Poet Paul Legault on the slippery process of interpretation that informed his new English-to-English translation of Emily Dickinson.
Have you ever felt a desire to simplify when reading certain poetry? Maybe it comes from our wish to fully understand whatever it is the poet is trying to show us, to put it into terms that we can understand and carry around with us, or maybe it’s just fun for some other reason. Either way, when reading a poem we perform a sort of translation, taking the poet’s words and, through synthesis, replacing them with our own. This is what Paul Legault has provided in his new book, The Emily Dickinson Reader, in which he’s translated Emily Dickinson’s entire oeuvre into 1789 compact constructions, each often no more than two or three lines. He’s reduced Dickinson’s poems to their most essential meaning, skimming off all of those superfluous caesuras and meter schemes to leave us with a perfectly clarified Emily Dickinson.
Legault’s use of standard English is a funny choice for Dickinson, and the result heightens her work to an almost painful comedy. You finds yourself laughing over real poetic anguish, leafing through page after page of profound abandonment of hopes and happiness. But through this dark, dark comedy shines a certain genius. Despite the short length of most of these translations, the profundity of the originals still seems to find its way in. Just take a look at 653:
Against the apparent perpetuity of space and time, I cannot reasonably assert my individuality.
Some might be thinking: Why translate something that’s already English into more English? Well, there are a lot of reasons, and Paul was nice enough to meet with me to discuss this and other questions.
Jonathan Aprea When I read The Emily Dickinson Reader, I feel like the mode of translation that you apply to Emily Dickinson could be applied to a lot of different poets. I was wondering whether or not this mode of translation came first, or if your choice to translate Emily Dickinson came first, and why you conjoined those two things together.
Paul Legault An interesting enough answer is: simultaneously. I was in a course at UVA on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, so all we did was read Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. And when we got to the Emily Dickinson, everyone . . . it was an academic course and I was sitting in as an MFA student, and everyone in the class was digging through her biography and trying to figure out what each poem meant in terms of like, Oh, well her cousin had just died, and she wrote this poem immediately afterward, and this poem is obviously, you know, about the death of her cousin. So they would translate the poem as: I’m sad that my dead cousin is dead.