• Willis Barnstone




Translation is a tool to fool a king

Into a bloody war where dead men sing


Or help a rabbi, priest or mullah to

Murder the infidel for crooning true


Or push a UN minister to vote

And be beheaded, hurled into a moat.


You see how terrible this weapon is.

You win a case or your career will fizz.


A good translation sings or table it.

You are a nightingale or cloud of shit.


There is a huge sea of mediocrity

On which poor words relax like limpid tea


Yet Rob Fitzgerald swims pentameters

On the Aegean and Homer’s waves are cleaner


Than Penelope waiting chaste at her loom.

Odysseus sweeps the suitors with his broom


Into the sea. So Ithaca is real

While other muscular versions conceal


Clarity and song below a battle scream.

A good poet lets Spanish Lorca beam


Andalusian gypsy song into our ear.

We hear the Guardia Civil shooting black fear


Into caves where flamenco verse is born

And the new moon in petticoats adorns


The mountain and a blue horse likes to gaze

 At would-be matadors whose death no shouting maze


Of cheers can halt at five in the afternoon,

At exactly five in fatal afternoon.






Great poets need an Osip Mandelstam

To turn a lion not into Blake’s lamb


But into Soviet brutes who kill Osip,

Freezing him in the snows. You can dip


Anywhere to translate. If you are good

You paint a Robert Frost in jingling wood


Whom you discover in Mongolia.

The world’s a handkerchief, a magnolia


Who lives in every tongue if you have skill,

Knowledge and empathy.  So do not kill


Your sources with a tango for a waltz.

The Argentine is not Viennese schmaltz.


And never fear. The impossible is sweet.

Stay close to impossibility and tweet


Your joy with Cossack fury or like a monk

Painting icons in Crete and free of gunk.


Then you’re Greco in Toledo in her storm.

The purple planet keeps you wild and warm.






The original is not faithful to translation

As Borges says, so zoom high with elation


And your version is original, not ham,

A fresh Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.


Can you read or write Chinese or Koine Greek?

Great if you do. Or stand in a cold creek


And understand Heraclitus’s game?

Your foot will never step into the same


Stream. Experience the place. Smell doors

And alleys. Talk to fisherman and whores


And soon you’ll master Balzac with a crib.

No sin. Dictionaries are mothers who don’t fib


But pass rough meanings into your wise eyes.

I am a language freak, but can’t spell “pies”


Or “chamber pots” in any tongue I use.

No sweat. I’m faithful to the love Muse


Of reference books. They help unselfishly.

And it won’t hurt your freedom if you see


The wooden meaning that your genius turns

Into a paradise of singing tale, burns


The early mess in your mind to what brave Eve

Discovers when she gains knowledge. Conceive


That first day of the world in every line

You transfer from obscurity to fine


Bordeaux or coffee at a dawn café

In Rome, wondrously taut, not silly hay


Most of the world gobbles. Drink deep your work.

Sappho and Catullus crave the keen quirk


And magic of Houdini to bring song

Into our wondrous bastard English tongue.






Translation is a friendship between two

Fine poets. Respect. Don’t kill the one who


Composed or who rewrites. When you can chat

With a dead poet you have light and art.


Know François Villon’s song in French. No strife,

The cello of his ballad will haunt you for life.


To return grace with grace is a secret pact

In translation. Dictionaries help but sack


You if they master. You are frozen in snow,

Win no seat in the troika sled of poet to


The re-doer and the reader. Have you heard

What Robert Lowell laments? “A poem prepared


By a taxidermist is likely to be a stuffed bird!”

The translator writer fights archaism, scared,






Talking modern without murdering the past.

Old writers don’t lose quality in modern cast.


Modern diction is speech we use today

As past writers used modern in their way,


Not stilted. Be verbally just and fresh

like Cycladic island tomatoes in a dish


4 millennia ago. Same beauty sweet and slick.

Unless you’re Spenser on an archaic kick


Creating Fairie Queenes with dragons and myth

For Tudor patron Queen Elizabeth,


Beware of old talk. If  a slave to being

Like past chat,  good luck and count on nothing.






The punishment for error: Go straight to jail!

You’re free to invent, imitate, turn a pail


Into a swimming pool, if you confess

By naming what you do. But what a mess


If you make a mistake. You’re on the hot seat.

You are not human. Truce. Maybe you can beat


The game by being Icarus misreading sun.

Yeats dining with Madame Blavatsky for fun


Though she was mad. To err is human. Just be

Magnificent. And sing whatever melody.






Horace and Jerome draw back from the cage

Of literalism, of word-to-word. Their rage


Is for sense and page. They embellish Greek

And Latin from Hebrew letters, tweak


Koheleth’s’ “a time for peace” for Joan Baez.

They’re safe in turning prophets into jazz.


“A time of peace, a time of war,” but Joan

And Pete Seeger never word-by-word clone


Hebrew poems. Even elephants can’t bear

Blundering literalists who would compose square


Poems (I’m a scholar. Beware. We’ve no taste.

Elephants, squash song-less verse till it’s paste).


Poems locked in prose wins Melville Moby Dick

And marble Latin lends Borges his gaucho shtick.





                                    Robert Fitzgerald  (1910-1985)


Sometimes Fitz works for weeks for a few lines.

Irishman from Illinois he plays with Greek epic

In Italy or in a house on Homer’s sea where winter

Storms bash the rocks below in noisy metrics.

He does his first translation at Harvard

of an ode by Horace he doesn’t care for

But he meets Horace. He needs the 200–

Bucks prize money; doesn’t win it, but decides

He likes classics and translates the best. He keeps

To a five-peace prance in Homer and Virgil till one

Can hear their sixes. All that discipline for the ear

Helped the earliest singers to remember.

From Troy to Carthage back to Sicily

Fitz swims easy five-stroking the grape sea.

In describing the way of great Tang poets

The Chinese say they are dancing in chains.






Start from the top. Also lovely to reveal

An obscure poet – so many good ones peal


Tower bells of silence. Hopkins for one.

The list goes on. What to do? Sit on your bun,


Apply your fingers to the keys, create

The world. It’s there locked in a crate


For a masterly genial craft. Conspire

To resurrect or find the new. Soon fire


Will toast your guts and light our eyes. Enjoy.

The world is rich in terrorists, but joy


For life, not death, will triumph if your pen,

Not sword, prevail. Isaiah is like a violet wren


Waking our hope. I hope these clichés serve

To heat your brain. Joie d’etre  and your verve


Will bring the bible of our arts to read

As our own verse. You’re Rimbaud in sin bed,


Dreaming surreal tugboats in the salt tongue

Of Anglo-Saxon readers. Best friends die young.


Comes “Alcools” of Guy Apollinaire

We need your soul like dark Baudelaire.


Rumi is waiting for proximity.

The Sufi poet laughs in ecstasy.


The art of translatio is carting words

From old days to our Parliament of Birds.


Since we descended ignorant from Babel,

Hear the world chanting in diverse babble.


Lexical shock renews weary language bones.

Read Sappho or Sor Juana,[1] no more groans.


The globe is yours on your doormat. Let her in.

New stars glow, Plato claps, and sunflowers spin.




[1]1Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695), born in Mexico. The earliest and most important post-Columbus poet in the Americas and a great figure of the Spanish Golden Age.  She was called “the tenth Muse.” See Octavio Paz, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz or The Traps of Faith, Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, (Cambridge: `990, Belknap Press)