sumptuous" is perfect for this poem.

"Dream" as a translation of "songe à" (which actually means something like "just think of" or "imagine") may be a bit overliteral, but it fits the tone perfectly, especially as a rhyme-word. And really, with so much else going for these lines, who the fuck cares?

Now, pulling off a single success like this would be pretty amazing in and of itself. But Wilbur manages to sustain this off-the-scales quality throughout most of his translations. His versions of Andrei Voznesensky's Russian poems, for example, are easily better in execution and fidelity than anyone else's (which, by the way, includes several Voznesensky translations done by the 20th century's mighty W.H. Auden!) His two translations from the massively overrated Joseph Brodsky are better than Brodsky's own hit-and-miss self-translations.

I'd go on describing the various ways in which Wilbur is awesome, but if I keep at it much longer this will probably sound less like a review than an act of literary fellatio. So, for honesty's sake, why don't we tackle some of his failings as a translator now.


Probably Wilbur's greatest flaw as a translator is his sense of taste in what to translate. Amid the translated literary masterpieces in this volume, a reader will find several works (mostly done from French) which I can't think of a reason for translating. Creating an English version of Voltaire's stolid Ode to Madame du Châtelet or La Fontaine's Ode to Pleasure for shits and giggles may have seemed like a fun way to pass the time, but that hardly justifies putting one's readership through them. When you translate a poem and publish the result, you cannot help but imply that whatever you've translated is, for one reason or another, worth reading. And what is worth reading, exactly, about Voltaire's bathetic masturbations such as these is anyone's guess:

Two deaths we suffer. To forgo
Loving, and being loved in turn,
Is deathly pain, as now I learn.
Ceasing to live is no such woe.

Puh-lease. All that a good translation of bad writing does is inflict said bad writing on more good people. If Wilbur gets a kick out of banging out versifications of artless poetastry, that's his business. And it should stay his business. For when he publishes it, he's just sprinkling sugar over shit and calling it candy (which, by the way, doesn't stop it from tasting like shit.)

There are also a few times where Wilbur is just off his game, as is the case in his rendering of the Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo's Agrigentum Road, the one translation in the book I would call bad. There not only does he fail to reproduce (or even try to reproduce) the metrical and musical features of the original, but I get the sense that he did this one in a hurry.It contains several mis-renderings and outright misreadings: Carraio means "wagon-driver," not "wagon-maker." Anima antica is not merely "antiqe soul" but rather refers to the "ancient soul" of classical antiquity. Grigia di rancori does not mean "bled white by rancor". Rather, grigio just means "gray" and, like its English counterpart, can often be used metonymically to describe someone as old (i.e. gray-haired) as it does here. It does not in any sense refer to the pallor suggested by "bled white."

In other cases, he misapprehends the tone of the original, as in his version of an excerpt from Dante's Inferno which he renders in an archaizing idiom full of "thou"s and the occasional scrambled syntax, as if he somehow forgot (God only knows how) that Dante was making a point by using (more or less) the vernacular of his day and elevating it to the level of a literary medium.

But I feel churlish pointing out these flaws, overshadowed as they are by the generally star-reaching success of this book's translations


I've probably done enough name-dropping already in this review. But I'll go ahead and end by quoting Dana Gioia, the only mainstream critic I know of who has fully realized the scope of Wilbur's achievements in translation of the short lyric:

"It would be hard to overpraise Wilbur’s special genius for translation. He has no equal among his contemporaries and stands with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ezra Pound, and Robert Fitzgerald as one of the four greatest translators in the history of American poetry. Those critics who fault Wilbur for lacking poetic ambition ignore this essential and impressive part of his work."

Well said, Dana. Well said.

Final Grade: A+


1- Then again, I haven't tried. Fortunately Wilbur's made any attempt on my part (or anybody else's) permanently unnecessary.


  1. "In case you're curious, my money is on Michael Palma as the reigning Dante-champion, whose moonshot translation of the Inferno will be the subject of a later review."

    I hope this is still forthcoming. I'd also love to read what you think of Hofstadter's Le ton beau de Marot, if you've read it...

  2. I have long thought the Wilbur translations of Fluers du Mal were the finest. And more important--because, young man, it is all about me--more to my taste. As to the technical merits, my French is not even near to the level it would have to be to weigh in on that score. I had a year of study in French some decades ago--inspired, believe it or not, by Wilbur, and the desire to read Baudelaire in his own language. Although I never fully succeeded in this, I did get close enough to realise that French poetry is in general very different from English poetry. I found, particularly in Baudelaire, a childlike sentimentality therein, which I was barely literate enough to perceive; but which was so palpable that it was able to penetrate through all 22 layers of my dense illiteracy; and which is very difficult to get across in English without sounding silly, underscoring even more how marvellous these translations are.

    I'm glad to see Wilbur so appreciated. His translations are quite beautiful. He did write some lovely original work as well. I have long had the impression--right or wrong, for certainly I am far from an expert on such things--that his odd sense of humour was at issue in some of his more bizarre translations as well as some of his quite silly originals. However, as strange as it may sound, I enjoyed reading them all. Every word I could find.