You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Sound Check: W.S. Merwin’s Love of Foreign Language

In the world of letters, there’s prolific and there’s W.S. Merwin. The former Poet Laureate has written twenty-six books of poetry in the last six decades and has still found the time to translate twenty-two books of other people’s poems. The translations are so voluminous, and the source languages so varied—from Japanese to Swedish, from Sanskrit to Crow—that you would expect a selection of his translations to be an opus of world literature, a small window into a pre-Babel world. But rather than look outward, this collection presents an inward vision: the translations make sense of the translator.

The world of Merwin’s translations is flat. In his English, the Spanish sounds just like the Eskimo (although the latter features a seal and the former just a dog). You cannot distinguish poems of different languages from the originals—there are none—nor by notes that explain regional symbols and literary traditions—there are hardly any notes at all. What is odd and distinctive about Merwin is that I doubt that he’d take these observations as criticisms.

The central theme of Merwin’s poetry has always been the distance between experience and expression, between the felt joy of the sounds of words and the inadequacy of words to capture it. So it’s no surprise that he enjoys the foreignness of foreign languages, in which he can appreciate their sound without being distracted by sense. For Merwin, it is when “all the languages were foreign” that “the first/ year rose,” a Kingdom of heavenly sounds.

In the introduction to Selected Translations, Merwin traces his passion for the sounds of words to his earliest years. As a little child he had a hard time being close to his father, who was not especially thoughtful and certainly not the litterateur that his son would become. But his father had a passion for the words in the King James Bible and took his three-year-old son to hear him read it from the pulpit of an empty church. Merwin mumbled the words to himself as he toddled home next to his silent father.

Merwin often puts his readers in the position he was in then—entranced by sounds, confused by words. In this mode, he is childlike but not childish, as in this poem about a child, “Far Along in the Story,” from The Shadow of Sirius (2008): 

The boy walked on with a flock of cranes

following him calling as they came

from the horizon behind him

sometimes he thought he could recognize

a voice in all that calling but he

could not hear what they were calling …

The poem continues; the boy looks back, stumbles forward, a path unfolds, the cranes vanish. The rhymes are as full and unpredictable as the cranes’ calls, and there is no punctuation to slow the rush or give order to the ideas. Sounds dominate the poem so much that the words come to seem almost arbitrary, but are, ultimately, crucial. (Imagine the cognitive dissonance of a line like: “The toy walked on with a flock of Spains.”) The images evoke associations; the sounds build the strength of the feelings. As the feelings grow stronger they subtly grow more abstract, until the speaker reaches an epiphany undercut by being unable to describe it:


that moment he remembered who he was

only he had forgotten his name 

Here is Merwin the translator—embodied in the child who feels joy from the experience of pure sound but is also incapable of expressing it. From his sixty-odd years as a translator, Merwin seems to have learned ways to evoke the peace of sound without definite sense. As a young man, he learned from Ezra Pound, whom he visited in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital when he was eighteen, that “translating will teach you your own language,” and Merwin took the older poet at his word.

Translating may suit Merwin’s interests, but it is worth considering whether Merwin’s proclivities suit the poems that he translates. Apollinaire, whose unpunctuated poems are included in Merwin’s Selected Translations, may have been a model for Merwin, who has not punctuated a line of his own poetry since 1967. (Other poets leave out punctuation, but relatively few split sentences across lines without using line-endings as de facto punctuation.) This makes Merwin’s rhythms less predictable and his poems more focused on sound. The lack of punctuation is central to Merwin’s style, which encourages his readers to hear the poetry in lines where they might not expect them. Merwin’s rhythms are not loosely or strictly iambic—“Oh, there is blessing in this gentle breeze”—but more like Pound’s famous translated line from Cathay—“While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead”—whose metrical feet stick unpredictably but tenaciously in the ear. Also like Pound, Merwin uses the characteristic rhythms of different languages in his poetry. “Far Along in the Story,” for instance, balances Latinate dactyls—“following him calling as they came”—against Italianate amphibrachs—“from the horizon behind him.” The result is a mongrel polyphony.

Unfortunately, Merwin’s distinct rhythmic sense seems to have distracted him from faithfully reproducing rhythmic attributes of the poems he translates. Horace’s dactyls get flattened from “Vile potabis modicis Sabinum” to “Your wine will be the ordinary Sabine.” Merwin’s translation of Apollinaire’s “The Mirabeau Bridge” eliminates the original’s iambic pentameter in favor of Merwin’s typical mixed rhythms. He may well have kept more of the original’s resonance if he had kept the gorgeous iambic pentameter of “La joie venait toujours après la peine.” I can only wonder how faithful he is to the Urdu.

Merwin claims to know a handful of languages quite well—French and Spanish and Latin—but he is no polymath, and the book includes translations from at least thirty languages. How can you translate from a language you cannot at all understand? Merwin explains that sometimes he learned literal meanings from a native speaker and sometimes translated translations from languages he knew—someone else translated from, say, Aztec to Spanish, then he translated from Spanish to English. But even these techniques seem unlikely to preserve enough of the original to make something worth reading as poetry. For the sake of Amazonian literature, I hope that the original is less of a kindergarten pageant than Merwin’s translation: “The head went on climbing./ The men shouted, ‘You going to the sky, head?’/ It didn’t answer.” Merwin self-consciously calls these works “translations,” rather than “versions” or “adaptations,” to convey “whatever I was able to evoke of the sense of life of the original words.” But his sense of the “sense of life” of these poems must have been nebulous; he does not convey much more than the poems’ literal meanings.

The book does have some poems that do not feel like twenty-dollar sketches on sale outside a museum: despite its betrayal to the meter of the original, “The Mirabeau Bridge,” and François de Malherbe’s “Inscription for a Fountain.” Merwin cares enough about accuracy to preserve literal senses and often syllable counts, but not enough to replicate the rhythms that drive the original poems. He is too unfaithful for accurate translations and too faithful for beautiful ones. While it is a shame that he did not aim for the latter, one wouldn’t expect him to aim for the former. After all, his first love was the untranslatable.  

Adam Plunkett is the assistant literary editor. Follow @adamfplunkett.