From the archives of the NYRB:
It is, of course, sheer folly to imagine that one can pass judgments which are either accurate or just upon poems written in a language which one does not know.
Irrespective of their relative merits, some poets lose less in translation than others. Even in the crudest prose translation a non-Italian reader can immediately recognize that Dante is a great poet, because much of the impact of his poetry depends upon his use of similes and metaphors drawn from sensory experiences which are not confined to Italians but common to all peoples, and upon his gift for aphoristic statements expressed in the simplest everyday words for which every language has a more or less exact equivalent: e.g., “That day we read in it no further.”
Translation also favors poets like Hölderlin and Smart, who were dotty; for their dislocation of normal processes of thinking are the result of their dottiness, not their language, and sound equally surprising in any: e.g., “ now the heroes are dead, the islands of Love are almost disfigured. Thus everywhere must Love be tricked and exploited, silly.”
A poet like Campion, on the other hand, whose principal concern is with the sound of words and their metrical and rhythmical relations, cannot be translated at all. Take away the English language in which his songs were written, and all that remains are a few banal sentiments.
The most notorious case of an untranslatable poet is Pushkin. Russians are unanimous in regarding him as their greatest poet, but I have yet to read a translation which, if I did not know this, would lead me to suppose that his poems had any merit whatsoever.
Complete ignorance, however, is perhaps less likely to lead one’s critical judgment astray than a smattering of a language. Ignorance at least knows it does not know. When one recalls the fantastic overestimation of Ossian by the German Romantics or of Poe by Baudelaire and Mallarmé, one thinks twice before expressing enthusiasm for a foreign poet.
IN THE CASE OF Mr. Voznesensky, at least I know that he is greatly admired by many of his fellow countrymen, and, after reading literal prose translations of his poems, studying metrical models, and listening to tape-recordings of him reading his own work, I am convinced that his admirers are right.