:: Article

In Defence of ‘Illiterate’ Translation

By Jacob A. Bennett.

Petr Bezruč


For a day or two, I thought I might call this essay ‘So I Think I’m Smarter than a Fifth-Grader’, a kind of portmanteau phrase of pop-culture television references, with a reference as well to translation practices. Let me explain: Eliot Weinberger, according to a transcript of a late 2001 lecture he gave in Iowa City, once watched on as a group of 9-year old public school students translated some Rimbaud into English, with a bilingual dictionary but without any knowledge of the French language or its grammar – their teacher assisted, but also “had” no French. The results, Weinberger says, “were not masterpieces, but they were generally as accurate as, and occasionally wittier than, any of the existing scholarly versions”. He admits, as I do, that accuracy matters – “a translation that is replete with semantical errors is probably a bad translation,” he says – but will further argue that fidelity is only valuable if understood as a multivalent set of many criteria, including but by no means bounded by semantic accuracy.


I write this as something of a fraud: I’m not fluent in Czech, the language from which I claim to bring Petr Bezruč’s poems into English. I first read Bezruč (1867-1958) in English, a poem here or there in some old anthologies, and then I found a selected translation from Ian Milner, printed in 1965. Partly because those versions didn’t seem to carry the populist tone I expected based on snippets I picked up of Bezruč’s biography, I decided to craft my own. In any case, it might be argued I would do better to stick to translating German, a language I studied formally. But I persist in muddling through the Czech, notoriously difficult for a first-language English-speaker to learn. In some ways, my process of bringing Bezruč’s Slezské písně [Silesian Songs] into English echoes a proverb about struggling against a difficult task: the poems beat against the ice like fish. Which reminds me of what hockey goalie Dominik Hašek once said: “They say I am unorthodox, I flop around the ice like some kind of fish.” But one of his nicknames is The Dominator, so he was doing something right, even if it looked a mess while he did it. Or maybe the poems are like the visitors to the abyss in that James Cameron film: sucking in liquid oxygen for the first time, they fight it and flop about, confused, afraid, but eventually just fine within, and suffused by, an alien environment. That is translation in the hands of an illiterate. Nevertheless, despite my flopping about and sucking for air, I’ve published a handful of translated poems, about one tenth of Bezruč’s magnum opus, since I first presented a version of this essay at the 2014 conference for the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers. My graceless process of translation seems to produce poems worth publishing, so maybe I’m doing something right.

Walter Benjamin had a thought—“Zwar nicht aus seinem Leben so sehr denn aus seinem ‘Überleben’”—meaning translation might be less about the life of the text than its survival beyond its origin, something outside the scope of the original. To throw one more metaphor into the mix, maybe it is helpful to think of the translator as a Charōn figure, dutifully picking up passengers on one side of a great river, and depositing them, fundamentally different, yet reasonably intact on the other side. The shade, or poem, is a recognisable facsimile of the original, though it may not be able to communicate with the people it left behind. Instead, it communicates with the inhabitants of that new land, those who speak the language there, in the afterlife. Like an overtime period for Hašek’s hockey game, a new phase derived from the regular course of the game, but necessarily distinct from it. Anyway, I think that’s what Benjamin meant.


I don’t have a set list of priorities or a charter of guidelines to which I might hold myself as a translator. But I do know that I am concerned with what Susan Sontag calls the “evangelical incentive”, which is the felt urgency to spread the good word about a text one deems important, maybe even canonical in the source language. It is in this spirit of Überleben [survival] that I read Sontag’s 2002 lecture on translation, in which she says:

What makes translation so complex an undertaking is that it responds to a variety of aims. There are demands that arise from the nature of literature as a form of communication. There is the mandate, with a work regarded as essential, to make it known to the widest possible audience. There is the general difficulty of passing from one language to another, and the special intransigence of certain texts, which points to something inherent in the work quite outside the intentions or awareness of its author…

I am also concerned with avoiding unintended absurdities. Sontag later quotes an apology from Jerome, the patron saint of translators (the quotation is in translation, of course [W.H. Fremantle, 1892]):

It is an arduous task to preserve felicity and grace unimpaired in a translation. Some word has forcibly expressed a given thought; I have no word of my own to convey the meaning; and while I am seeking to satisfy the sense I may go a long way round and accomplish but a small distance of my journey. Then we must take into account the ins and outs of transposition, the variations in cases, the diversity of figures, and, lastly, the peculiar, and, so to speak, the native idiom of the language. A literal translation sounds absurd; if, on the other hand, I am obliged to change either the order or the words themselves, I shall appear to have forsaken the duty of a translator.

And I am concerned with what John Berger and Anna Bostock say of their translation of Césaire’s Return to My Native Land:

This is not a free adaptation of Césaire’s work; neither, however, is it a completely literal translation. The poem is important because of its thinking content. The thinking is both political and poetic. Politically it is a poem of revolutionary passion and irony.

I am concerned with the stiffness of the too-literal translation. It is perhaps a side note, and I haven’t got any research to back this up, but Petr Bezruč may be one of the only poets for whom Ezra Pound’s raving praise did little to secure a spot on the list of Big Names in twentieth century poetry, American or otherwise. But rave he did, focusing on Bezruč in his brief review of an anthology of Bohemian poets, writing in the second issue of Poetry in 1912:

Bezruč’s Songs of Silesia have the strength of a voice coming de profundis. […] This poet is distinctly worth knowing. He is the truth where our “red-bloods” and magazine socialists are usually a rather boresome pose.

Of course, Pound being Pound, he begins by lambasting the anthologist and translator, Paul Selver: “This is a good anthology of modern Bohemian poetry, accurately translated into bad and sometimes even ridiculous English.” So while I do worry myself some about accuracy, what I worry about even more, imagining what awful diatribe Pound might level against me, is trotting out clunkers for the sake of literal accuracy.

And I am concerned, too, with what Jorge Luis Borges shows us, through his story of Pierre Menard’s most faithful translation of Don Quixote, that if fidelity means something like “identical in meaning”, or “strictly replicated”, then even the work of the amanuensis, the strict transcriptionist, is vulnerable and traitorous to the shifts in meaning that time works into words, in connotational and even denotational definition. The ideas that inhere to received semantic structures (lexis, syntax) will necessarily change in relation to the ongoing changes of and between the culture from which a text arises and the one which is its destination in translation. In the essay ‘Translation: Processes & Attitudes’, Burton Raffel, illustrating the idea that even dual fluency can lead to bad translation, recalls reading

a book-length version of a French law treatise, as ‘translated’ by someone totally fluent in both languages but completely ignorant of either the legal culture of France (Napoleonic Code, abstract, based on principle rather than practice) or that of Anglo-America (a common law approach, heavily based on precedent—i.e., on practical social consensus). The attempted translation was three hundred pages of neatly typed gibberish, and had to be scrapped in toto.


According to “The Web’s Leading Professional Translation Service”, which I cite not as the height of authority in “literary” translation, but as the source of a decent summary of an overarching dichotomy in the “field”:

Fidelity refers to the limits to which a given human translation work precisely depicts the underlying message or meaning of the source text without distorting it, without intensifying or weakening any part of its context, and otherwise without subtracting or adding to it at all. […] Meanwhile, transparency pertains to the degree to which a translation caters to native speakers and the target audience, such that idiomatic, syntactic, and grammatical conventions are followed while cultural, political, and social context is kept in mind at all times.

In rebellion against the sway of this dichotomy in critical jargon, Joyelle McSweeney offers an irony-laced rejoinder in her section of Deformation Zone:

Reading contemporary reviews of translations, one concludes that Translation must decide what its appeal will be, and that it has two options—masterful or slavish. Ex. Kathryn Harrison on Lydia Davis’s translation of Madame Bovary: “Faithful to the style of the original, but not to the point of slavishness, Davis’s effort is transparent—the reader never senses her presence.” […] This level of mastery, then, is self-mastery. Also known as scrupulosity, good behavior, also known as taste. Because the best taste is that which cannot be noticed. It cannot be detected. It is merely—exactly—what is “required.” Not a slavish display of slavishness.

Peter Burian, writing about the task of translating “the classics” into English, identifies the process as a form of writing, a creative and un-slavish practice of mastery (he’s okay with the dichotomy):

Translation is a form of imitation that is anything but slavish. It is a practice of writing in which the writer, having recognized the necessary limits, settles down to making hard choices. […] Translation (at any rate literary translation of literary texts) is a kind of writing, and as such its first demand ought to be the ability to write with real mastery in the literary English of today.

I find my position balanced between these many opinions and stances. I am concerned that something of the source culture and its politics, the tone and register of the voice, come through in English. But I am also concerned that the English poems are poems I would like to read as poems in English. Ultimately, I am concerned that my translations fulfil the formulation David R. Slavitt outlines in his essay ‘Translating Poetry’:

…translation can be an act of criticism, which calls attention to the value of a literary work, elucidates it without beating it to death, and ideally helps to reintroduce it to the conversation.


If I am a fraud, I am at least a thorough fraud. To be vigilantly illiterate is to be always in a state of ready discovery. For the illiterate translator, perhaps more so than for the dually-fluent, each poem requires word-for-word, then line-by-line, then stanza-by-stanza, and finally poem-wide attention. Daniel Mendelsohn says that “the translator must be intimate with the author’s larger outlook, not just the ‘words’”. I agree, but many parts of the larger view begin with analysis of diction. Especially when translating from a source that makes use of obsolescent dialect, of borrowed language from neighbour tongues, of slang and idiom, of other cultural identifiers, this analysis of words helps to elucidate not only specific meaning but tone and other signals of a “larger outlook”. Since the example poem I’ll focus on here is an example of Bezruč writing in irregular lines and a scheme of only partial end-rhyme, I will dodge questions of metrical mimicry, and am content to claim to have reproduced slant-rhyme despite nearly pathological aversion to end-rhymes. Chalk that one up on the side of the faithful.

What follow are some notes regarding diction and idiom, areas of particular focus and frustration during my work on the poem’s translation. Given the influence of multiple languages on the Silesian region, and the fact that Bezruč’s vocabulary includes occasionally archaic spelling and usage, there are a lot of difficult choices to make when faced with multiple or ambiguous options. Here are a few examples of such choices, and some notes about process:

omží: seems to be either Silesian or archaic Czech, for “fog” or “wisp” [zamlží in Czech], which a helpful respondent on a discussion board explained to me

hrubý: which means “rough” or “coarse” in Czech but “tall-figured” in Silesian [equivalent to Czech vysoké postavy], which variation an appended glossary reveals, among many other homophones – the difference in posture having a marked effect on the description of the “lad”

šuhaj: I remember looking it up, not finding it, finding it means “swain” in Slovak, or “lad,” and then also that it is the last name of a Robin Hood figure, Nikola Šuhaj, and reading the book Nikola the Outlaw (in translation, of course), and noting the anti-Semitism among the Ruthenian peasants of Ivan Olbracht’s novel, connecting that back to the analogous Silesian peasantry and their suspicious hatred for the židé, or Jews, which Ian Milner, in his translation of Bezruč’s Silesian Songs, translates as “money-lenders”, relying on euphemism the way American dog-whistle racists say “urban” when they mean “black”. Part of the trouble is that this disguises the anti-Semitic vein running through Bezruč’s work, a covering over which is worth understanding in the context of the aftermath of WWII, during which time Milner taught at Prague’s Charles University. Reprehensible as the prejudice is, to elide the prejudice is to obstruct the larger picture, to fuzz up the lines between the competing forces in a region variously claimed by Vienna, Prague, Warsaw, Berlin and, later, Moscow.

In an article about the linguistic notion of “language chunking”, Ben Zimmer remembers that “the linguist Michael Halliday pointed out that we tend to talk of “strong tea” instead of “powerful tea”, even though the phrases make equal sense. Rain, on the other hand, is much more likely to be described as “heavy” than “strong”. But these idiomatic nuances are hard or impossible to identify without that quotient of fluency that comes of vast experience hearing and reading and absorbing usage patterns. So, when I read this phrase, že žena raz za práh přikluše, which seems to be about galloping and a gate or threshold of some kind, as in when a woman arrives galloping at the gate, I had no idea what to think. So I thought of it as metaphorical, and imagined the literal strain or inertia of such an action as galloping fast to someone’s door, and initially translated the idea as “when a wife arrives at/approaches his door/threshold”. It wasn’t until I came across some ceremony descriptions among comments on another discussion board, and then some WWII 16mm footage, filmed by the Nazis’ Reich Office for Educational Films, that I finally understood the connection between galloping horses, gates and weddings: as part of a scripted sequence of rituals, the villagers where a wedding occurs will erect a gate in order to exact a toll from the bride and groom on their way home from the ceremony. Seeing the actual enactment of the ritual, silent, black and white, helped me, I think, clarify the literal foundation for the metaphor I’d been working with, and brought the translation to its current iteration.

‘Hanácká ves’, which I translate as ‘A little village of Haná’, illustrates many of the themes and tropes present in many other of the Silesian Songs. There is the tension between peasants and landlords, the rustics and city-folk, between and amongst the Germans, Austrians, Jews and Silesians. There is the defiance of the labourer against the monied. There is a snapshot of the culture of the region expressed in an idiom. There is the landscape and what it provides. And, too, there is the male gaze in all its possessive oppression. Here, then, are both the original and my translation:

‘Hanácká ves’

Domky na patro jak řady bílých ptáků 
sotva vánek lehkým dechem omží. 
Ticho jde jak krev Hanáků 
voda Romží.

Na svých gruntech tkví sedláci klidní. 
Dobry císař, ten žije ve Vídni, 
Němci pod horami, v městech židé.

Černé lány řepy jak pruh smoly; 
rusovlasé děvče kope v poli, 
ví, že jednou muž si pro ně přijde.

Šuhaj z Hané práce hledí a dbá, 
aniž v díle prahne po děvuše, 
ví, že žena raz za práh přikluše, 
tři dny a tři noci bude svatba.

Hrubý sedlák, osmahlý a rudý, 
trochu pyšný proti městským lidem, 
nikdy ze své neuhne ti půdy. 
jak jest jinak pod Beskydem!


‘A little village of Haná’

Like white birds, cottages line the horizon.
Hardly a breeze, a light breath of fog.
A hush comes like Hanák blood,
the water of the Romže.

The husbands of the land exist aloof upon it.
The good Emperor, he thrives in Vienna,
Germans in the mountains, Jews in the cities.

Black acres of beets like stretches of pitch;
the red-tressed lass who is picking the field
knows a man is coming to take his piece.

That Hanák lad who oversees the work
pretends not to notice the girl as he goes, 
knows that a wife is galloping at the gates, 
the wedding to last three days and more.

Sun-beaten and red, this tall peasant, 
a little too proud for the townsfolk, 
will never remove from his land. 
such is the way beneath the Beskyd bulk!


‘A little village of Haná’ was originally published in Brooklyn Rail.


Jacob A. Bennett

Jacob A. Bennett studied English literature at Wesleyan University, poetry at Goddard College, and is a current doctoral student in the Education department at the University of New Hampshire, where he is researching faculty collective bargaining, postsecondary policy and administration, and labour law. If he’s not reading or writing, he’s probably on a hike with his wife, their toddler and their dog.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 19th, 2017.