Translating poetry into poetry

C. K. Williams on becoming a poet, and how he creates English versions of ancient Greek dramas–without knowing any Greek.

By David Gewanter
Poetry Foundation Media Services

C. K. Williams is the author of numerous books of poetry, including The Singing, winner of the National Book Award. The full interview is available at

David Gewanter: You’ve said that you wrote your first poem at 19 and a girl liked it, and things moved on from there. How does that early experience look from this stage in your life?
C.K. Williams: Incredibly unlikely. That’s always been my feeling about having become a poet when I did. I still don’t know how it really came about. Except for the writing of that first poem, and then futzing around with another. . . . When I arrived as a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, the architect Louis Kahn, who taught there, was just becoming famous. My roommate was one of his students, and I became part of Kahn’s circle and began to understand a little the life of an artist, which is what Kahn was–more than most, or any, other architect I’ve ever known. So when I began to write, I must have realized that one actually could be an artist, that there were such things in the real world, and that I might even possibly be one, too.

DG: Your list of works includes several translations. Can you talk about some of the circumstances of translations?
CKW: The first Greek translation I did was Sophocles, Women of Trachis. I was commissioned to do it for the Oxford series, and I had a collaborator with whom I worked who gave me the literal version of the whole play, and I worked with as many other versions as I could find.

DG: This is an old question about translation: do you take an aspect of contemporary language, and of the panoply of people in your experience, and then put them in, say, ancient Greece in order to make the poetry vivid? Or do you keep the strangeness?
CKW: Obviously I took the language of our day, which is my own language; but the mind of the language, if you can call it that, was the characters’. One of the characters in The Bacchae is a god, a nutty god. There was never any question of using anybody I knew as a model for him . . . except perhaps my own nuttiness.

DG: Nowadays, the sought-after translator might be a poet who doesn’t know much, or any, of the language, and who works with a person who knows the original language.
CKW: Many of the best translations of poetry have been done by people who don’t know the language of the original.

DG: This is turning everything on its head.
CKW: It sounds that way, but it’s true. Translating poetry isn’t just moving from one language to another; you’re translating poetry into poetry, and that’s not the same thing. A scholar who has a foreign language will be able to translate any text into English, but translating into poetry requires a poet. You can see this in other languages besides English. The best translation of Faust in French is by Gerard de Nerval, who had hardly any German. And Robert Lowell, in Imitations, did a number of marvelous poems from languages he didn’t have.

DG: That’s why you say that the translating of poetry and the composition of poetry are almost the same.
CKW: Yes.

DG: Some final questions. You’re working on a Collected Poems. Some previous poets, Wordsworth, and Auden, re-edited their earlier poems. How do you view the incessantly tinkering poet, the person who is always fiddling with things, a Giacometti who won’t let things go?
CKW: I’m like that; I’m an obsessive reviser. It takes me forever sometimes to finish a poem, and I’ll often revise after a poem comes out in a magazine, though very, very rarely after it’s in a book.

DG: Some poets were very restrictive in their publication, but their other poems and drafts–I mean Philip Larkin and Elizabeth Bishop–have now been presented to the public. Does that give us the fuller sense of the poet, or should there be more priority given to the poems the poet wanted published?
CKW: Well, in Larkin’s case, I think that it may have given a somewhat fuller sense of him; his letters had already given perhaps too full a vision of him. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to publish my drafts, or the poems that never worked out–what I call “dead poems” or “note poems.” I’m going to put that in my will.

David Gewanter is author of In the Belly and The Sleep of Reason, and he is also co-editor of The Collected Poems of Robert Lowell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

© 2007 by David Gewanter. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at


~ by ericedits on April 22, 2008.

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