The compulsion to translate: Dead language and the poet-translator in postwar America
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My dissertation proposes to rethink the function of translation within the development of 20 th century poetry by presenting case studies of four American poets who turned to ancient, or "dead" languages as a means of initiating the decay of their own living mother tongue. I argue that the rise of "creative" translation, although championed within modernism as a resource for the expansion of English, has in fact been driven by the poet-translator's destructive drive toward his native language. My reading thus heads in the opposite direction of the dominant theoretical discourse of life, survival, and renewal that has developed in the wake of Walter Benjamin's seminal essay, "The Task of the Translator." Benjamin argues that the translator's principle cultural function is the regeneration of his source text and the nourishment of his native language, which can only be achieved by means of a translation that is semantically "as different as possible" from the original. In opposition to this model, I trace out a constellation of postwar American poets who express an attachment to the "deadness" of their source text and a desire to carry this mortality over into English. "The Compulsion to Translate" seizes first upon Ezra Pound's 1948 translation of Sophocles' Elektra as the rupture point of the modernist tradition of generative translation. In Elektra, Pound, the Benjaminian translator par excellence, comes up against the limit point at which his English can no longer expand and begins to collapse in on itself. From here I examine three translations that arise in the wake of this collapse: Robert Duncan's "recital" of a Pindaric fragment, Jack Spicer's scarring translations of Federico García Lorca, and David Melnick's homophonic translation of the Iliad. In each of these instances, the poet approaches the text of a dead text not in order to reinvigorate it, but to put his own living language into a state of decay. Taken together, these four translations challenge the dominant rhetoric of life and renewal that has accompanied the rise of "creative" translation. My designation of a "compulsion to translate" indicates an alternative to what Antoine Berman calls the "translating drive." To a large extent, my dissertation even responds to Berman's directive that theorists look more closely at what lies behind the poet's initial desire to translate another language. Working within the tradition of Benjamin, Berman attributes the translator's drive to a dissatisfaction with his native language, which appears impoverished in the face a "linguistically rich" foreign language. The translator then experiences an attraction to the source text as a means "to fertilize" the fallow ground of his mother tongue. My conception of the translator's drive heads in precisely the opposite direction. What Berman wrongly assumes is that desire aims only towards what we perceive to be healthy. I posit instead that translators are drawn ineluctably to a source text for its deleterious effects--what Robert Duncan calls its "poison," and Jack Spicer its "scars."