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Marilyn Hacker: The Paradox of Translation

October 8, 2012

The prolific translator talks with Guernica’s poetry editor about her work ethic, contemporary Morocco, and what connects poetry with journalism.

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Image from Flickr via zilverbat.

Marilyn Hacker is a translator nothing short of prodigious. In the past five years alone, she’s brought the work of Hedi Kaddour, Guy Goffette, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Marie Etienne, and many more writers into English, expanding the audiences of these international figures. Her latest project, Tales of a Severed Head by Moroccan poet Rachida Madani, will be released this month by Yale University Press. (Read an excerpt from The Second Tale here.) This book-length sequence recasts the story of Scheherazade and her thousand and one nights, incorporating recent Moroccan history into the tales. In her preface, Hacker calls it “a story of contemporary resistance—but once again language provides the weapon.”

Erica Wright for Guernica

Good journalism is preferable to bad poetry.

Guernica: How much background information about Morocco, if any, do readers need in order to access the text [Rachida Madani’s Tales of a Severed Head]?

Marilyn Hacker: Although I provided some historical background in my preface to the book, I think the text is accessible without very much additional information. The poems make it clear that the trope of Scheherazade is being used to reflect on a contemporary situation of political repression, which is by no means limited to Morocco. But knowing about the Moroccan resistance and its repression—that brought intellectuals and workers, women and men, together—gives a clarifying specificity to the sequences.

Guernica: You often choose writing and translating projects with a political undercurrent. What can poetry do that journalism can’t?

Marilyn Hacker: Good journalism is preferable to bad poetry. Ezra Pound said that poetry was “news that stays news,” and one would hope that poetry, but all good writing really, transcends the specificity of its occasion even while, indeed by means of, rendering it genuinely specific. As poets like Adrienne Rich, Louis MacNeice, and Robert Hayden, among many others, have exemplified in their work, individual experience and political observation are not separate; they exist on a continuum, and it is a particular gift or responsibility of the poet, of the imaginative writer, to observe and render that continuum.

A foreign language was a door onto branching corridors of other histories, other ways of thinking, other linguistic echoes.

Guernica: You studied Romance Languages as a very young undergraduate at New York University. What was it about foreign languages or literature that appealed to you at fifteen?

Marilyn Hacker: A fascination with language in general. That included the heady joy of discovering poetry in English, at first the poets that would delight an adolescent like Dylan Thomas, e.e. cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, Hart Crane. A foreign language was a door onto branching corridors of other histories, other ways of thinking, other linguistic echoes. American education didn’t emphasize what was then called world history, as opposed to the forefronted American history. And a second European language was also a way to widen that perspective, necessarily—you cannot read Racine or Stendhal in an historical vacuum. Even at fifteen I had read translations of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, also of Sartre and Genet, and I wanted to be able to experience the work directly. A paradox there about translation—that, at its best, one of the things it does is inspire a desire to read the original. I’m very grateful to Yale that Rachida Madani’s book/my translation is bilingual, and the reader can fulfill that desire.

Guernica: I once heard Lydia Davis say that she was done with translating after finishing her version of Madame Bovary. I’m paraphrasing, but basically she said that she was exhausted. In the past five years alone, you’ve translated Hedi Kaddour, Guy Goffette, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Emmanuel Moses, Marie Etienne, Gabrielle Althen, Madani, and probably a few more I missed. Where do you find your motivation?

Marilyn Hacker: You missed Amina Saïd and Habib Tengour! I can well understand Lydia Davis being exhausted with translation. The plus side of it, for a writer, is the engagement with language—the language of the original, but one’s own language first and foremost. The possibility of working with it outside one’s own frames of reference, connotations, formal or historical concerns—in that way it’s like attempting to write within, and straining against or stretching out into, an unfamiliar formal structure.

Erica Wright is the author of the poetry collection Instructions for Killing the Jackal and the chapbook Silt. Her poems have appeared in many nice places such as Arion, Denver Quarterly, Pequod, and on From the Fishouse. For up-to-date information, check out her blog.

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2 comments for Marilyn Hacker: The Paradox of Translation

  1. Comment by younes on October 8, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    I would like to thank you for that interesting article, likewise i want to comment the last statement of Marilyn. The translator work seems to include a wide variety of pieces : Hedi Kaddour, Guy Goffette, Vénus Khoury-Ghata, Emmanuel Moses, Marie Etienne, Gabrielle Althen, Madani, … that apparently are not belonging to a single system of reference or culture, hence they may not all provide that required familiarity …
    Which criteria can guide a young translator while choosing his first materiel of work if any general recommendations can be told ?

  2. Comment by Polish translator on October 20, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    Very interesting article!!!

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