"Interviews Conducted with Robert Shaw and Eric Keenaghan on Elizabeth Bishop's Poetics of Translation

Elizabeth Bishop Interview

Sarah Giragosian

 As you know, over the course of her lifetime, Elizabeth Bishop translated works by the French
surrealist Max Jacob in 1950 and by the Mexican poet Octavio Paz in the 1970s. She also
translated several pieces by Brazilian writers, such as Clarice Lispector and Carlos Drummond
de Andrade, as well as Helena Morley, a young girl who grew up in a Brazilian mining town in
the nineteenth century, whose diary she translated.

1. An exacting and literal translator, Bishop advances the following recommendations in her
unpublished Remarks on Translation: "When a word is repeated— repeat it! (Just because
English has more words than any other language except Russian—doesn't mean we have to
use them all. . . .) When a line is repeated—repeat it—and also—stick to the structure"
(Bishop as qtd. in Henneberg). Additionally, in a letter to Anne Stevenson, she writes that
translations were to be handled "with a minimum of bloodletting or seepage" (Ibid). How do
Bishop’s preoccupations with accuracy in translation intersect with her preoccupations as a

2. Bishop’s literalism marked an important distinction between her work in translation and
Lowell’s. In fact, in Becoming a Poet, David Kalstone posits that differences in their poetic
sensibilities “ were made sharply apparent, in fact, not by poems relating to Bishop, but by
Lowell’s translations of French poets” (Kalstone 203). Although read as a creative translation
by most critics, Lowell’s Imitations troubled Bishop. Objecting to his editorializing impulses
and providing Lowell with literal corrections of his translations, she states, "I just can't decide
how 'free' one has the right to be with the poet's intentions" (Kalstone, 205). Do you wish to
comment on any aspect of Bishop’s protectiveness towards the works that she translated in
contrast with Lowell’s disposition towards creative reinterpretations of other poets’ works?

3. In regard to the tensions over translation between Lowell and Bishop, Kalstone writes,
“Bishop’s preternatural sense of the outside world as separate and discrete creation was never
Lowell’s; it disturbed her that he he often failed to observe the distinction between self and
world, between writing and life” (Kalstone 207). Do you think it is possible that translation
was a transformative--perhaps freeing--enterprise for Bishop insofar that she interpreted as a
practice with certain constraints? 

4. What do you think are Bishop’s strategies for averting cultural appropriations or critiquing
imperialist appropriations in her translation and poetic work? In what ways did Bishop
accommodate the “otherness” of cross-cultural translations?

5. In Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development, Thomas J. Travisano writes, “Bishop’s
translations can be suggestive because the poems she chooses to translate are, almost
inevitably, more explicit in their declaration of intentions and value than Bishop ever cared to
be” (Travisano 193). In what ways do you think that the technical aspects of translation and--
by extrapolation--the process of transcribing another writer’s consciousness were enabling for
Bishop’s poetics?

7. In her essay, “The Diary of Helena Morley,” Bishop writes that the book’s “scenes and events
...described were odd, remote and long ago” (Bishop 82). However, in the same passage, she
registers elements of the familiar in the diary, particularly in its literariness: “Certain pages
reminded me of more famous and literary ones...”(Ibid). She then seems to become careful
not to project a literary cast onto the diary, writing, “But this was a real day-by-day diary, kept
by a real girl” (Ibid). This passage discloses the appeal of the real, as well as what might be
considered the conflictual attractions of translation for Bishop: both the search for vestiges of
the familiar in the “foreign” and her recognition of the costs of appropriation. Do you agree?
Do you think that translation might have been an important resource for Bishop in calling for a
particular form of self-restraint?

8. In The Language of Inquiry, Lyn Hejinian writes that “The process of translating works has
had the effect of providing me with something like a life apart from my own, a life led by an
other--though the other turns out to be me. It is not that translation involves the assimilation of
someone else’s ‘otherness’--and it does not consist in the uncomplicated making of an American poem out of the raw materials of a foreign one. Rather, translation catalyzes one’s own ‘otherness,’ and the otherness of one’s own poetry” (303). Do you see a similar dynamic at work in Bishop’s translations?

Robert Shaw
Elizabeth Bishop Interview

1. One of the satisfactions of reading Elizabeth Bishop's own poetry is that she is so
often successful in matching language to the look and feel of things. Her style may be
apparently casual, spontaneous, and yet, upon consideration, a reader comes to be aware
of how exactingly the words have been chosen. Some of her poems, we're told, remained in
manuscript for years until their language achieved the precision she sought. She doesn't
settle for loose verbal approximations of what she means; she is determined to cull the
best word for the purpose from among its synonyms. It's not surprising that her passion
for accuracy in description is paralleled by a devotion to accuracy in translation:
there, too, for her it was a matter of finding the best word, not merely an acceptable
substitute, and of making her language tally with an original, just as in her own poems
the words are faithful to the world they describe.

2. I think it's clear that Bishop's conception of the translator's craft was markedly
different from Lowell's. Lowell was quite open about his "licenses" in his preface to
IMITATIONS: "I have been reckless with literal meaning, and labored hard to get the
tone. . . . I have dropped lines, moved lines, moved stanzas, changed images and altered
meter and intent. . . . I have been almost as free as the authors themselves in finding
ways to make them ring right for me." This is about as distant as one can imagine from
Bishop's admonition to "stick to the structure." There is something imperialistic in
Lowell's approach: one by one he annexes European poets, bending their lines to the
demands of his own voice. His Baudelaire, Montale, Rilke all sound like no other than
Robert Lowell. For all his talk about the importance of tone, his imitations are in this
sense remarkably narrow tonally. Bishop's translations, by contrast, are not swamped by
her own voice. There was certainly a degree of self-effacement in her Englishing of
French, Portuguese, and Spanish poems which cannot be found in Lowell's forays into other
literatures. Almost certainly, this suggests a difference in temperament as well as in
poetic strategy.

3. This is hard to answer without entering into biographical or psychological
speculation. I think that Bishop was more interested in getting outside of her own
consciousness and into that of each poet she translated than Lowell was. And this, if
successful, offers a kind of freedom from the over-familiarity of one's own thoughts.
The paradoxical idea of being imaginatively freed by engaging with restrictions imposed
by poetic form is one that many poets have subscribed to, some more consistently than
others. In saying poets should "stick to the structure" when translating, Bishop was
probably focused chiefly on fidelity to the original. But accepting that kind of
discipline may have been imaginatively enabling in the way that prosodic requirements can
be when writing in one's own language.

4. Bishop was undoubtedly aware of the challenges posed by "otherness" in both her
own writing and in translating. She seems to have been more intrigued than intimidated
by them. Thinking of her poems set in Brazil as well as her translations, I would say
she manages by being honestly curious about, sympathetically interested in, the lives of
people in the places she lived in and explored. She was easily cosmopolitan, perhaps,
because from early on she had lived through many displacements. Her way of writing about
places where she was actually living is not very different from her treatment of places
that she saw in passing and recorded in verse. Her method in dealing with ordinary
scenes and objects is often to find in them an element of strangeness; in dealing with
the exotic she often makes it into something neighborly. As a poet, she seems always to
be a tourist, even when she is at home--a tourist on whom very little is lost. I doubt
that she ever thought much in terms of cultural appropriation. For her, it was likely a
matter of cultural exchange, with all the respectful interest that makes that possible.

5. If Travisano is right, then I suppose there might have been some emotional release
experienced in translating poems that were less emotionally distanced than her own. I'm
not sure, though, how far it makes sense to follow this line of thinking. Something like
Bishop's translation of Joaquim Cardozo's "Cemetery of Childhood" is probably less
guarded in its feelings than Bishop tends to be in her own work. Even here, though, as
in the other translations, a certain austerity keeps the contrast from being
overwhelming. I suspect that Bishop's own tastes probably led her to poems and poets
that were somewhat curbed, and informed by modernist ironies, in their indulgence in

7. Here I would be in danger of largely repeating what I said in answering question
 As to self-restraint, she had quite a lot of that in any case, and I don't know if it
would have been particularly augmented by the enterprise of translation. One thing that
occurs to me in thinking of the allure of translation for any poet is that it is
something that can be pursued when, for whatever reasons, one is not able to work on
one's own poems. (Lowell is on record as stating that some of his translations were done
to fill gaps of this sort.) Bishop was hardworking but unprolific; she had numerous dry
spells as a writer. Particularly in the case of her Brazilian poets, rendering their
work would have served this mundane purpose of keeping her hand in, as well as deepening
her connections to the country in which she lived for a considerable time.

8. I think Lyn Hejinian's statement, particularly her image of "catalyzing,"
fits nicely in assessing Bishop's work as a translator. What seems to issue from her
efforts is poetry in which her voice informs the text without dominating it--harmonizing
with those sounds that the reader in English does not hear but nevertheless can sense as
present in all her careful choices.

Elizabeth Bishop Interview
Eric Keenaghan

I tried to respond to each question individually, but, from the very start, I got hung up on a few
issues that caused me to blur the lines between the questions. And there is a lot of overlap in the
questions themselves. So, I just took them all in toto as supplying a kind of nexus of inquiry to
guide me along. What has resulted is a one-sided conversation generated out of my strangely
proleptic relationship to the questions: in answering one, I was anticipating the next (the nature
of which I already knew), and then created a big bolus of stuff that I couldn’t sift through to find
the skeleton, the framework of what it was I was thinking through. So, rather than try to re-craft
a dialogue out of the bits and pieces so as to ameliorate any awkwardness (only to produce
another kind of awkwardness: choppiness), it may be best to leave it as it is: my ramble about
through the field established and bounded by the bunch of excellent queries you had sent.
The interview “proper”:
Beneath the surface, the comments Elizabeth Bishop makes in “Remarks on Translation,” as
cited in your first question actually have little to do with what you call the “accuracy” or
“literalism” of translation, or what translation studies more often refers to as “fidelity.” Claims
of fidelity or accuracy seem to be simply pointing to similarities. The more the translated poem is
“like” the original Portuguese or French or Spanish or Russian or what have you the “better” it
is judged to be. When we start thinking in terms of “accuracy” or “fidelity,” though, we’re
usually not just remarking on similarities: we usually use these judgments to introduce valuative
attitudes. It’s not coincidental that a morality or even a moralism—evident in the very terms
“good” and “faithful”—attend our commonplace ways for thinking about translation. These
attitudes assume that one can only be a good translator (a good human? a good partner?) if one
is faithful to the Other (other text, other author, other culture) with whom one is confronted. If
one is unfaithful and produces “bad” translations, translations—that are a bit loose perhaps?
where a “free” translation ventures not just on taking liberties but engaging in libertinage?—
then we tend to call them something else—vide Lowell’s Imitations, as you mentioned, or, a
particular work I’m personally obsessed with, the “versions” of Morgenstern by Jess (i.e., Jess
Collins, the visual artist and Robert Duncan’s partner). Or, we malign them as
“appropriations,” judged according to “postcolonial” standards of gross misconduct.
Thinking about Bishop’s comments and your questions could occasion our reflection on other
questions, such as: What does Bishop believe a translation should do? What was her own
relationship to translation? How does translation, as a praxis, provide her and us, as poets, with
a different relationship to our own “original” work and poetics? Alternately, as critics (for both
you and I occupy both sides of the category “poet-critic”), how do we approach translation by
figures such as Bishop to deepen or complicate our understandings of their poetics? These are
concerns you yourself are moving quickly toward in several of your questions. But to get at them,
I need to back up a little bit and explain a bit more my aversion to the very idea of “fidelity.”
For if we don’t address that very idea, and put aside the moralism attending it, we are not able
to enter into a productive and open relationship with Bishop’s translations, her poetics, and their
interrelation. Note that I’m not accusing you, personally, of moralism or judgmentality; that is
an attitude in which we are acculturated through our use of terms like “accurate” or “faithful.”
It gets us caught up in a game of judging the work, holding it a distance. And that game is a trap
that catches up too many literary critics (many of whom dismiss Bishop’s translations as
secondary to her “real” work)—not to mention poets, many of whom now dismiss Bishop as not
“relevant” (i.e., too formalist, not “experimental” enough). So, let’s start by examining some of
our own ideas that mediate our reception of Bishop’s translations.
Being “faithful” to a poem when translating it is more of a complicated business than we usually
acknowledge. Often, a “good” or “faithful” translation is thought to bear a quantifiable degree
of “similarity” to the original text. But any translation is unable to render into the destination
idiom every dimension of the original text—be it a literary text such as a poem or play or novel,
or even a technical text like an instruction manual for assembling a piece of furniture. (Don’t
Ikea instructions lack verbal instructions? It’s all diagrammatic, no? If so, that’s no
coincidence…) Something is always “lost in translation,” some nuance or connotation. Often
this something is a culturally specific reference. But sometimes the loss can happen in other
ways. For instance, through form: which doesn’t always translate. There are culturally specific
poetic forms, for instance, and that can lead to some innovative and interesting (and meaningful)
cross-cultural and cross-linguistic renditions, such as Langston Hughes’s translations of AfroCuban
poet Nicolás Guillén’s sons (a particular form of Cuban folk lyric) into blues poems.
Sometimes one must forego the simplest of prosodic decisions—such as rhyme schemes or
metrical patterns—if one wants to preserve a “literal” translation of the diction. But if the
translator judges a rhyme important, it’s likely she’s going to have to adjust the diction, perhaps
rearrange the syntax of the line. Then that move, in itself, could affect the register of the poem.
(For instance, if you start inverting syntactical structures in order to land an end-rhyme, you risk
sounding archaic—“poem-talk”—when the poem, in its original context, may have been much
more colloquial in register.) Make one change to be “faithful” and you have to begin thinking
about how the entire poem as a unit, or even how your translation project, as a whole, is going
to be affected.
What we can see from these few examples is that translators always make up for any “loss”
through a practice of compensation. Consciously, even unconsciously, they somehow adjust texts
in the decisions they make to offset or make further use of what is “strange” or “foreign” about
the text, or simply what cannot be translated. Often, those compensations domesticate the
original—turning what is strange into something familiar. But sometimes those compensations
are complemented by remainders, or even introduce remainders. Remainders actually do the
opposite of what a compensatory move sets out to do: it draws readers’ attention to the fact that
what we are reading is a translation. Translation theorist Lawrence Venuti likens this remainder
to what Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction conceptualizes as the supplement present in all
signifying chains. It is the point at which the text deconstructs. (If you are interested in a history
and theory of this idea of fidelity and the remainder, I highly recommend Larry’s The
Translator’s Invisibility.) The remainder is a linguistic excess that frustrates or interrupts
meaning, yet is productive of new meanings. A gap in the paths of communication, sparking a
consciousness that we are communicating, or at least attempting to communicate. That
remainder can be referential—for instance, when translating a foreign text and introducing an
anachronism or culturally “inappropriate” (thus, perhaps indicating a cultural appropriation?)
reference that makes us aware that something has been done to this text. When we encounter
such remainders, we are aware that someone is working with language here—the translator
becomes visible. Most modes of translation aspire for the translator’s invisibility, to let the
original author “speak” to us uninterrupted, with as little mediation as possible. Such
invisibility, of course, is a fiction, an illusion—and a problematic one at that. It engenders the
belief that no difference exists, that there is no space (so important to Derrida) between cultures
and languages and subjects. It also obscures the labor invested by the translator in working with
the text. For translation is also a mode of reading, not just a production. The levels of mediation
(one is interpreting a text, then, in writing the translation, one re-interprets it) are too many to
justify our reliance upon a judgmental standard of any translation as “faithful” or “accurate”
(i.e., invisible and unmediated communication).
So, what we’re left with is an exploration of remainders. And the work remainders do. Through
them, we become aware of our own kind of linguistic agency, as readers: language can be
worked with. We also become aware of how language mediates all forms of relation: social,
cultural, political. Transparency is impossible. Meaning always involves agents who intervene,
complicate meaning. Remainders remind us of the distance between our selves and the selves of
others. One can translate with the objective of producing more remainders than compensation.
De-familiarizing the audience’s relationship to their own language through translation, rather
than familiarizing a text for the audience receiving the translation.
Let’s consider a classic case. Take, for instance, one of Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of eighthcentury
Chinese poet Tu Fu, which he calls “Winter Dawn.” It’s close in spirit, perhaps, to the
Imitations by Robert Lowell that you mention in a later question, and that Bishop herself was
responding to. Here’s how Rexroth’s version of the Tu Fu poem begins:
The men and beasts of the zodiac
Have marched over us once more.
Green wine bottles and red lobster shells,
Both emptied, litter the table.
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” Each
Sits listening to his own thoughts,
And the sound of cars starting outside.
How are we to judge the “accuracy” of this poem? References to cars, citing “Auld Lang
Syne”… clearly this is not in any eighth-century poem by a Confucian bureaucrat. The Chinese
zodiac has no “men and beasts”: it has just beasties, and pertains to calendar years. The
Western Zodiac, though, contains men and corresponds with stellar constellations, thus referring
to lunar months. Have these partiers in the poem sat through months? Or have they been at this
table for years? It’s probably the former, given that the title establishes it as a seasonal piece.
I’m pretty sure, too, though I would have to do some research on this to be doubly sure, that
green glass bottles were not produced during the T’ang Dynasty. You might accuse me, It’s a
jump to think “glass bottles” here but when Rexroth’s line says “wine bottles”; but, see, I’m
culturally inscribed with this predisposition to read this connotation of “glass” in a word-choice
that specifies “bottles.” If he wanted to be more historically and culturally faithful to the
original diction of Tu Fu, perhaps he could have said “jug” to evoke an image of a ceramic
container, a vessel probably much more likely for a poem written at this historical moment and
in this cultural location. But such niggling is unimportant to Rexroth’s project, a knowledge of
which alone should be used to establish the measure of what this poem does (rather than how
“how” good it is as a translation). Rexroth’s decisions evoke a mood. His project is not one
about absolute fidelity or accuracy in terms of diction and historico-cultural reference. Instead,
he is interested in producing texts that are (as he writes in his Introduction to the volume One
Hundred Poems from the Chinese where this appears) “true to the spirit of the originals, and
valid English poems.”
Is this an infidelity? Or, is it a different order of fidelity? One could argue that Rexroth’s
translation practice is faithful to the original: in “spirit,” as he says. He wants to share
something with his twentieth-century American readers, and that something is not cultural
particularity or historical particularities that distance the target audience from that “spirit.”
Such details, he notes elsewhere (“The Poet as Translator,” 1961), are too academic. He’s
trying to get at something else, what he termed throughout his career “the sensibility,” or a
humanist and universalist sense of what it means to be human, to live with others, to perceive
life. And also, as he writes in “The Poet as Translator,” the practice lets you, as the poettranslator,
“learn a great deal about yourself.” He is “faithful” to something, and “accurate”
about something: what we might term a human spirit. But in order to be faithful to that spirit, to
convey humanity more accurately, as he reads it in the poem and in himself, Rexroth decides to
do away with a lot of the original elements of Tu Fu’s poem: diction, images, references, but also
lineation, and structure...
So, I’ve used Rexroth rather strategically to come up against a critical question, a conundrum:
How do we discuss “fidelity” in poetic translation? To whom is the poet-translator being
faithful? To her target poem? To her audience? To her own poetic vision and project? No matter
how one answers, then one has to ask another round of questions: In what specific way is she
faithful? How does she succeed in achieving a measure of fidelity? Where does she fall short? 
Translative fidelity is an impossibility. One must make choices. So, in the end, one is always
unfaithful to something, to someone, somehow. Rather than standing in judgment, we need to
identify the choices a poet makes, or at least read the traces of those choices as they are legible
in their consequences—in the remainders and compensations discernible in the text left behind.
How does this relate back to Bishop?
The comments Bishop makes in “Remarks on Translation”—regarding an economy of diction
(we don’t “have to use” all English words), a repetition of units (either words or lines), and,
most importantly, the need to “stick to the structure” of the original—indicate that she has a
different criterion for “fidelity” than Rexroth or Lowell. That criterion has little to do with
fidelity to a humanness (Rexroth) or Western literary cosmopolitanism (Lowell). Rather, her
standard of fidelity is a faithfulness to the structure and form of the original text, and that
structure is manifest through specific choices of diction as well as through formal units,
especially at the order of the line, and syntactical units (such as a phrase, if that is the measure
of repetition).
This commitment to structure is not a commitment to form. Or, it’s not only a commitment to the
poetic form of the original. (And here I mean, Bishop is not just writing in the same closed or
open forms as the original texts.) “Structure” means so much more. It is our experience of
meaning, our experience of meaning as mediation, as it is made available to us through
language. Here, for Bishop, that structure seems not to be accessible at a phonemic level or even
a morphemic level, but only at the level of the word entire and in the syntax. Translation, she
suggests, is about coming into a relationship with meaning, or language-as-meaning, in which
one regards language as matter of arrangement, assemblage, and economy of words.
And if we read Bishop closely, the only way we really can, we need to attend to each and every
word. At the level of the word, not in an “image,” she moves deftly from a mode of exposition to
a mode of … what? thinking? Perhaps. Seeing, may be more apt. My favorite poem by her, “At
the Fishhouses,” hinges on one word: “curious.” I’ve tried to convey this to so many students:
the word fucking blows my mind! She uses it to describe a seal of all things:
Cold dark deep and absolutely clear,
element bearable to no mortal,
to fish and to seals … One seal particularly
I have seen here evening after evening.
He was curious about me. He was interested in music;
like me a believer in total immersion,
so I used to sing him Baptist hymns.
It is an incredible moment, and perhaps others might gravitate to other words (“mortal,” for
instance). But with the word “curious” the whole tone of the poem changes. His attitude, as the
narrator perceives it, is what makes the narrator present in the poem—for the dozens of lines
prior to this moment, she is only present once (through a reference to “my grandfather”) and not
even the old man repairing nets, the old man who had known her grandfather, brings her fully
into being. Only a seal can do that. Because he is curious about her. This is not simply a surreal
moment of anthropomorphizing, perhaps deifying (no “mortal” can withstand the cold water,
but here a seal does): rather, it is a moment of manifestation, of revelation—of Bishop’s poetnarrator
self. And it comes about not through an image but through a hyper-charged word. An
economy of language is absolutely necessitated for this to come about. It is the electric moment
in the poem, and all the “silver” images that precede it are cheap by comparison. Yes, she is
working with a different mode of economy: one in which scarcity is not disadvantageous, as it is
for the failing fisher industry of New Brunswick.
Such an attention to the word puts Bishop in another class of poet, one that the experimentalists
have had less problem identifying as a likeminded spirit: Laura (Riding) Jackson. Strangely
enough, though, Riding is most appreciable only when she gave up writing poetry and instead
concentrated her efforts on a linguistic enterprise, of uncovering the rationality of the word. The
word as bearer of human truth. Riding and Bishop truly would be such strange bedfellows, with
Bishop still using words as the vehicles for bringing about, catalyzing through relations, that
human truth (rather than bearing it and simply “telling” it, as Riding would have it)!
Thinking more about her relationship to words, though, how Bishop frames the question in
“Remarks on Translation” compels us to see her treatment of translation as a self-reflexive
exercise: Why do I use so many words? Why do I think repetition is a “bad” choice for my
poetry or any poem I might render into English? (Why did—and still do—so many readers judge
Gertrude Stein’s repetition to be immature and unserious poetry? Oh, if only to appreciate that
her “baby-talk” was really a love affair, with her “baby” Alice and with language itself…)
The text she translates serves as the structure through which she is able to challenge, or at least
hold up to scrutiny, these precepts and presuppositions. So, it may seem that Bishop is saying:
Be faithful to the text you are translating. But, in actuality, she seems is saying: if you follow
these prescriptions, you will learn to be faithful to your self.
Strange, then, that her philosophy of translation ends up coming so close to Rexroth’s, a man
whom she suspected did not like her (see her 27 February 1970 letter to Lowell). I suspect this
was true given that he was a misogynist and a homophobe, and also was suspicious of all poets
like Lowell and Bishop whom he felt were darlings of the academy. Nonetheless, they do have
this in common: a sense of translation as praxis, as coming into a new relationship with one’s
self and one’s poetics. Your question that turns to Lyn Hejinian’s own remarks about
translation—remarks invoking Rimbaud (“the other turns out to be me”)—help me make the
following assertion, though: Many poets who translate—no matter where they stand on the
“experimental” spectrum of writing—and the range from Bishop to Hejinian seems to suggest a
good set of points nicely distanced along a large spectrum—share a common desire to use
translation as a praxis to come into a different relationship with their own subjectivities, so as to
mobilize or advance their own poetics and their own consciousness of their relationship to
language. Most poetic translation that is worth its salt only secondarily has to do with what the
translation can “communicate” to an audience. Rather, it has to do with what we can do with
the text—once we receive it, as readers; or as we are working with it, as translators.
What does this all tell us about Bishop’s poetics, then? We already know that there is an
economy to her language (as any attentive reading of her “original” work reveals), as well as an
economy to her subject matter (as any number of articles and books about her “reticence”
attests to). What’s more interesting to me, though, is the fact that if one must practice this art
through translation, such economy is hard to come by. Her “art of losing” (“One Art”) is
already famous enough—but what if her composition actually consists of loss? What if losing
words, of being forced to repeat only a few words, is the only means of building one’s texts and
one’s self? (Look at the repetition of “One Art”: here’s a form—the villanelle—that compels
repeating oneself, even if she introduces some variations to the closed form/ula! She does
“master” repetition, only having to do it over and over again…)
Loss, of course, extends far beyond losing a surplus of words. It is about unmooring one’s self
and one’s relationship to a particular linguistic structure—American English, a language—and
a culture—of excess, of surplus. Lose one’s nation. In this short space, I cannot possibly go into
any depth all the reasons why Bishop would want to move away from this structure, as much as
she is a part of, as much as she is tied to, it. But a woman writer, a lesbian, already with a
complicated relationship to American identity (making it more “North American” via her
Canadian roots than just U.S.-American), suspicious of cold war ideologies that silence and
create red and lavender panics… Who wouldn’t want to free oneself—in any way and to
whatever extent one can—from patria and the language-structure that governs one’s self? I want
to point to an important prose piece by Bishop that you don’t mention, though: the introduction
to An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry, the co-edited volume where many of her
Brazilian translations appear. The essay begins with a sentence that helps us see yet another
reason why she would turn to translation of foreign poetries as a pursuit of her own writerly
freedom: “Poets and poetry are highly thought of in Brazil.” Clearly, they were not highly
thought of in the United States when Bishop was alive, and they still are not today. Translating
texts from cultures where poetry is respected helps the poet illuminate for American audiences
what is possible when poetry itself is more highly regarded. Or, in the translating of the poems,
one is able to model what is possible when one—as a poet-translator—engages those freer

Still, Bishop was no libertarian, and certainly she took few liberties. To some extent, she not only respected the language-structure of the poems she translated to free herself from American English and its accompanying mindsets, but she also respected the structure of American English and its accompanying mindsets. And if we are to fully appreciate Bishop as a poet, and her powers as a poet (of which there are many), then we need not just to paint her picture as a resistant poet and translator but also a respectful one.

This doubled attitude—resistance and respect—is not a catch-22. And it’s not selling out or
compromise. It’s simply realism. What is immature is the belief that one escapes one’s culture or one’s history or one’s self by translating. All one can do is to set it into motion.

So the question becomes: How does Bishop use others’ texts, in other languages, to open up
American English a bit, to work within the forms that bind… rather than to try to explode those
forms? How is she faithful not just to one structure that frees, but also to another structure that
constricts (and constructs)? What do we call such a mode of fidelity, a split fealty that
encompasses its own betrayal, incorporates and insists on the limits of its own freedom? And to turn this all back on ourselves: Why is it that we are suspicious, even dismissive, of those poets who admit that they have to be faithful not just to those foreign texts and cultures that puts them more freely into relation with their selves, but also to the systems, the language, the history that constructed them and have established, through their constrictive constructions, the need to search for freedom? Faithfulness in matters of poetry, as I’ve tried to lie out here, is always a double-edged and duplicitous proposition. If you’re faithful from one vantage, then you’re also unfaithful to some other aspect of the issue when viewed from another vantage. If we try to be faithful to both sides of the structure, as Bishop is in her translations, we’re not necessarily going to escape from accusations of infidelity, and we’re not being hypocrites or self-hating or self-sabotaging. We’re trying to use the limits of what’s realistically possible (realism + possibility) in order to enter into a new relationship with, some discovery of, some truth about our selves.

Perhaps what attending to Bishop’s translations can help us do, especially those of us who ally
ourselves with the “experimental” side of the modern and contemporary poetic spectrum, is
another avenue for any overcoming peremptory, uninformed dismissals of her work as
“uninteresting” and “conservative.” Instead, we can understand what it is her poetics allow her
to do, namely writes so as to renegotiate and interrogate her relationship to structure: her
history and culture and, most of all, language.

As I told you when you sent the questions, I had not given much thought before to Bishop’s
translations as translations. So, thank you for the opportunity of sending me after them, in a
more thoughtful way….even if I’ve had to limit myself here to thinking about what her remarks
about translation suggest about her own poetics as a self-reflexive engagement with subjectivity and structure. Hopefully more and more poets and critics can do the more difficult work of really digging into the translations themselves, to think about these dynamics more fully as Bishop puts them into action. For if we can get a clearer sense of her complexities, rather than see her working “literally” or “accurately” or “faithfully” or even “meticulously,” then we can perhaps really move beyond this persistent and inaccurate school marmish, prudish, conservative image of her and her work that lets too many people judge her to be too precious to be relevant to contemporary “experimental” poetry and poetics.

interviewBarzakh Mag