The Untranslatable


Inside the Issue

The poetry in the Summer 2020 issue hails from Portugal, Uruguay, Iran, France, India, China, Lithuania, and the United States. To celebrate the range of this work, we asked the translators responsible for bringing these poems to our pages to explain a particular challenge they faced in the process of translation. As Margaret Jull Costa says in her Art of Translation interview, “There’s something so very intimate about poetry and about the process of translating it.” The following essays in miniature attest to this delicacy.

Translating from a Romance language (Portuguese) to a Germanic one (English) always involves the choice of how Latinate to sound. The English language derives both from Latin and German and often offers two words for every idea. One can say “Holy Spirit” or “Holy Ghost,” “sacred” or “holy,” as Jorge Luis Borges reminds us, and most words representing abstract ideas stem from the Latin while the majority of words exemplifying concrete ideas come from the Saxon. In a newspaper article, the choice may be irrelevant; in a poem, the choice matters.

One such instance in our translations of António Osório is the noun serpente, which may be rendered as serpent (from Latin) or snake (from Proto-Germanic). In the poem “Crater of the Beginning,” we chose the former, whereas in “The Circus,” we opted for the latter. In “Crater of the Beginning,” the serpent is a mythological symbol in the biblical sense, so it is obviously the tempter in the book of Genesis that best fits the translation. In modern English, the word snake gradually replaced serpent in popular use, so we considered snake the more appropriate noun in “The Circus,” given the poem’s modern-day context. Our choice of the monosyllabic word snake also accomplishes three things: it renders the sense of immediacy, it fills the reader’s imagination with circus-related stunts, and it acts out onomatopoetically the hissing sound (the sn- consonant cluster) of the limbless, scaly, elongate reptile.

Finally, the Portuguese verb estava (meaning “was”) in the last line of “The Circus” provides another example of the Latin-versus-Germanic choice. Unlike English, the Portuguese language has two separate verbs for to be: ser and estar. If we were to succeed in transmitting the intensity of the poem’s final image, we needed an alternative to the ordinary meaning of estava. We needed a muscular verb capable of specifying the seductive nature of the scene. By opting for the verb stand to refer to the position of the snake, we conferred strong physicality to an otherwise lukewarm verb, and we let its presence assume an upward movement within the poem itself, as if it would spiral up through the preceding lines of the poem and subsume it all into itself. In addition, the sibilant consonants (snake and stand) enact the hiss, which in turn enhances the uneasiness, thus making vivid what is only latent in the Portuguese. —Patricio Ferrari and Susan Margaret Brown, translators of António Osório’s “Crater of the Beginning,” “September,” and “The Circus” 



‘Adam is an Arabic word (عدم) that signifies the absence of existence or being; it lends itself to being translated as nonbeing. While the word ‘adam itself isn’t particularly untranslatable, centuries of religious, literary, and social history are shorn off in the seemingly simple journey from ‘adam to nonbeing. ‘Adam was a source of dispute among Islamic theologians who debated whether it is a space that exists separate from God or whether it is the liminal space in which God holds his creations before they become manifest in the world.

On the other hand, Sufi mystics flirted with the idea of transcending wujūd (existence) and passing into the realm of ‘adam, rendering earthly existence immaterial. What, then, was the relationship of this realm to a union with God, they wondered? In mystical poetry, ‘adam came to signify an ontological paradox—a space defined by its absence and perhaps inhabited by the mythical, fabulous bird, the ‘anqā, which exists only in nonexistence. Mirza Ghalib, the foremost nineteenth-century Urdu poet, uses ‘adam in his ghazals to describe a lover’s state of metaphysical despair that exceeds the bounds of this world.

In “Nonbeing,” a strikingly new and modern take on ‘adam, Miraji builds on seven centuries’ usage of the word to explore man’s relationship to existence. He deploys an ontological paradox, meditating on the idea of existence by focusing on nonexistence—that is, ‘adam. Unlike in its previous usage, Miraji personifies ‘adam as “alive and breathing,” and in another unprecedented departure, he also makes it dependent on the speaker (presumably a human) for its existence.

The title of this poem in Urdu is “Adam kā khalā” (“The Void of Nonbeing”). The khalā, or void, houses ‘adam—that is, nonbeing exists in a nonspace, which is simultaneously material and immaterial. The poem collapses the distinction between ‘adam and khalā; therefore, as translators, we make an artistic and literary choice of using only ‘adam in the English title of the poem to signify nonbeing. While it is not possible to convey the textures and history of this word in the poem’s translation, we hope this explication of the various metaphysical, theological, and philosophical underpinnings of ‘adam will allow the reader to appreciate the complex ways in which Miraji reinvents it. —Krupa Shandilya, Zara Khadeeja Majoka, and Noor Habib, translators of Miraji’s “Nonbeing



The word Spring (Manantial) appears in the third stanza of Silvia Guerra’s “Presumption of Heaven”: “The clear water spills over / and sinks into the Spring itself, water in water.” This word draws attention to itself due to its capitalization. After accepting the poem, one of the editors asked us to make it lowercase—in The Paris Review’s house style, seasons are lowercase. The thing is, Spring is not a season here (primavera)—it’s a spring of water (manantial). For us, this was a delightful “found in translation” moment, as the double meaning of the word spring does not exist in Spanish. However, evoking the season of spring makes sense in the context of the poem, which begins with “the dry, black branches of winter seen in flight” that “run singing.” We are invited to “Come here to drink / translucent drops on fresh leaves.” It is a springtime invitation, even though the season is never named in the original.

Our conversation with the editor about the word also signals another “untranslatable” feature of Guerra’s work: her tendency to capitalize certain words—often nouns but sometimes verbs or adjectives—in the middle of a phrase. In publishing her work elsewhere, we have found that editors often ask us to lowercase her words, to normalize them somewhat. Indeed, the sudden capital letters are jarring, and they are even stranger in the original Spanish, a language that uses capitalization much less frequently than English. They are simply a part of the author’s poetics, causing certain words to jump off the page and draw attention to themselves in unexpected ways. This stylistic feature seems unique to Guerra and, in that sense, untranslatable. —Jesse Kercheval and Jeannine Marie Pitas, translators of Silvia Guerra’s “Presumption of Heaven



Forough Farrokhzad’s “After You” is a love elegy addressed to the year she turned seven, a year that marked the loss of childhood and its innocent joys. It’s a set of scenes and images that describe a collective descent into the darkness of experience, in Blake’s sense of the word. The poem’s vocabulary and syntax are largely straightforward.

The word mīz, table, and its plural form, mīz-hā, appear in six of the fourth stanza’s seven lines. Although the word repeats in each line, its meaning and connotation shift in ways that reflect the evolving sophistication of the speaker’s younger self. Farrokhzad anchors these lines on the recurring word mīz and marks the evolution of the girls’ lives with only adverbs and prepositions. English can’t replicate that. A literal translation of the lines would be as follows (in Persian, the verb arrives at the end of a clause or sentence):

After you our play area that had been under the table
from under the tables
to behind the tables
and from behind the tables
to the tops of the tables moved
and on the tops of the tables we gambled/played cards
and we lost, your color we lost, O seventh year

The word mīz is more fluid than the word table. Embedded in phrases, it can also mean desk or dinner place, but such clarifying words are missing in lines two through five. In English, mīzhā had to change from tables to desks as the little girls grow up and go to school; and to remain desk of a different sort as the girls go to work; and then, when they are adults, to become card or gaming tables—by which time the word play, from the stanza’s opening line, has acquired a different, less innocent meaning. The speaker has witlessly gambled away the colors of her childhood, and from here, the poem moves from innocence into the dark world of experience, a world of protest, repression, violence, and death. —Elizabeth T. Gray Jr., translator of Forough Farrokhzad’s “After You” and “Window



In Baudelaire’s “La fausse monnaie,” which I have rendered as “Fake Money,” the poet is outraged when his companion gives a counterfeit coin to a beggar. Translating the poem, I aimed for a coherent and well-written narrative rather than a literal version.

The phrase la criminelle jouissance in the last paragraph is difficult to translate because we have no English equivalent of jouissance. The standard definition, enjoyment, leaves out the secondary sense of the word, sexual climax. Critical theorists have made much of jouissance and connected the term itself with a transgressive impulse.

My initial solution: “joyous criminality.” Thus, for the French Je lui aurais presque pardonné le désir de la criminelle jouissance dont je le supposais tout à l’heure capable, I had: “I might almost have acquitted him for desiring the experience of joyous criminality that I once supposed him capable of.” This is exact, if clumsy, and on further thought, I concluded the clause with the word criminality and dropped the rest: “I might almost have acquitted him for desiring the experience of joyous criminality.”

All along, I was undecided between this formulation and one that put a greater value on narrative speed. In the end, I decided on the latter: “I might almost have acquitted him of the criminality I have charged him with.” In tonality and succinctness, this is superior, though the gain in clarity sacrifices the concept of “joyous criminality” or perhaps “transgressive joy” that Baudelaire champions in a number of his prose poems (gathered under the title Spleen de Paris). Were I to publish a group of my translations, it would be with notes and an introduction addressing just such an issue as this.

I keep making changes in my translations, even after they have been published, as it is the bane of the translator’s life to keep discovering ways he or she can improve upon what he or she has done. The work is endless. But if we can communicate something of the flavor of a great writer, even at the cost of a significant nuance, the gain is great. —David Lehman, translator of Charles Baudelaire’s “Fake Money” and “Get Drunk



Among nontranslators, there appears to be something of a fascination with the “untranslatable,” and yet a translator cannot really entertain the possibility that there are such things as “untranslatable” words because, apart from anything else, we don’t translate just words; we translate voices and soundscapes and rhythms. Anyone with a smidgen of Portuguese will doubtless ask: “What about saudade then? Is there an exact English equivalent for that?” Well, yes, there are various possible translations depending on the context in which the word is used. But I digress.

To return to the three poems by Alberto Caeiro included in this issue, I don’t think there was anything I felt to be untranslatable. What is perhaps difficult about Caeiro generally is his unnervingly plain language; one has to rein oneself in and respect that plainness. One instance when I perhaps departed from that is in the seventh line of the first poem, where I have translated Toda a paz da Natureza sem gente—which means, literally, “All the peace of Nature without people”—as “All the peace of peopleless Nature,” thus inventing an adjective, peopleless, to replace sem gente. Too poetic? In my defense, I would say that this version has a voice and a rhythm that the literal translation lacks. It also has the bonus of adding alliteration (so key to English-language poetry), as well as echoing the susurrous quality of paz/Natureza/sem in the Portuguese. Maybe this illustrates what I meant when I said that translators don’t just translate words. Each line requires the translator to make decisions not just about meaning but, above all, voice. Is this translation true to the author’s voice? Answers to that question will vary with each translator.

Another example of the kind of choices the translator has to make is the forty-ninth line of the same poem: “Saúdo todos os que me lerem” becomes “I salute all those who’ll read me.” My cotranslator, Patricio Ferrari, pointed out that when Fernando Pessoa was working on the Caeiro poems, he had already read Walt Whitman, and salute is, of course, one of Whitman’s favorite words. Indeed, Walt stands before us in the very next line: “Taking off my broad-brimmed hat to them”! The translator is, first and foremost, a close reader of a text, and untranslatability is not the issue uppermost in our minds, but, rather, the adventure and privilege of carrying that text over into our own language. —Margaret Jull Costa, cotranslator of Alberto Caeiro’s “1.,” “68.,” and “93.


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