Selected Translations

W S Merwin, Translator
W.S. Merwin. Copper Canyon (Consortium, dist.), $40 (410p) ISBN 978-1-55659-409-0
Paperback - 420 pages - 978-1-55659-437-3
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Were Merwin not one of America’s most admired poets (his honors include two Pulitzers and a term as U.S. poet laureate) he would still be as famous as translators get: for more than 50 years and for more than 50 volumes, Merwin has rendered, sensitively and carefully, canonical poets such as Mandelstam and Neruda, traditional songs and sayings from Peru to Madagascar, Latin satire, medieval romance, Japanese haiku, and more. This third selection from Merwin’s translations (the first since 1978) might double as an introduction to poetry from the non–English–speaking world, so widely does it range, from India to Alaska, from the folk poetry of Korea (“Nobody notices hunger/ but they never miss dirt”) to the careful sophistication of Dante. Lovers of Merwin’s own poetry will not be surprised to see how many pages bear an elegiac or a wistful cast, and yet the many forms and languages represented really have helped Merwin, as he says in his substantial autobiographical introduction, “accommodate something new” to his American English tongue. The arrangement of poems avoids both strict chronology and segregation by language group; instead, we find clusters of related poems, with frequently used languages (such as Spanish and French) parceled out through the book. Traditional poems have a particular attraction, as do the language and culture of Spain: “Little pearl, suit yourself when you marry,” advises one Spanish folk rhyme; “your parents will die/ and won’t come from the other world/ to see if you’re happy.” And yet long works (like the Middle English “Patience”) and sophisticated moderns fit his gifts, too: if anyone can make a big hit out of a book of translations from all over, Merwin ought to be the one. (Oct.)
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