Ms. Difficult: Translating Emily Dickinson


On Translation

Emily Dickinson, ca. 1848. Photo: public domain, courtesy of Yale University Manuscripts and Archives Digital Images Database, via Wikimedia Commons.

When she was translating Rilke into Russian, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva wrote in a letter to Boris Pasternak:

And today I want Rilke to speak—through me. In the vernacular, this is known as translation. (How much better the Germans put it—nachdichten!—following the poet’s path, paving anew the entire road which he paved. For let nach be—(to follow after), but—dichten!, is that which is always anew. Nachdichten—to pave anew over instantaneously vanishing traces. But translation has another meaning. To translate not just into (the Russian language, for example), but across (a river). I translate Rilke into the Russian tongue, as he will someday translate me to the other world.

To speak through another always sets us down in a place of no return, a place of exile, translation’s natural habitat. However, precisely because it is a place of exile, translation allows for the confluence of several voices. And suddenly, sometimes, the almost-miracle occurs, as Rilke writes in the fifth of his Duino Elegies:

In this troublesome nowhere, suddenly,
the unsayable point here the pure too-little
is changed incomprehensibly—, altered
into that empty too-much.

Translating poetry requires both a deep knowledge of the original language and of the poem’s historical, cultural, and literary context; more than anything, though, it requires a still deeper knowledge of the language into which it’s being translated, the translator’s own language. Added to this must be a love of that language, the language of the person receiving and then transforming the poem into a new poem—creating a new path.

Attempting to “transport” Emily Dickinson’s poems into Portuguese is a still harder task, because Dickinson’s poetry is notable for its peculiar agrammaticality: unexpected plurals, inverted syntax, and an often complete disregard for gender, person, or agreement between nouns and verbs. As for form, Dickinson uses the structure of hymns, though, as Mutlu Konuk Blasing says, “the metric norm so severely limits the verse it empowers that the verse grows cryptic, crabbed, and idiosyncratic and resists communication itself, thus undermining the religious and social function of hymns that the form alludes to as authorization for her ‘dialect,’ her ‘New Englandly’ tune.” The result is a compact, cryptic language full of ellipses, which translates into texts that challenge the tradition of poetry as communication and gives literary language an autonomy more akin to the aesthetics of modern poetry.

Dickinson’s language is deviant not only in syntax and form but also in its semantics. The main problem when translating Dickinson is not just its hymnlike form but the actual way the poems are constructed and the sometimes impossible task of bringing to the surface what lies beneath. Regarded as extreme in her own time, Dickinson remains extreme in ours, because of the opaqueness of her poems—and their complex subject matter.

The ambiguities introduced by Dickinson with her use of dashes, blank spaces, and ellipses provide a multiplicity of ways to challenge the reader. To exemplify some of the difficulties that confront the translator, I give below the original of one of Dickinson’s best-known poems, “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun,” alongside my translation:

My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—                  Espingarda Carregada—a minha Vida—
In Corners—till a Day                                            Por Cantos—assim fora
The Owner passed—identified—                         Até passar o Dono—Me marcar—
And carried Me away—                                         E Me levar embora—

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods—       E agora erramos em Bosques Reais—
And now We hunt the Doe—                               E perseguimos uma Corça agora—
And every time I speak for Him—                     E cada vez que falo em Sua vez—
The Mountains straight reply—                         As Montanhas respondem sem demora

And do I smile, such cordial light                      E se sorrio, uma amigável luz—
Upon the Valley glow—                                       No Vale se faz ver—
It is as a Vesuvian face                                        É como se uma face de Vesúvio
Had let it’s pleasure through—                         Soltasse o seu prazer—

And when at Night—Our good Day done—     E quando à Noite—já cumprido o Dia—
I guard My Master’s Head—                               Guardo a Cabeça do Meu Amo—
’Tis better than the Eider-Duck’s                      Melhor do que Almofada em Penas Suaves
Deep Pillow—to have shared—                           Partilhada—no sono—

To foe of His—I’m deadly foe—                           Do inimigo Seu—sou-o, mortal—
None stir the second time—                                 Não se torna a agitar—
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye—                             Esse em quem pouse o meu Olho Amarelo
Or an Emphatic Thumb—                                    Ou enfático Polegar—

Though I than He—may longer live                    Embora eu possa viver mais—do que Ele
He longer must—than I—                                     Ele mais do que eu—deve viver—
For I have but the power to kill,                           Que eu tenho só o poder de matar,
Without—the power to die—                                Sem—o poder de morrer—

In this poem, I tried, as far as possible, to keep the same meter and rhythm and a certain regularity of rhyme, while possibly sacrificing other aspects. For example, in the first line, there is a verb in the original, but none in the Portuguese, and I make the subject of “stood” the “loaded gun,” not “my life.” I could have replaced espingarda (“rifle”) with arma (“gun”) and said: “A minha vida—arma carregada,” but that collision of vida and arma is singularly uneuphonious. Then there is the problematic word “identified,” over which Dickinson critics have spilled whole rivers of ink. What is the complement of that verb? “Me”? The “Owner”? I think both are possible and there is no way of coming down firmly on one side or the other. The reason I went for the first option is because of the presence of “me” in the third line, but, obviously, that is my choice.

In the last two lines of the fourth verse, I have translated “the Eider-Duck’s / Deep Pillow” as “almofada em penas suaves” (“pillow of soft feathers”) because the more literal alternative would either have to include the word edredão (“eiderdown”) or I would have to crowbar in some reference to the feathers of the pato ártico, the Portuguese name for the eider duck. In the following verse, I translated “yellow eye” absolutely literally as olho amarelo, with its suggestions of liverishness. Now, I could have been freer and translated “yellow eye” by something like olho de fogo (“eye of fire”) or olho chamejante (“flaming eye”) or olho brilhante (“shining/blazing eye”), but I felt this would make the lethal potential of that loaded gun, the subject of the poem, too explicit.

Finally, the third line in the final stanza went through various phases, from Pois eu possuo o poder de matar (“For I have the power to kill”), which I rejected because it omits that important “but,” to Pois meu é só o poder de matar (“For mine is only the power the kill”), and ended up with Que eu tenho só o poder de matar (“For I have only the power to kill”). Basically, I did what Emily Dickinson so rightly called “choosing not choosing.”

I believe that writing poetry is the only basis for translating poetry. After all, writing poetry is also an act of translation, translating the world and the language of the world. And there is only one language for us humans, which is why all poetry is written in a foreign tongue, simultaneously shared and unshared. I translated Emily Dickinson knowing that translation is always a negotiation between pacts and infidelities, but that, as Haroldo de Campos said, while translating may involve some betrayal, it should never involve petrification. In my translation of Dickinson’s poems, I have tried to do something similar to what Willis Barnstone describes in his beautiful poetic meditation ABC of Translation: to embark on a voyage across the ocean, an ocean that offers all things and where everything is possible—everything except a mistake, which one must never confuse with freedom.

It was precisely my belief in that idea of freedom that allowed me to alternate the two most commonly used meters in Portuguese, the decasyllabic and the redondilha (seven syllables), using them as the Portuguese equivalent of the English hymn. That same freedom allowed me to use half rhymes, not only because Dickinson herself uses them but because full rhymes in Portuguese sounded phony and unnatural to me, somehow restricting the breathing of the poem, forcing it into constructions that, to my ear, sounded artificial and constrained.

One final comment: the Emily Dickinson that exists in the actual texts—which, although hers, were also re-created by others—and the Emily Dickinson we read about in the books that ponder these poems both put on various masks, all of which are equally possible because there is no one Emily Dickinson in the published poems or letters. Unpublished, every poem becomes a possible poem, and all the possible realities are left open, even those of translation.

Perhaps Susan Howe was right: Dickinson’s poetry is more at ease in manuscript form than in print; a poetry that encompasses the manuscripts in the form of verse as well as many of her letters in verse and prose, a poetry that sometimes makes no distinction between the two. For this reason, any translation will find itself tainted from the outset by the models we have at our disposal today. If we wanted to be absolutely faithful to Dickinson, we should probably not even publish our translations, let alone print them; after all, in a note to her sister, she left a final request for all her papers to be burned after her death. Being published and printed (given the way in which her texts were left to us) would be tantamount to being normalized, but not being published or printed would mean anonymity and would deprive us all of her work.

My translations of Emily Dickinson occupy that slender, ambiguous fringe (or margin) between a viable unviability or an unviable viability, in which I am aware of the risks and yet hope for some certainties. Above all, I am in agreement with the poet herself when, in a letter, she writes—in characteristically cryptic fashion—“Had I known I asked the impossible, should I perhaps have asked it, but Abyss is it’s [sic] own Apology.”

Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa


Ana Luísa Amaral was born in Lisbon in 1956. Her work has been translated into a dozen languages and won many major awards. Her poetry collection What’s in a Name is out now from New Directions.

The peerless translator Margaret Jull Costa has won countless prizes for her translations from the Portuguese and Spanish.