For those of us who translate poetry, any book that mentions the endeavor—and in the title no less—immediately sparks our interest. Poetry in translation is often lost (to play on Frost’s famous quip) in the shuffle of an exciting and well-deserved moment of recognition for literary translation. (Consider the recently revamped International Booker Prize or the National Book Award for Translated Literature). Yet, these awards are limited to prose (a conversation for another time). In any case, a title like Sellin’s is a welcome sight.
The Magic Mirror is written as an introduction for a well-rounded reader of poetry wondering what it might be like to translate rhymed and metered verse: the challenges, the inspirations, the possible solutions. It demonstrates that in order to translate poetry, one must be a careful reader of poetry, the closest reader possible. Sellin, professor emeritus of French at Tulane University and a poet and translator of numerous books, thoughtfully details his process in these pages, highlighting the influences that make up his choices, allowing his readers to see “behind the scenes,” so to speak.
In each chapter, Sellin takes on the rendering of a specific poem into English, and in turn, each poem becomes its own story of how and why, while also discussing an idea, concept, or quandary raised by the translation, such as multiple translations, formal poetry versus free verse, and co-translation. Traveling from Du Bellay to Ronsard to Baudelaire to Verhaeren, readers are witnesses to numerous drafts and the step-by-step decision-making necessary to get to a final version of a poem, which then appears at the end of the chapter. The appendix even includes numerous images of annotated drafts of one of the poems, so the reader can get an “authentic” sense of trial, error, progress. Between Sellin’s compelling translations and insightful comments on translating metered and rhymed verse, Magic Mirror is at its best when discussing process.
Though each chapter of Magic Mirror could hold its own as an independent essay, there are a few common threads that run throughout the book. For one, Sellin reminds us that doing translation in the academy has definitely not been considered scholarly, creative, or productive. He points out to his readers that it was only upon his retirement from academia that he found “an esthetic and intellectual climate in which theories of literature had become truly global, multilingual, and transnational, a climate in which translation had been revalorized and was now considered an important creative and intellectual activity” (xiii), rather than “hack work” (xii). This disdain for translation, as Sellin rightfully observes, “assumes translation to be an activity lower in the creative hierarchy than original literature and, perhaps more nefariously, considerably lower [in the academy] than scholarly writing” (16).
The current moment, however, has signaled for Sellin one of renewed joy in the endeavor: “I felt as though my many years spent translating poetry under the counter, so to speak, had been vindicated” (xiii). This goes hand in hand with Magic Mirror recognizing translators of poetry as artists in their own right, a topic I’m delighted to see in a general introduction to the craft. Throughout the book, Sellin comments on how translation is an artform, how it is creative and not just a mechanical exercise, and he acknowledges that in order to “produce a good translation of poetry […] the translator must also be—or at least aspire to become—a good poet for the occasion” (x).
All this is not to say that there’s been a huge sea change in the academy with regard to literary translation, there most definitely has not. Yet, there is no denying that the field is experiencing a positive shift in perception. Translation feels really important right now. As translators we must recognize that we have arrived at this moment, in no small way, because of the efforts of those who came before us. Magic Mirror does the necessary job of reminding us.
Still, there are moments when Sellin’s observations about translations are, for lack of a better word, uninformed and, ultimately, undermine his own defense of it. For example, at one point he cautions readers “that a good translation may be a great literary contribution […] but that a translator cannot and should not aspire to clone an original and that ideally we should try to read and savor the original poem, if we can” (24). Shortly after, he states there is “something of a hierarchy […] involving on the one hand the creation of an original poem and on the other the translation of an existing poem” (26-27). Indeed, there is an undercurrent here that suggests an order: 1) original poem, 2) something referred to as “rigorous translation” (26) (code for the translation of a formal structured poem), and 3) free verse translation. Though Sellin himself in the first paragraph of the book states that he has no intention of entering the debate between translating formal poetry and free verse, and despite the fact that such discussion is often embedded in a broader conversation of form versus content, the message is clear: poetry that doesn’t include “metrical rigor” or rhyme is “relatively easy to translate” (3).
I tend to not get involved in the debate outlined above because I almost exclusively translate contemporary, experimental poetry from Latin America. Here, form has different challenges beyond meter and rhyme. Suffice it to say that I’m not convinced that a translator who opts to mimic or replicate the rhyme and meter of the original in order to “achieve a satisfactory translation” (45) is superior to one who opts to translate that same poem in a different way. I admire the skills required to do formal translation. Nevertheless, in this discussion, which I have had on more than one occasion, I respectfully disagree.
What I cannot avoid, as a translator of poetry from the Global South, is a very present awareness of the politics of translation; that our seemingly neutral choices are absolutely not neutral. In this regard, I must take issue with the silences surrounding the topic in Magic Mirror. The emphasis on the anecdotal, the supposed objectivity of what makes up “good” poetry and “satisfactory” translation, and the uncomplicated way in which a United States Information Association-sponsored trip* to the “Near East” and the Maghreb is narrated, for instance, all signal a problematic approach to literary translation. Not acknowledging that approach as political is even more problematic. Recognizing the political implications and impact of what and how we translate would have made this introduction to translation more in touch at a historical moment in which the relationship between art and politics has, once more, been unveiled––even for the most general of audiences.
Coming to The Magic Mirror of Literary Translation as a translator of contemporary Latin American poetry, I find Sellin’s reflections and remembrances amusing, but not much more than that. Admittedly, I am not the book’s audience, so it makes sense. All this aside, it is a solid introduction to a certain kind of approach to translating poetry for a non-academic audience who has never really considered it before and would like to learn more. It is accessible and entertaining, focusing almost exclusively on personal anecdote and reflection, rather than the social or political implications of translation, or the translator’s own politics and how they come into play when choosing what to translate and how. For specialists in poetry in translation, it is a contribution in that it reflects back to us how far we have come in recognizing our craft as a creative artform. And the silences remind us, too, of how far we have left to go in our discussions about the real work of poetry in translation—the poetics and politics of it—in profound and meaningful ways.
Katherine M. Hedeen is a translator, literary critic, and essayist. A specialist in Latin American poetry, she has translated some of the most respected voices from the region. Her publications include book-length collections by Jorgenrique Adoum, Juan Bañuelos, Juan Calzadilla, Juan Gelman, Fayad Jamís, Hugo Mujica, José Emilio Pacheco, Víctor Rodríguez Núñez, and Ida Vitale, among many others. She is a recipient of two NEA Translation grants in the US and a PEN Translates award in the UK. She is a Managing Editor for Action Books and the Poetry in Translation Editor at the Kenyon Review. She resides in Ohio, where she is a Professor of Spanish at Kenyon College.
Sellin, Eric. The Magic Mirror of Translation. Reflections on the Art of Translating Verse. Syracuse University Press, 2021.
*For a more detailed explanation of the USIA and its relationship to US imperialist cultural politics abroad, see Stonor Saunders, Frances. The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. The New Press, 1999 and Cohn, Deborah. The Latin American Literary Boom and U.S. Nationalism During the Cold War. Vanderbilt UP, 2012.