As Robert Frost sees it, poetry is what is lost in translation. When we consider the relationship between translation and metaphor, that both mean to bear over, to carry across, Frost’s assessment, more even than characteristic statement of his wry cynicism, takes on something of the contour of his poetry. In Frost we find much more of the figure than the figurative. His metaphors often slip by, flickering beneath the surface of the phenomenon he shows us. That is if he employs metaphor at all. Often he does not, as in the case of “The Road Not Taken,” or only glancingly, as perhaps could be said of the “sweep” of the snowflakes in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
In his more explicit similetic moments, to be sure, Frost allows for the great figurative flights into otherness which for Aristotle mark genius. Consider the “ghost of sleigh bells in a ghost of snow” to which the speaker of “Hyla Brook” compares the song of the spring peepers. Even here the effect may be more musical than exact, far different from the metaphor whereby the brook’s bed “is left a faded paper sheet” a few lines on. This latter instance is more in character. It is in a sense no metaphor at all. The dry leaves in the bed of a brook have in fact become something of a sheet of paper.
Similar modes of metaphor are in play in such slightly longer lyrics as “Birches.” There is the arresting comparison of the limbs to those girls on hands and knees with hair thrown over their heads to dry, and then there are those light, almost unremarkable metaphors like the “crystal shells” the winter sun cracks and crazes. In such moments Frost takes us not into that metaphorical gulf between being and non-being but rather into the asymptotic nearness of contraries approaching each other as they approach Being itself. He is a poet of body language, of the metaphors those things which stand over against us hand us in order to help us describe them.
In all this Frost occupies a very different space from those contemporary poets who delight us by their indefatigable comparative activity. Sharon Olds, for example, in “Summer Solstice, New York City,” supplies us with as many metaphors—all apt, all electric—as Frost has in the four poems so far mentioned. Olds gives us a rush through whitewater, a passage in which we can never lose the impulse of our direction even as our gaze is whipped every which way. Frost ferries us across a placid river, always under his own power, always gently enough that we may see our Whitmanian reflections in the water as we cross.
It is in the involution of his language, in his ability to give us interiority through the phenomenal, that Frost’s metaphorical power resides. It is there, in a sense, that all real poetry resides, and it is this which most of all defies translation. If figurative language curls in upon itself, only to bloom before the attentive gaze of the reader, those of us who take up the work of translation run the risk of falsely unfurling the language so that we are left with colorless, odorless meaning.
In my own translation of Dante, I began with two main principles in mind: first, to convey the sound of Dante’s Italian as nearly as English allows, provided that to do so does not introduce an inappropriate poetic or theological dissonance; second, to preserve Dante’s philosophy and theology intact.
As I progressed through the work, there arose a need to add a third, to preserve metaphorical language wherever possible, and this in light of two lines of Inferno IX. The Italian reads, “Gli occhi mi sciolse e disse: ‘Or drizza il nerbo / del viso su per quella schiuma antica” (73-74). I have rendered it as, “He loosed my eyes and said: ‘Now flick the whip / of sight across that antique scum.” The metaphor is unimposing, especially by contrast to the two epic similes, one of a burning wind and the other of the frogs fleeing a snake, between which it falls. And yet the choice of translation in such small matters as the whip of sight, as Vergil puts it, proves critical to the preservation of poetry. What Vergil plainly means is for Dante to “look over there,” and the line is often translated thus. Such translation, however, is a kind of double translation, a move first from one language to another and second from the figurative to the literal. Then poetry is lost in translation.
The matter concerns more, of course, than the words themselves. When Frost gives us the bed of Hyla Brook like a faded paper sheet, he tells us not only that the ground is dry and brittle and brown but that histories live in it and may perhaps be written upon it still. Likewise to flick the whip of sight is not simply to look over there but to embody something about the nature of looking. It is to say that sight is not simply a passive power in which the open eye receives whatever is before it but rather that the seer acts upon the seen object in the moment of seeing.
To translate is in its way to set a metaphor before the reader, to supply a thing which both is and is not its original. It is an act in which poetry can be lost as well as found. In its practice is a step beyond the old half-truth that words alone are certain good into a recognition that words may shape the temporal mind for eternity. In words, in metaphor, in translation, we may bear ourselves over to those fires Olds finds at the end of her Solstice, the fires the first men lit in the first nights; we may bear ourselves forward with Frost through the radiant tension of the quotidian and forward farther still with Dante to the closing of the portal of time. We may by words trace the contours of the work of the Word, speaking being out of nonbeing, calling us ourselves to be translated and behold that Triune vision in whose heart our face is painted.
Daniel Fitzpatrick is the author of the novel Only the Lover Sings. His new translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, illustrated by sculptor Timothy Schmalz, is out this year in honor of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death. He is completing an MPhil in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin, and his poems and essays have appeared in places like Dappled Things and Studia Gilsoniana. He lives in Hot Springs, Arkansas, with his wife and three children.
You can find out more about his work, here: https://enroutebooksandmedia.com/helpdantehelpitaly/