Today, I was privileged to attend a talk by Illya Kaminsky, a world famous poet who immigrated to the US in 1993 from the former Soviet Union where he was born. He spoke at an event at Kaufman Hall cohosted by the Department of Modern Languages, Literature, and Linguistics and World Literature Today.
Illya Kaminsky has written Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press) and Dancing In Odessa (Tupelo Press). He has co-edited and co-translated a plethora of books, many of which are poetry. He has won multiple awards for his writing, and his poetry regularly appears in famous anthologies. His poems have been translated into over twenty languages, and his books have been published in many countries, including Turkey, Holland, Russia, France, Mexico, Macedonia, Romania, Spain and China.
Today, Kaminsky spoke about poetry across languages and the beauty of translation.
Kaminsky began by explaining that the written word is a glimpse into the mind of the writer, that translation occurs not between two lexicons but between two minds. Translation is one of the driving forces behind language change, for how can change occur without an encounter with something new?
Translations force the creation of newness in language, for in trying to communicate mind-to-mind, language is bent into new shapes and set to new tunes, and novel ways of speaking are created so that we may grow ever closer to the author’s intent.
Translators then must be incredibly attentive to the meaning the poet is trying to convey, and in straining towards truthfulness, they sometimes are unfaithful to the direct translation. As Octavio Paz once said, “Poetry is what is found in translation.”
In the act of translating from one language to another, we are taught new sensibilities and new music of language. We learn, we master, and then we teach — this is how languages change. This is how we learn to see through the eyes of people far removed from us either by distance or by time.
Kaminsky supplemented these ideas with several examples of poetry from other languages translated into English, and the English translations differ wildly in an attempt to capture the author’s original intent. The picture below is of a haiku with five English translations below it, each striving to capture the sentiment of the poem, without the incomprehensibility demonstrated by the word for word translation provided just below the original poem.
Kaminsky also spoke at length at how poetry across languages allow us to gain new perspectives that our own culture may not expose us to. When we read these stories, we learn to see the world in a way we originally did not have access to. What do these writings tell us about the people who wrote, read, and lived these stories? How else are we able to so clearly see the connection between ourselves and very different people
Kaminsky is a man very aware of the world we live in. He is quick to establish the connection between all people, and he sees this so vividly in the poetry he reads and the poetry he writes. I walked away seeing how poetry can be the window to the soul of an entire people, and how translators are people who seek to stitch the broken seams of our world back together.