Over the last few months I have been very lazily reading Jane Hirshfield’s book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. (And I think I owe a big thank you to Marina Sofia for recommending this book to me, it’s splendid.). For Day 2 of my advent reading, I read the third chapter, “The World is Loud and Full of Noises,” which, serendipitously, is about translation.

The chapter begins with the idea of how uncomfortable people can be with translation, and where this comes from in terms of prohibitions about translations in sacred texts. I’ve never made the explicit connection, but now it seems glaringly obvious—if words have any whiff of the sacred, it would be sacrilegious to altar them in any way. Move that idea forward a few millennia and there is this, exquisitely expressed:

Further, by asserting that things worth knowing exist outside the home culture’s boundaries, translation challenges society as a whole.

When you look at it this way, translation isn’t just a superfluous extracurricular that’s nice to have around if you can, it’s a vital component of a society with an ability to look outward.

And Hirshfield talks about this from a political perspective, but also a literary one, mentioning the ways in which translation of “foreign” poetry has enlivened and rejuvenated English language poetry in important ways.

She moves then to talk about the act of translating and what it involves, how it actually feels. I love her description of translation as erotic:

…the translator enters into an erotic engagement with the chosen text, reading the poem again and again for its meaning, its resonance, its kinetic and musical bodies, its ambiguities, rhetoric, grammar, images, and tropes—for all the rustling of its many leaves and for the silences at its roots as well. The translator reads in the desire to join with what she reads, placing the life of the poem thoroughly within her own, discovering how each entering word modifies that life.

Her point, and I’d agree with it, is that both the text and the translator are altered by the experience. The two are no longer separate when all is said and done and a translation appears, wholly unique but still connected, deeply although somehow inexplicably, with the original text.

The rest of the chapter gets quite technical—in the best way—with Hirshfield writing about her experience translating the famous Japanese poets Izumi Shikibu and Ono no Komachi. She gives examples and details her process. It’s fascinating, and quite inspiring.

I’ve been terrified to attempt any translation involving actual poetry, probably because I don’t trust my own poetic instincts, and I’m afraid of the constraints involved. But Hirshfield makes me want to try, she presents the translation of poetry as more of a liberating experience than one marked by rules and limitations. That seems much less scary.

She ends the chapter by citing a short poem by the Japanese monk Kūkai, who is credited with developing the kana system, which is used in combination with Chinese characters, to write Japanese. Knowing that about him, and seeing the poem, and thinking about the sacred nature of words, and how any language is “translated” from thought to expression when articulated, I could get lost inside this poem for years:

Singing Image of Fire

A hand moves, and the fire’s whirling takes different shapes,

Triangles, squares: all things change when we do.

The first word, “Ah,” blossomed into all others.

Each of them is true.