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Generosity: David Ferry on Good Translations



In his commentary to Dialogos: Paired Poems in Translation by George Kalogeris, David Ferry offers some keen words of translation wisdom:

The human quality that a good translation gives evidence of is generosity: the generosity of imagination that can hear and respond to the voice of somebody else which speaks or spoke in another language and place and sometimes time; the generosity that tries to reproduce, in so far as it can, the qualities of that voice, not only the data of what is said, but the feelings, the attitudes, the nuances, the shifts, the hesitations, the intensities, and the degrees of intensities, that he or she hears in that voice of somebody else.

He advances this idea of generosity, exploring the visibility of the translator’s own voice:

What we hear in a good translation is not purely that voice of somebody else but also the voice of the translator registering that effort and its delight. It’s an activity which is at the same time selfless and not selfless. And when that voice of somebody else is the voice of someone great the delight in the effort is exalting, and the delight in that is one of the ways the voice of the translator himself enters in and is heard.

That last line, in its philosophical positioning of two voices that are both unified and distinct, seems to echo the first sentence of John Ashbery’s “The Skaters”:

These decibels
Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound
Into which being enters, and is apart.

Check out all of David Ferry’s commentary and the entire, remarkable book of paired poems in translation here.

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