Looking for Miracles: A Conversation Between Richard Wilbur '42 and Ilan Stavans


Richard Wilbur ’42 is a former U.S. poet laureate, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and the author of Things of This World and Advice to a Prophet. In the fall of 2008, he returned to his alma mater to teach. One of Wilbur’s lifelong passions is translation. His renditions include work from the French (Molière, Racine, Mallarmé and Baudelaire), Russian (Akhmatova, Voznesensky and Brodsky), Spanish (Borges and Guillén) and Italian (Dante and Quasimodo).

Ilan Stavans is author of On Borrowed Words and Dictionary Days and the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst, where he has taught since 1993. A Guggenheim Fellow and the recipient of numerous prizes, including Chile’s Presidential Medal, he is also passionate about translation. He has translated from the Spanish (Neruda, Borges and Rulfo), English (Hearn, Ozick and Roth), Hebrew (Halevi and Amichai) and Yiddish (Singer).

Last year, while teaching separate courses, the professors had a student in common who took on as a final project rendering Borges’ poetry into English. That inspired Wilbur and Stavans to a personal conversation that took place in April 2009 and is transcribed here. In it, they talked about teaching, polyglotism and translation. They debated the role of translation in a liberal arts education, what makes a translation successful and the art of teaching patience to students today.

ILAN STAVANS: What is the difference between the way students talk today and how they talked when you were an undergraduate?

RICHARD WILBUR: Students nowadays strike me as brighter than we were, but many of them choose to speak in a blurting, confused manner, as if clarity would be pretentious.

IS: Is it because they are less connected with the written word? Are they impatient with the art of talking? Is it because reading as an activity is in decline?

RW: Although they often write well, in speech they are in no danger of talking like a book. Perhaps the answer must be sought historically, in the ’60s, when the influence of the Beat Generation was strongly felt by students in America. They began to start every sentence with “like” as a way of saying “so to speak.” They botched their thoughts in hopes of seeming spontaneous and natural.

IS: Is there something positive about the way people are more relaxed today in the way they speak? Or is it all loss?

RW: I’m mostly aware of a kind of incoherence that doesn’t do justice to the students’ intelligence. I’m not sure that there is any gain in this collapse of eloquence and formality of speech.

IS: Language isn’t a measure of intelligence but it is intelligence manifested. Are you suggesting that intelligence has gone down? I gather that what you’re saying is that the way intelligence manifests itself, language as the expression of thought, has crumbled.

RW: That’s my feeling.

IS: Let me switch topics. It was Proust, I believe, who said that all poets, even those who are monolingual, write in a foreign language. I’d like to get your view of what a foreign language is to a poet like you.

RW: There are people like yourself who are fully competent in a number of languages. For such people, translating is a different experience from anything to which I as a translator could lay claim. I remember talking with Richard Howard a few years ago. He’s an awfully good translator from the French and a good poet in English. Howard said to me that for him, possessing French amounted to possessing a second self, another person who he can be when he’s tired of the one that he was given in the first place. When he said that, I was aware of how utterly unlike him I was in that regard. I can rather awkwardly converse in French, I can speak kitchen Italian and I can beg someone’s pardon in Russian. I can enjoy the sounds and savors of those languages and a certain amount of strained intercourse in them. But I am myself all the time. I am hopelessly an 11th-generation American.

IS: Yet should one say that the relationship toward one’s own language is defined by foreignness?

RW: I, like most Americans, speak sometimes in the easy-going language of an ordinary citizen and at other times in a language that is specialized. I can’t count the possible ways of talking English that there are, but I’m sure that unconsciously I switch gears between one kind of English discourse and another all the time.

IS: You’re obviously talking about your oral communication. What about as a poet? How many different Englishes do you have at your disposal?

RW: As a poet there is a basic vocabulary which I use, and I try to make it adequate to the delicacy and complexity of the subject. I also depart from conversational English at need, and reach for the word that’s rare but exact; sometimes I echo the language of prior poets in English and in other tongues as well. Poets have always done that. Offhand, I think of the Latinity of John Milton, since an echoing Latin was something he could switch into while still writing in English. In a lesser sense that sort of thing is true of me. I can converse in poetry with John Keats, for example, letting my language be touched by him in a way which the reader can divine and understand.

IS: A poet is always in conversation with the past.

RW: Yes.


IS: And with the future too?

RW: I’m not sure. The future is a mystery to me. I suppose when I do think of the relationship of present poetry to the future, I simply hope that our poetry at its most vital will be enhanced of life in times to come. Even for poets who are not bookish, poetry is a conversation with one’s neighbors, of course, but also with all of the poets who have ever written. At least with all of the poets who matter to us. We address the future with less confidence, but with hope.

IS: I want to draw a parallel here. If poetry is a conversation with time, isn’t conversation—I’m again talking about oral communication—the same thing? For when speaking to one another, we’re using many of the same words, if not always the same syntactical structures, our ancestors employed.

RW: That’s true. Even when trying to be desperately modern, many words we use have a historic flavor to them, and no one can use them without making a gesture toward what has been said by other people in the past.

IS: I read recently, and was puzzled by it, that French has a total of 125,000 different words, German has 180,000, and English—and this is according to the Oxford English Dictionary—a bit under a million. How to explain these different sizes in linguistic banks? If these numbers are true, the French, a language from which you’ve translated extensively, has little over 12 percent of the number of words that English has.

RW: We’re well-acquainted with the purism of the French, their desire to preserve their language as of a certain date in a pure condition. I don’t know if the same spirit is important in German. As for English, we have been unashamedly acquisitive of other words, other ways of putting things, other names for things. It’s one of the great glories of our highly manipulable language. I remember discovering two years ago that when we speak the simple sentence “Please pass the ketchup,” we’re using a word, ketchup, which originated on an island between Japan and China. I forget the island’s name, but I wouldn’t be without the word. We have rendered it our own, and it seems as American as any other word.

IS: Is an English poet today able to do much more because there are more words in the language? Are there simply more tools at his disposal? Is the world different when one has almost a million words to describe it? Numerically, I don’t know the scope of Spanish but my guess is that it compares to French.

RW: I don’t know how much any of us is in possession of how much of this great treasury of American English, but one has a sense that if there’s anything that needs naming, any concept that needs expressing, one can, with the help of a dictionary, find that it exists in our language. There isn’t anything one has to attack by a painful circumlocution. There’s almost always a word at our disposal. Whether it’s part of the working vocabulary of any poet or speaker is another matter. I don’t know how eloquent we may be considered to be, compared to a good speaker of French, Spanish or German. Certainly we are less formulaic.

IS: By way of talking about translation, let me ask you a question about travel. Do you believe travel is important in the art of translation? I’m imagining a man like Kaspar Hauser, a bastard born and raised in Germany in total isolation in a dungeon, who is able to reach beyond his limited universe through intellectual curiosity, and through passion ends up becoming enlightened, in the 19th-century sense of the term. This Kaspar Hauser, considered by some a half-wild human (Werner Herzog made a film about him in 1974) learns to speak more than one language and has books at his disposal. Does one need to leave the dungeon in order to become a good translator? Is natural talent and access to information enough?

RW: I’m not sure that travel is important for the purposes of successful translation. For some people immersion in the language of the text they will translate is part of the drill. For Richard Howard it was. Transformation of the self, broadening of the self, came of long and real association with French culture. I suppose one has to judge the likelihood of one’s conversion to another language and nationality in order to see how practical it is for one’s purposes. I have translated chiefly from 17th-century French, and I don’t know that travel would have helped me.

IS: In order to be a fine translator of poetry, does one need to be a poet?

RW: Yes, to produce the sort of translation which brings a foreign poem over into a language once and for all, one probably needs a poet’s developed ability. Yet wonderful things have been done, can be done, in translation by people who are equipped simply with good intelligence and taste.

IS: Can you think of examples of poems written in another language that traveled to English successfully in the hands of translators who were not themselves poets?

RW: There are people who know infinitely more about some literature than poets do, and have a profounder sense of its language. Such scholars produce translations that are useful keys to what’s in the original, but which rarely reincarnate it. Let me hasten to say, however, that though Edward FitzGerald’s own poetry was unremarkable, his Rubáiyát is one of the great translations of all time.

IS: Indeed, FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát is superb, although the majority of us are ignorant of Omar Khayyám’s Persian. For all we know, FitzGerald arranged the quatrains at will, manipulating the original. In any case, I was born in Mexico and immigrated to the United States. Learning English for me was a way of reinventing who I was. It took years to find some degree of comfort, however limited, in English. The truth is that no matter how much I make my home in the language, I still feel as an outsider. You’ve done something I find adventurous, not to say dangerous: you’ve translated into English from languages you don’t know—Russian, Bulgarian and Spanish. Joseph Brodsky also did it. He translated into Russian the poetry of Juan Ramón Jiménez. Once I asked Brodsky how is it possible to achieve the task when he didn’t even have enough knowledge of Spanish to make his way around a kitchen. He told me that one doesn’t need to know the original language in order to be able to bring the poem into one’s own language (in his case, two own languages: Russian and English), because there is something mathematical about translation. Once you have the basic cultural information about what the words mean and the poet’s intention, once you understand the poetic structure being handled, it’s a rather easy equation.

RW: I believe successful translation can be done against such odds. For example, I translated a number of poems by Andrei Voznesensky with the help of Max Hayward, the translator of Dr. Zhivago. He, along with Patricia Blake, was editing a book of contemporary Russian poetry in translation, and he came to see me at our house in Connecticut. He took his place at one end of the couch. From time to time I brought him whiskey. He stayed for three days talking poems to me. He was careful not to do the job of translation, not to say anything final. He kept giving me first the gist, and then the answers to all of my questions. He instructed me—and this is most important—in the tone of the original poems. So I’m credited with a number of translations from Voznesensky and some other Russian poets.

IS: Would you describe Max Hayward as your co-translator? Shouldn’t the translation be credited to both? Is he just a facilitator? A cultural commentator?

RW: A cultural commentator. He was careful not to say anything in iambic pentameter, to suggest what seemed to him a brilliant word to solve a problem in a certain line.

IS: As a poet, you need a surveyor to map out the original for you. You depend on his interpretation to get the tone. This means that there are two layers here: not only is the translator interpreting but there’s a cultural commentator interpreting for the translator to be an interpreter. Might too much be getting lost in the affair?

RW: One factor in this relationship between facilitator and poet is that it matters greatly whether the facilitator has been accurate in thinking that you would be the person to translate this poem.

IS: The other way around matters too: you have to trust that facilitator as the bridge, since he is your connection with that thing called the poem.

RW: You do have to trust him. You get as close as you can to the original through and in spite of the facilitator. You ask him to read it out loud in the original language.

IS: How about visualizing an experiment like this: Two close friends of yours who are Russian, each quite different from the other, invite you to translate the same poem. They read it out loud to you, they comment on its cultural meaning, they feed you the tone and make you feel it. You spend three days and whiskey with one, and, allowing some time to elapse, three days and whiskey with the other. Would you produce two very different translations?

RW: Undoubtedly, since the flavor of any translation arrived at in that way has something to do with the personality of the helper. The results would be different, though not “very different.”

IS: Are you predisposed, as a poet, toward certain languages? Do you go to French, Russian, Spanish and Italian because those languages mean something to you but you don’t toward others, like Hindi? I guess what I’m suggesting is that even if you had cultural commentators in Hindi, you couldn’t do a translation from any language into English, only from those you are inclined to.

RW: Yes, because one has a kind of romance with some languages and cultures and is ignorant of others, or cold to them.

IS: What’s the difference, in terms of romance, in your relationship with French, Russian and Spanish? What do these languages mean to you?

RW: I suppose it mostly has to do with my experience of reading in them. I have a cumulative pleasure in French, which comes from having had a lot of individual pleasant experiences of the language. I’m also drawn to French because I spent a lot of time in France during World War II. Likewise, I have some experience as a soldier and as a resident in Italy. I have a favorable feeling for Italian culture, and I share the opinion of the person who told me, after crossing over into northern Italy, “Ah, now we’re among the human race.…”

IS: So the question of travel does matter.

RW: Everyone has different notions of what it means to be human. And experiential knowledge is indeed important.

IS: Did your experience as a soldier during World War II, while connecting you to French, draw you away from German?

RW: I’m sure it did. Later, I had to study German when I was preparing for a Ph.D., which I never got. While doing it, I managed to overcome a little political repugnance. I still feel that repugnance. It troubles me that there’s a great deal I can’t fully enjoy because of that political blockage. However, there are grateful echoes of Hölderlin in my poems.

IS: There are two approaches to translation. First is the one endorsed by the latter Nabokov: A translation needs to remind the reader that it is an artifice, that the poem wasn’t written originally in the language into which it has traveled. The second approach is linked in my mind with Flaubert, who wasn’t a translator himself but who believed that in a work of literature the author should disappear, be erased without a trace. A translation of this kind then seeks not only to compete but to supplant the original. That is, a translation should free itself from its enabler, the translator.

RW: I remember enjoying Nabokov’s early translations, partly because they were my only access to some Russian writers, but also because they were rather nicely executed. I have found no pleasure in looking at Nabokov’s latter operations in that theater. Like most translators, what I’m interested in are miracles. By patience and good fortune, I want to bring something over to English that is faithful to the thought of the original, and does something which corresponds to its form, and has a tone as exact as possible.

IS: Since you’ve rendered Molière in English, I want to consider another component. When translating a historical piece, the translator must decide whether to recreate in his own language the parlance of the time in which the original was written or is supposedly conveying, or to opt for a modern approach. In the case of Don Quixote of La Mancha, a translator like Edith Grossman modernizes the text, whereas some 19th-century translators attempted a recreation in English of Cervantes’ early 17th-century Spanish. When translating Molière, you seem to want your translation to be reminiscent of the past yet utterly contemporary.

RW: That is my hope. Molière requires little mediation. The attitudes of his characters, the playwright’s judgments on them, are quite intelligible to us today. I’m always combative about the efforts of some stage directors to update him, because he’s already modern. Everything in his plays is quite familiar. I’m opposed to a conspicuous modernization of what doesn’t need it. I detest the sort of director who has Tartuffe, while approaching an audience with Elmire, hum “I’m in the mood for love.”

IS: I wonder what your experience as a translated writer is. In my own case, I make myself available to the translators who have rendered my work into another language yet I want to be as non-intrusive as possible.

RW: Me too. I try to be useful and don’t wish to hog-tie anybody. One Frenchman who has translated my poems has been entirely faithful to the metrical and rhyming patterns. Another translator into French felt that the tone perished if he strove for an excessive faithfulness to the forms. He’s accomplished a felicitous but loose approximation of the formal patterns in the interest of keeping the tone.

IS: Do you have a preference?
RW: Sometimes one works and sometimes the other. Yet both of these translators have had their happy moments.

IS: What would you make of a poet in Romania with no access to the English language other than a limited dictionary and who, in order to translate a poem by Richard Wilbur, needs to find a cultural commentator? Would you be unhappy to go through the same grinder?

RW: I wouldn’t object to having been used in that way. I would simply hope he was an able poet and had a good enabler.

IS: Have you chosen the translations that you’ve done or have they chosen you? For instance, the Spanish translation you’ve done of Borges?

RW: Most of my translations from Spanish, Russian or Bulgarian were done at the suggestion of others whom I trusted. In the Jorge Guillén poems I attempted, I had Willis Barnstone check me out. Norman Thomas di Giovanni got in touch with me about translating several of Borges’ sonnets. I responded to those sonnets by an author whom I had already enjoyed in prose. I translated Borges’ poem “Compass,” and the happiest thing that can happen to a translator happened to me: Borges sent word to me by way of di Giovanni that one line, which I had translated as “Homes to the utmost of the sea its love,” surpassed the original. A very generous thing to say!

IS: This prompts me to ask: can a translation be better than the original? It is often said—and the Italians have a saying about it: traduttore traditore—that translation is a form of betrayal. If a translation improved on the original, can the original be the betrayer?

RW: I don’t understand. The original always comes first.…

IS: Not really. As a composition it does comes first in chronological time. But for the reader the translation might come first, followed by a curiosity to find what the original actually says.

RW: In the case of a superb translation, I could imagine the original, for the reader, being a let-down. But I don’t think it is at all the function of translation to improve upon the original, to go it one better. I wouldn’t wish to fancy that I was doing better than Molière. The challenge is to be adequate.

IS: Since translations aren’t sacred—that is, we can revamp them as often as we want—do you find, upon rereading them, that they are an expression of who you were when you translated them but that they could now be improved?

RW: I’m so slavish as a translator, I work so long and hard on everything I do, that I’m not tempted to go back and retouch anything. I might see in an old translation I did years back that I struck the wrong note here or there, but—rightly or wrongly—I would not be tempted to tinker with it.

IS: What would Richard Wilbur’s poetry be today had you not done any translations?

RW: I can’t guess. I don’t think of my poems as artificial or multi-voiced. My poems speak with my whole self, and whatever my self is, it has been modified by my experience with other poets and other languages. On the other hand, I don’t sense any “translationese” in my own poetry.

IS: I now want to go back to where I began. Do you think people today, young and old, speak faster than when you were an undergraduate?

RW: Yes, although my impression might have to do with the fact that I’m sometimes wearing hearing aids.

IS: Is it a truism that the American language is spoken today in a speedier way?

RW: Faster and with less forethought. Some sentences of my bright young students have six or seven “like”s in them.

IS: A cancer. I tell my students that if we eliminated the “like”s in their conversation, the class would shrink from 80 to 60 minutes. Anyway, given the state of the English language today, the impact of the Beat Generation, the use—and abuse—of the Internet, what is your recommendation to an aspiring translator and maybe to those who simply want to toy with what I would call “language travel”? I, for one, believe we don’t pay enough attention to translation in small liberal arts colleges, although we surely are mindful of it. Even for those who don’t dream of a life as a translator, attempting to bring a text from one language to another is a revelation, don’t you think?



 "Patience is the translator's chief virtue," says Richard Wilbur '42 (left). While teaching separate Amherst courses, he and Ilan Stavans (right) had a student in common who rendered Borges' poetry into English--and who inspired a long conversation between the two teachers. 

RW: My advice to the interested student is to first make sure you know how to write in English meter and rhyme. A fair part of what one might wish to do honor to is going to require not only an equivalent form but a well-chosen equivalent form. In translating from French alexandrines, for instance, it would be horrible to render them in English six-footers. One has to equal them in some way. Happily, the English pentameter will house almost everything that can exist in an alexandrine. It is crucial to develop corresponding forms for what one may encounter in the languages from which one wants to translate.

IS: And then what—patience? Patience is very hard to teach.

RW: Patience is the translator’s chief virtue. What gives my translations such merit as they have is that I will really spend a whole day trying to solve a couplet. To many people, that is unimaginably dull, not to say confining. But until that couplet is properly done, I won’t go on to the next.

Richard Wilbur returns to Amherst this fall to co-teach a poetry reading course. Ilan Stavans will teach two fall courses, one on Spanglish and the other a detailed study of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Illustrations copyright 2009 by James Fryer, c/o ispot.com.

Photo by Samuel Masinter '04