Translating everything with W.S Merwin


Translation has been on my bucket list for years and this collection of translations from W.S Merwin has placed it a few rungs higher in the great ladder of to-do.

These selected translations come from 1948 to 2011. Equally impressive as the time range is the number of languages Merwin explores. While he’s fluent in English, French, and Spanish, he tackles Welsh, Greek, Latin, Egyptian, Tatar, Eskimo, Pampa, Portuguese, German, Russian, and several more. To do so, he consulted researchers and past translations to come about his own versions, and the poetic sensibility rather than an over-exacting one makes this collection, I think, refreshing. (The Rumpus gave an in-depth review).

These selections make a very unique and thoughtful anthology of world poetry. (As unique thought admittedly not as fun as McSweeney’s own translation issue). The poems are arranged by the period that Merwin translated them; each of the three parts is then ordered by the date of creation. So you get this fascinating glimpse into the developments of several cultures as well as the varying fancies of the author.

I loved this glimpse into an anonymous Tartar songs:

My beloved, the face is covered with blood.

The falcon’s face, covered with blood.

The wind blew, a curl of hair came loose.

A wick took it, and the face covered with blood.


I built a house and it was a mirage.

But it was a shelter for my whole life.

The point of my stick was not solid

and our night had its danger.


I am dying because I always watched the road.

I looked to right and to left.

Neither you nor I will ever be done

watching the road, watching the road.


The seas turn into horses

and cupbearers.

I drank to quiet my sorrow

but it grew wilder all the time.

Merwin translated old Peruvian poems and many modern Spanish ones. A hint of the latter by Alberto Blanco’s “The Parakeets:”

With their gold rings

on their clever faces,

brilliant feathers

and the heart restless

with speech…

There there’s a few dozen poets from the middle ages and early Renaissance. Joachim du Bellay wrote a charming one about wanderlust and Ulysses. The last two stanzas:

I would rather have the roof my fathers made

than the proud fronts of Roman palaces

and thin slate rather than their hard marble


rather the Gaulist Loire than Latin Tiber

my little hill than the Mount Palatine

the sweetness of Anjoy than the wind from the sea


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