Gone today

Justin Quinn and the gift of the translator

In his late work On Translation (2005), the French phenomenologist and literary theorist Paul Ricoeur brings together his lifelong investigations into ethics with a re-reading of Walter Benjamin's "The Task of the Translator" (1923). Ricoeur theorizes translation as a "correspondence without adequacy," urging us to give up on the idea of a perfect translation:

And it is this mourning for the absolute translation that produces the happiness associated with translating. The happiness associated with translating is a gain when, tied to the loss of the linguistic absolute, it acknowledges the difference between adequacy and equivalence, equivalence without adequacy. There is its happiness. When the translator acknowledges and assumes the irreducibility of the pair, the peculiar and the foreign, he finds his reward in the recognition of the impassable status of the dialogicality of the act of translating as the reasonable horizon of the desire to translate. In spite of the agonistics that make a drama of the translator's task, he can find his happiness in what I would like to call linguistic hospitality. (10)

Justin Quinn is an Irish poet, scholar, and translator who teaches at Charles University in the Czech Republic. Most recently, his monograph Between Two Fires: Transnationalism and Cold War Poetry came out from Oxford University Press; a new poetry collection, Early House, will be out this spring from Gallery Press. He's also translated the work of contemporary Czech poet Petr Borkovec, whose reception had been primarily confined to European readers.

"Temporary Elegy for Petr Borkovec," from the collection Close Quarters (2011), dramatizes the work of translation as the work of mourning. The title contains an obvious paradox: how can an elegy, the genre that most often examines permanence, be temporary? A kind of wish fulfillment, perhaps—or a nod to the conventional impulse, within elegy, to repeat the work of mourning over and over as a way of deferring the finality of consolation (and thus the end of the poem)? Or maybe something more mundane and more interesting: the insertion of elegy into the gaps and passages of dailiness. The poem's about an absence from a friend, not the death of a friend. The stations undergone by the mourner must be revised accordingly.

"Temporary Elegy" charts the effects that translation, as a meeting between the poets, has on the world around the translator:

I'm bringing you some stuff I found
while I was walking through the woods,
along the river and around
the villas still marked by the floods—

inertias, patterns, ratios
I never noticed in the days
before I read your texts up close
to every queried word and phrase

and which I now see everywhere
the signatures of things your hand
was moved to write, as though the air
of birdsong had become the land.

As in most elegies, the poet's relation to the physical world is altered by loss. But this particular loss is one peculiar to the scene of translation. The elegized figure is a poet himself and, more important, party to the composition of the mourner's poetry, half of the pair of translators. Quinn imagines bringing Borkovec, in his absence, something of comparable value to the hospitality Borkovec has shown to Quinn. These are, in the poem's language, the "signatures." Translation, or the process of generous admittance to Borkovec's language and poetic making, has fundamentally changed the poet's perception and behavior, which would otherwise be mediated through and partially constructed by his own language and style. In this way, "Temporary Elegy" is an allegory for translation, with the two figures, Borkovec and Quinn, standing in for the two languages: opened hospitably to each other, yet separated from each other, non-identifiable with each other.

Quinn winds thought, and complete sentences, around his tetrameter quatrains. This task of following a complex thought is typically given to blank verse, but it is here rendered into the more everyday idiom of the quatrain's rhythms. Quinn's cadences recall Larkin, especially the final lines, in which all but one of the words are monosyllabic: "Sit here. Light up a cigarette / and talk me through it all once more." [I think of the end of Larkin's devastating "To Failure": "You have been here some time."] And the point of the poem is in the gentle doubling act that concludes it. To talk oneself through something difficult is precisely what the elegy does; the desire to have the dead talk you through it instead is a desire that the elegy weaves itself around. But of course, by imploring Borkovec to talk him through it all once more, the poet refers to the incessant queries and checks that make up the work of translating with someone else. In this way, the encounter with difference is rendered in the hospitable guise of attunements and of invitations and of the transmutation of the bird's song into a new place to stand.

Quinn, Justin. Close Quarters. Loughcrew: Gallery Press, 2011.

Ricoeur, Paul. On Translation. trans. Eileen Brennan. New York: Routledge, 2006.