Pieces of Shadow


When young W.S. Merwin met Ezra Pound in a windowless room at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Pound advised the aspiring poet to begin his career translating, or to, as he put it: “Study the roots, not the twigs.” Translation, Pound held, was a way to inculcate poetic voice; it revealed new possibilities of one’s native language. Merwin, then eighteen, took his advice and began translating soon after his sojourn in Europe, a trip he describes in his memoir Summer Doorways. Merwin’s first major translation, The Poem of the Cid, soon followed, the result of another encounter with a poet-translator, Robert Graves. While tutoring Graves’ son in Majorca, Merwin met Dido Milroy who would help him get a job with the BBC, translating medieval poetry, which led to his rendering of the Spanish epic. Some sixty years later, Merwin has racked up a long list of translations: The Song of Roland, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, poems by Dante, Osip Mandelstam, Basho, Pablo Neruda, Guilhem Ademar. However, it is his translations from Spanish that stand out, not only because they greatly outnumber his translations from other languages, but also because they demonstrate that a tradition some had considered minor is abundant, rich, and varied in both content and voice.

more from Jesse Tangen-Mills at Asymptote here.