When poems travel

Trans-. The prefix means “across,” “beyond,” “through.” It appears at the beginning of words that signify motion and change: “transportation,” “tranformation,” and of course “translation.” In 1830 Goethe captured just one kind of motion and change brought about by translation when he remarked to Johann Peter Eckermann: “I do not like to read my Faust any more in German, but in this French translation all seems again fresh, new, and spirited” (trans. John Oxenford).

Motion and change are central to this series. Im interested in what happens when poems travel, not only across languages but across cultures and communities. Im interested in what happens when poems change, not only through translation but as a result of artistic choices, scholarly claims, vagaries of reception. No doubt, all literary works become refreshed and renewed as they circulate, often in altered form, across the world. But poetry, as an art vitally tied to language, offers especially salient examples of such transpositions.

Roman Jakobson uses the word “transposition” at the end of his essay “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation” (1959). He does it in connection with the long-standing assumption that poetry, because it is an intensely verbal art, is by definition untranslatable. “Only creative transposition is possible,” he declares. Reiterating the schema he proposed earlier in his essay, Jakobson then distinguishes among three types of transposition: intralingual” (change in the poem“shape”), “interlingual” (change in the poem“language”), and “intersemiotic” (change in the poem’s “system of signs”).

Still, paraphrase, rendition, and adaptation — if those are roughly what Jakobson has in mind — belong in just one area of inquiry, which focuses on what happens to poems themselves as they travel and, inevitably, change. What interests me equally as much is the function of the reader in the process, especially if that reader is more than imagined or implied. The term “transposition,” as Im using it, thus brings me closer to the field of reader response theory and reception studies. Once the poem is published, there is potentially no limit to what can be done with it. Paraphrase, rendition, and adaptation are only the most obvious examples of deliberate change; another is literary criticism. “Transposition,” in this broader sense, has more in common with “refraction,” a term used by scholars like Andrè Lefevere and David Damrosch in the context of translation studies and world literature. Again, what interests me is the worldwide dissemination of poems rather than plays or novels, as well as dynamic equilibrium implied by the word “transposition,” specifically as it pertains to the relationship between author and reader.

I am mindful of Walter Benjamin’s admonition, at the beginning of this essay “The Translator’s Task” (1923), that “when seeking knowledge of a work of art or an art form, it never proves useful to take the receiver into account … No poem is meant for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the audience” (trans. Steven Rendall). Still, the notion of “receiver” seems to me more active, if not transactive, than Benjamin allows. The relationship between author and reader will appear especially dynamic in the topics I plan to explore in the next few weeks: different notions of audience and addressee; unconventional takes on influence and intertextuality; iteration as a compositional device; translingual and transmodal poems; reading versus playing a poem; self-translation and English-to-English translation; what it means for a poem to change.

My examples of “transposition” (creative, critical, and in-between) are meant to show how acts of reading can productively coincide or overlap with acts of writing, and vice versa — even the way Goethe briefly transitioned from author to reader as he came across Gèrard de Nerval's translation (mostly in prose!) of Faust. I hope that, at minimum, these commentaries will make a few other poems seem “fresh, new, and spirited.”