The International Poetry Journal in Bengali and English

Issue 32/33
Apr-Sept '06

Stanley H. Barkan
Translating Kunitz

Translating Kunitz into many languages started with Italian. At my invitation, poet-translator Nat Scammacca and artist Nicolò D’Alessandro, both Sicilians, were in New York for a presentation at the UN (1992). They wanted to meet Kuinitz. After calling and receiving Stanley's enthusiastic agreement, we all met at his West Village apartment. The result was the first bilingual edition: Poems / Drawings, published jointly by my small press Cross-Cultural Communications and Coop. Ed. Antigruppo Siciliano (1993).
But this beginning is deceptive, since it has roots in my becoming fascinated with the idea of having significant poetry (and, rarely, passages of prose) translated multilingually.
It really started with my translations of poetry by Menke Katz, a Yiddish poet who wrote in both Yiddish and English and who edited the little magazine, Bitterroot, while I was his Assistant Editor. In Menke’s Borough Park attic, I was introduced to magazines and newspapers and books from all parts of the world. As part of my work in assisting Menke, I tried to straighten out the chaos in that attic. Among the magazines, I found some of his poems translated into various languages, ranging from French through Kannada to Shona.
About a year or two afterwards, when I was working on an international festival of poetry and art, for the accompanying booklet (1973), I decided to provide an appendix with one of Menke’s poems in 21 different languages. The poem I focused on was “On the Death of a Day Old Child.”
In the course of arranging for this poem to be translated into those languages, I made a number of discoveries. One was, despite the cliché of “something being lost in translation,” that there could be a gain. For example: The Italian translation of the line: “The wind will sing my lullabies to you” is “Il vento ti canterà la mia ninna-nanna.” It is clearly more musical. Another example from the line: “You are the beginning when light is wise.” The word “light” in English is quite general. It could be sunlight, moonlight, candlelight, twilight. But, as Menke uses it, it has a specific meaning: For, according to Jewish tradition, when a child is born, his soul is imbued with a knowledge of everything. This knowledge must be kissed from his eyes by an angel or in the removal of a piece of skin between nose and lips (the spaced area known as “the philtrum”). Thus, this “light” is really the light of universal understanding. Yet in English the word is simply general. In the Swahili translation, however, the word “nuru” is used. Nuru means the light of understanding. Thus, in the Italian and Swahili translations something is truly gained—one being more musical, the other being more specific. In other translations, the Chinese, for instance, I learned that it was impossible to translate the title literally, since to say or write about “the death of a day old child,” would by Chinese cultural standards be wishing that on the speaker or writer; it would be like giving him the evil eye (what Italians would call a “malocchio” or Jews a “kinehora”). Thus, in Chinese, the title had to be rendered as the equivalent of “the child who went away.” So the multilingual translation process I discovered was truly complex, filled with some gains and some impossibilities.
Later, I applied this process to the Langston Hughes festival, which, for 20 years, was directed by Raymond R. Patterson at CCNY. I assisted him by producing broadsides and programs for the festival. For the first festival (1977), I produced a broadside of Hughes’s “Dream Deferred” with the poem in a dozen languages. Still later, I did this for a poem each by Gwendolyn Brooks and John Oliver Killens, and even a passage of prose by James Baldwin.
Then, while co-producing with David Curzon a series of international programs at the Dag Hammerskjöld Auditorim of the United Nations (1990-1991), I arranged for a poem by Allen Ginsberg, “The Weight of the World,” to be translated into 17 different languages and performed as a kind of multilingual poetic symphony. The results were people saying: “It was the most incredible performance presented there in 20 years of attendance.”
So, now the narrative comes back to the beginning with arranging translations of Stanley Kunitz’s poetry into other languages.
After the first bilingual edition was produced, I had asked Stanley if he would like me to arrange for other such translations and bilingual editions. He said, “The more the merrier.” As time went on it became necessary for a more formal approval, which was readily fortchoming from Charles Verrill, Stanley's agent ("Keep 'em coming!"). The only restriction was that the publications of the translations be done in co-editions where the language in question is read and spoken.
Thus, eventually, as publisher of Cross-Cultural Communications, I produced the following editions: Polish, translated by Adam Szyper (1998); Bulgarian, translated by Vladimir Levchev (2002); Ukrainian, translated by Bohdan Boychuk (2003); French, translated by Beverly Matherne and designed by Tchouki in a broadside portfolio edition (2006). (Also a Serbian edition, translated by Biljana D. Obradovic, which has yet to materialize, though it was recently announced in Belgrade that it would soon be in print.)
But I neglect to say something truly significant about the process, that is, the process of translating a truly worthy poem into many languages. I’ve come to the realization that, when a poem is truly universal, it can sustain the multilingual translation process. It becomes, in its many-languge incarnation, a kind of prism, that, when held up to the light, breaks down into all its lingual constituent parts via the facets of the prism, becoming a kind of rainbow of meaning and feeling.
This is what has happened, I believe, with the translation of Stanley Kunitz’s signature poem, “The Layers,” to date, translated into 42 different languages. They are: Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Basque, Bengali, Bulgarian, Catalan, Croatian, Czech, Dutch, Farsi, French, German, Greek, Gujurati, Hebrew, Hindi, Ilocano, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Krygyz, Latvian, Lithuanian, Norwegian (Bokmal), Norwegian (Nynorsk), Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Russian, Serbian, Sicilian, Slovenian, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Tagalog, Telugu, Turkish, Ukrainian, Welsh, Yiddish.
It is hoped that those who read this essay in this in memoriam Shabdaguchha issue of Kunitz’s poetry will be instrumental in finding translators who would be willing to translate into at least eight more languages, the 50 I aimed at, from the beginning, for a special portfolio edition.
With all things considered, it would probably take a Mario Pei, who was a master of 50 different languages, to attest to whether or not my thesis is proven: that is, of a truly universal poem becoming a multilingual prism which reveals all the constituent parts of meaning and feeling possible among the human family.
Stanley, you were a poet for all peoples. Your legacy is your poetry and, for those of us who seek to cross over borders, this challenging, delightful task.
May we who read and translate you be worthy.

Charles Fishman
Meetings with Stanley Kunitz

The first time I saw Stanley Kunitz in person was at Herkimer County Community College in 1974. We were there with Robert Creeley and William Stafford. I say "we were there," but, of course, Kunitz, Creeley, and Stafford were a triumvirate of internationally acclaimed poets, and I was unknown. In 1974, my first chapbook, Aurora, came out in a very small edition from Tree Books in Berkeley. No one in the audience was there to hear me or to read my poems. The three magnificos and I sat behind a table and faced a large audience of men and women who had gathered at this unremarkable community college to learn what poetry is—or what poets think poetry is. I don’t recall what Creeley, Stafford, or Kunitz had to say that afternoon, but I do remember their kindness and how they held back from scolding me for my headstrong pronouncements and guesses.
At the reception that followed, Stanley turned to me and commented on my presentation and on his translations from Russian poetry. He looked tidy and elegant and somewhat distant and above-it-all at the same time. Being at the center of everyone’s attention was hardly a new experience for him, though hearing a brash young poet he’d never heard of deliver "interesting" remarks about writing poetry had clearly surprised him. I had said that to write a poem one needed to give one’s entire attention to the act—that one had to dive into unknown waters and hold one’s breath until his fingers touched the other bank: it was swimming for one’s life.
When Stanley suggested that I visit him in Cape Cod "next summer," I could barely react and must have seemed immobilized, except for my head, which nodded and proved incapable of forming an intelligible syllable. At that moment, I knew I could not—would not—make the journey; that the great man would most likely forget his invitation; that I didn’t feel worthy of sitting on his sofa or at his feet; that I could not approach him as a friend or disciple. I would not walk with him through his famous garden or debate the virtues of Akhmatova and Mandelstam . . . or read my poems for him. I knew immediately I wouldn’t make the pilgrimage to his wind-scoured corner of Massachusetts.

A few years later, when I was serving as an editor of Cedarmere Review, a Long Island journal that was dedicated to the memory of William Cullen Bryant, my co-editors and I had the opportunity to publish "Snakes in September," one of the dozen or so poems Kunitz is most likely to be remembered for. If only the poem had been "The Wellfleet Whale," that paean to glorious and broken nature, one of the great odes to the planet and to the life that flourishes and dies there . . . and certainly Kunitz’s greatest poem: as expansive and vividly detailed as any lament or celebratory verse penned by Whitman, filled with lightning-bright bursts of beauty and insight. In these two poems, and in his poems for his father—so early and so shockingly dead, such a violent abandonment—I responded most deeply to Stanley Kunitz’s work. I met him again in those poems, in his words, as so many other poets did over the course of his astonishingly long and creative life.

In fact, all of my encounters with Stanley Kunitz took place in the realm of poetry: at the Dodge Festival in New Jersey, where he was helped up to the stage by his wife, who was as marked by years as he was and nearly as frail; at the Poetry Society of America’s annual awards evening, where he was led to the podium by Galway Kinnell, another knight at the roundtable of poetry, who had drawn very close to Kunitz in his final years, as if the great poet of the lost father had become, toward the end, the surrogate father of all brilliant and burning and lost poets.
Yet, in the mid-80s, Stanley had not responded to me when I’d sent him my poem, "Field," a poem composed of colors, the language my father, a retired color chemist, knew best. Perhaps the brokenness and lostness embodied in that poem—my appeal to my aging father to veer close to me again, after many years of near silence—had cut too near the bone for him, whose own father had killed himself when Stanley was still a child.
Whatever the reason for the laureate’s silence, and no matter how many ways I might meet him before his death at 100, Stanley Kunitz would never be a father for me, a mentor, or a friend. Even so, he, and his poems, inhabit an inner landscape where poems like "The Wellfleet Whale," "A Blessing of Women," and "Touch Me" help keep us alive, if not settled and safe. And so I mourn the passing of this man: this gardener, teacher, translator, poet: this lone star shining and salt of the earth.

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  • Shabdaguchha, A Journal of Poetry, Published in New York, Edited by Hassanal Abdullah.