'Versatorium Playbook' Explores Translation

“Translation is a kind of poetic experimentation. There is nothing better than reading a poem through translation,” the American poet Charles Bernstein said April 9 in “The Versatorium Playbook,” a seminar exploring the challenges and rewards of poetic translation. Bernstein, a key figure in the American “language poetry” movement, was joined by the Austrian poet and novelist Peter Waterhouse, an experienced translator of German-language poetry. The duo shared their unique perspectives on translation, illustrating the positive impact translation can have on the art form of poetry, as well as on those who collaborate to translate together.

A professor at the University of Vienna, Waterhouse designed a poetry translation class that centered on students regularly cooperating to work on translating poetry. According to Waterhouse, his students would regularly devote between 30 to 40 hours a week to translating poetry in a group setting. Asked about what types of works the class translated, Waterhouse said, “We translated anything we could get hold of, everything which was around and on the book, not just the poetry—any kind of symbols and signs were also translated. We were interested in material that cannot be translated.” Sometimes, Waterhouse and his students were not allowed to translate certain American poems due to copyright laws. Instead of translating the words into German, they illustrated the meaning of the poem through icons and pictures.

Waterhouse and his students’ interest in translating difficult poetic works led them to become attracted to the poem “Johnny Cake Hollow” by Charles Bernstein. To Waterhouse and his students, “Johnny Cake Hollow” was fascinating because it seemed impossible to translate in terms of sound and meaning. However, Waterhouse said, “We soon came to realize that it was actually highly translatable because the poem itself was suggesting meaning at every point of every line. Thus, it was not only very translatable but also necessary to translate.” From translating Bernstein’s poem, Waterhouse and his students began to understand that meaning was not a result of translation, but instead comes from the reader’s interaction with the work. “Translation is a type of commentary. We don’t introduce meaning. If you want meaning, you have to add it,” Bernstein said.

Most of the students who took Waterhouse’s class had no prior experience in translating poetry or even writing poetry but became interested in the theory of translation and started to produce translations themselves. By translating poems written in many different languages, the students interacted more with the poetry they were reading. “Reading poems in your language can be confining at times because they are written in your own language, so you already have a sense of what to expect. On the other hand, there is an endless amount of knowledge that can be gained from translating a poem written in a different language,” Bernstein said.


According to Bernstein and Waterhouse, the importance of group translation extends beyond the field of poetry. As Bernstein put it, “Group translations are about people and bringing people together.” In this vein, Waterhouse and his students have gone on expeditions to different parts of Europe, collaborating on and exchanging translations with other student-poets. During Waterhouse and his students’ expeditions, translating poetry became a medium for in-person contact and exchange that facilitated deeper understanding of the words and sounds that make up a language. Translation became an action that was different in its energy and engagement compared to the individual study of a poem in its own language. Bernstein agreed, noting that even experienced poets have a lot to gain from performing translation. “Translation allows you to garner a new meaning of the poem. I noticed that during the translation sessions with my students, I was not teaching but learning. Everyone was learning.”


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