Charles gave me a copy of his “translation” of Arthur Rimbaud’s “Le bateau ivre” (The Drunken Boat). I put “translation” in quotes because Charles readily admits that his version derives from other English versions of the poem, since he doesn’t know French. This is a common procedure with a lot of poets and has produced some really good English renderings of foreign poems. An example is Robert Lowell’s “Imitations.” He wants me to read his translation against the original French to see what we come to. Charles and I agree that you don’t have to know the original language in order to produce strong and viable versions in English. It’s an accepted maxim among good translators that the most important prerequisite is to be able to write well in the native language, not the “target” (or foreign) language. In other words, a good translator is foremost a good writer in his own language. This is what makes so many translations produced by “scholars” of the foreign language so worthy of neglect. They may be “accurate,” but they are also unreadable.
[JMN, Correspondence, 1987]
C) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.