The Transaction between the thing being translated and your own voice: a conversation with David Perry

Tess Taylor interviewed the 2011 Ruth Lilly Prize winner, David Ferry, for his month’s Poetry Foundation newsletter.  Taylor took advantage of the occasion to talk with Ferry about the fluid relationship between his translation work and his poetry.  I’ve included a few highlights here, but I recommend a visit to the Poetry Foundation website to read the entire interview.

During their conversation, Ferry remarked to Taylor that before he started translating the work of other poets he wrote very few poems and made lengthy revisions of what he wrote. “Until I started doing a lot of translating” he stated, “ I don’t think I wrote more than three times a year, and I tended to revise a poem over 10 years or so. That’s less true now; some of the poems now seem to come out of the life experience of working on these poems and translations together. They speak to each other.” Over time, he began to mix original works and translations in published collections. As Taylor notes, both Dwelling Places: Poems and Translations, published in 1993, and Of No Country I Know, which appeared in 1999, “comprise roughly equal numbers of translations and original poems, arranged in ways that reverberate against one another.”

As is the case with a surprising number of writers known for their translations of poetry, David Ferry didn’t set out to be a translator. Although he studied French and Latin in secondary school and at college, he claims that he is not bilingual in any language. He describes his initial forays into translation as “sort of accidental, but also kind of a love story.” He also is quick to say that he doesn’t necessarily see “translator” and “poet” as separate categories. “In both activities, he explains, “my continuous experience is the experience of writing lines, trying to make those lines work as well as they can, to be as pleasing as they can be, to be as understanding of the text they’re working with as they can be. . . Every talk about translation that I’ve ever given has had the title “Not Getting It Right,” and of course that’s always true, because of the obvious differences in talent but also because it’s a different language written in a different culture at a different time, and so forth. But any translation is a poem of its own and should be judged as such. It is the work of a poet writing lines. Anyone who translates must discover this.”

Taylor asked Ferry about the imposition of the translator’s voice throughout his or her personal history of translation; an interesting question, as he has translated a wide variety of verse, from passages of the Gilgamesh epic to the poetry of Cavafy. She was particularly interested in the carryover of the translator’s voice and the interrelationship between an original work and its translation. Ferry answered, “If there’s going to be a transaction between the thing being translated and your own voice—it has to be there—you have to still write in your own voice. Your own voice has its own characteristics, and if you’re translating something old and great, you still have to have your own voice.”

I found this to be a very honest answer and a fine description of the underlying role of the translator in transporting a text from one language to another. However, developing one’s own voice and expressing it through translation is more about having an acute ear forever inclined towards the voices of others than relentlessly imposing an egocentric style on a text to be translated. The following poem from David Ferry’s Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations published by the University of Chicago Press in 1999 reveals his talent for listening to the voices around him and weaving them into his own.


It is an afternoon toward the end of August:
Autumnal weather, cool following on,
And riding in, after the heat of summer,
Into the empty afternoon shade and light,

The shade full of light without any thickness at all;
You can see right through and right down into the depth
Of the light and shade of the afternoon; there isn’t
Any weight of the summer pressing down.

In the backyard of the house next door there’s a kid,
Maybe eleven or twelve, and a young man,
Visitors at the house whom I don’t know,
The house in which the sound of some kind of party,

Perhaps even a wedding, is going on.
Somehow you can tell from the tone of their voices
That they don’t know each other very well—
Two guests at the party, one of them, maybe,

A friend of the bride or groom, the other the son
Or the younger brother, maybe, of somebody there.
A couple of blocks away the wash of traffic
Dimly sounds, as if we were near the ocean.

They’re shooting baskets, amiably and mildly.
The noise of the basketball, though startlingly louder
Than the voices of the two of them as they play,
Is peaceable as can be, something like meter.

The earnest voice of the kid, girlish and manly,
And the voice of the young man, carefully playing the game
Of having a grown-up conversation with him:
I can tell the young man is teaching the boy by example,

The easy way he dribbles the ball and passes it
Back with a single gesture of wrist to make it
Easy for the kid to be in synch;
Giving and taking, perfectly understood.