On Translation
by Linh Dinh

The best way to criticize an imperfect translator is to do a better translation. Doing this, you’ll make the imperfect, offensive translation, which you’ve sucked on and tweaked only slightly, disappear forever from the face of this earth.

The many resistances in the source poem force the translator to compensate and invent, enriching the language he is translating into.

Vietnamese poet/critic Trinh Thanh Thuy: “Influenced by the peculiarities of foreign languages and cultures, Vietnamese texts written overseas do not lose their strengths but gain new dimensions through awakened, previously latent capabilities.”

In both cases, you have one culture or language trying to accommodate another. This meeting point, this border, this collision of avant-gardes, is where the new, improvised and unexpected can happen.

I’m not a translator so much as a tightrope walker between two unreliable dictionaries.

Pound always took tremendous liberty with his translations. At the opposite end, you have Clayton Eshleman, who takes great pain to bring back these foreign objects whole, even effacing himself in the process. His inventions, interventions and style still exist, I’m sure, but he always strives to make his English “gown” hug the alien body as tightly as possible, unlike too many reckless translators out there.

Influenced by people who did "versions," my first translation attempts were very freewheeling. Luckily, none of these were ever published. Although "to bring back these foreign objects whole" can only be an unachievable ideal, or a fiction, it is still a worthwhile objective. If you settle for the loose gown from the beginning, you won’t get any body parts at all.

I remember reading a Pound translation of an Oscar Milosz poem where he deleted at least 10 lines from the French original. Pound may have gotten the poem’s essence, likely improved on it, but I cringe at the man’s chutzpah. But we’re talking about Pound, of course, so all’s well that ends, well, in Saint Elizabeth. As for Clayton Eshleman, his edition of Vallejo’s posthumous poems must be my favorite poetry book of all time.

The worst translators are parasites and conmen, the best ones are parasites and pimps. I tend to think of myself as a honest and totally selfless charity worker.

In summation: I cannot talk about things, a catnip or a dog, with the confidence that they will still exist in the world by the end of my sentence. (Such is progress.) Further, my modest and improbable vocabulary is always compromised (and perhaps sanctioned) by an unbridgeable gap between the source of words and their promiscuity. Immortality is always slander, agreed, and yet translation is everyone’s best bet for immortality.


Linh Dinh is author, translator, and editor of numerous books of poetry, including Three Vietnamese Poets and All Around What Empties Out from Tinfish Press, as well as others from Chax Press and Seven Stories. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.