Responses to American Poetry
The aim of this online space is to host the research work of university students or young scholars as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.
Understanding John Ashbery’s “My Erotic Double” and its Translation
John Ashbery, whose poetry became distinctive for its postmodern intricacy, is considered one of the greatest twentieth century American poets who influenced the development of experimental and philosophical poetry. Belonging to the first generation of the New York School he was surrounded by expressionist painters, including Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Having acquainted himself with such promising figures, it was an auspicious beginning to his career as a poet. Despite the fact that he was awarded several times for his contribution to American poetry, Ashbery’s work is still considered controversial.
In fact, the main source of such controversy is his distinct use of vocabulary and, further, the way in which he rendered his concerns about humanity. Following the path of his post-modernist associates, Ashbery affiliated his poetry with themes such as retrospection and re-evaluation of the past while questioning the meaning and how it is constructed in everyday life, as well as trying to find an identity through self-reflection. According to Ashbery, it is probably his own self he addresses when conveying an idea or a feeling (Koethe 180). Hence, in order to reach a favorable definition of identity, the existence of this conversational element is essential (Carson 448).
One of the main representatives of this conversational aspect is the poem “My Erotic Double,” included in the volume As We Know (1979). This volume contains his most experimental work and, likewise, “My Erotic Double” touches upon delicate issues for that period, such as homosexuality. As stated in his interview, “[there] might be a lot of suppressed or sublimated eroticism […] [but] I try to keep that quiet, not out of prudery, but just because it seems there are more important things […]” (Koethe 182-83). And indeed, although it echoes the sexual desire of the persona, the philosophical and existential claims are predominant in the whole poem. Therefore, one could argue that this poem could be quite a challenge when it comes to translating it.
I have decided to take on this challenge and see if I could transfer the same –or equivalent– semantic and pragmatic features from the Source Text (poem or ST) to the Target Text (its translation or TT), when translating it into Greek, while trying to maintain the stylistic choices made by the author. Before demonstrating the steps taken to come up with the translation, I would like to further mention some general translation aspects. According to Katharina Reiss’s classification of text types, poems or “creative compositions” belong to the expressive text type where “the author uses the aesthetic dimension of language […] is foregrounded, as well as the form of the message” (Munday 115). She also suggests a specific translation method regarding this text type and that is that “[the] TT of an expressive text should transmit the aesthetic and artistic form of the ST…ensuring the accuracy of information…adopting the standpoint of the ST author” (Munday 117). Thus, this approach guides us towards a more secure outcome by being always conscious of taking into account both the aesthetic and stylistic choices made by the author and the message one desires to convey.
Focusing on “My Erotic Double,” I have encountered three main aspects that needed my attention before indulging in translation, and these three basic elements, according to my subjective interpretation of the poem, were the title of the poem, the form of the poem, and the implicit sexuality hovering over the poem.
“My Erotic Double” can be viewed as an introduction to the main theme of the poem and that is either the exploration of the erotic doubleness of the poem’s persona or the erotic identification of the persona with his interlocutor. Whichever the case may be, this aspect of duality has to be displayed in the Greek translation as well, and that is the reason why I chose to translate it as «Ο Ερωτικός μου Ντουμπλέρ». I tried to stay as close as possible to the original in terms of semantic meaning and sound by also creating this kind of internal rhythm with the repetition of the ‘ρ’ sound. Nonetheless, the sex of the “erotic double” becomes explicit in the translated title through the use of the article “O” and the suffixes “-ός” and “-έρ”, whereas in the source text the sexual identity is resolved as the poem progresses.
Another important element of the poem is its form, that is the way Ashbery chooses to elaborate on his thoughts. More specifically, Ashbery makes use of a common literary device found in poetry and that is enjambment; “The wordplay/ Between us gets very intense when there are/ Fewer feelings around to confuse things/” (6-8). Enjambment can be explained as a phrase or a thought that does not end within its line, but it extends also to the next line without any terminal punctuation mark, continuing the same idea while providing readers with a sense of cohesion and coherence. Similarly, I decided to preserve this poetic element and translate it as «Το παιχνίδι λέξεων/ Εντείνεται μεταξύ μας όταν υπάρχουν/ Λιγότερα συναισθήματα τριγύρω για να μας μπερδεύουν» (6-8), because I wished to produce the same effect on the readers like the original did on its readership. Moreover, the procedure of calque was applied in rendering “The wordplay” (1) into Greek since it was “transferred in a literal translation” (Munday 89) as «Το παιχνίδι λέξεων» (1). Besides the literal translation where it was possible, the procedure of transposition was also applied. Transposition is the “change of one part of speech for another without changing the sense” (Munday 90), and it can be found in “He says he doesn’t feel like working today” (1) which is translated as «Λέει ότι δεν έχει όρεξη σήμερα για δουλειά» (1) where the verbal expression changed into a noun without losing its meaning. Another example can be seen in “Behind the house, protected from street noises” (3) which is translated as «Πίσω απ’ το σπίτι, προστατευμένος από τους θορυβώδεις δρόμους» (3) where the adjective and noun changed positions in order to flow naturally in the Greek language. Further, modulation was also used and basically it is the procedure that “changes the semantics and point of view of the SL” (Munday 90). To illustrate, in “One can go over all kinds of old feeling” (4) which is translated as «Μπορεί κανείς να ανασύρει πληθώρα ξεχασμένων συναισθημάτων» (4) the pronoun “one” turns into «κανείς» which is translated as “no one” in English, but in Greek it has the same effect as the pronoun “one” has in the English language, hence it is more conversational. Finally, in the line “That keep us awake, thinking about the dreams” (14) which is translated as «Που μας κρατούν ξάγρυπνους, σκεπτόμενοι τα όνειρα» (14) the verb “thinking” turns from active to passive voice with the participle «σκεπτόμενοι», deriving from the verb «σκέφτομαι» which is the equivalent of the verb “think.” Given the above, the “[source] culture norms prevail” which ultimately makes the target text “adequate” (Munday 179).
The Queer Element
The whole poem composes an image of retrospection and reflects the persona’s attempt to redefine both his reality and sexuality. “My Erotic Double” could be read as a sexual redefinition or recognition of the persona’s desires or as a sexual engagement between the persona and his interlocutor. According to John Vincent, “[critics] make sure to consider the beloved as male” as if he is “[addressing] ‘a friend,’ ‘a lover,’ or ‘the poet himself’” (155), which could implicate that the persona can be a feasible reflection of John Ashbery, since he is “a registered homosexual” (155). This male identity is demonstrated in the translated poem through «προστατευμένος» (3) and «σκεπτόμενοι» (14). However, this erotic “engagement” seems to come to an end in the lines “Thank you. You are a very pleasant person./ Thank you. You are too” (17-18) which are translated as «Σ’ ευχαριστώ. Είσαι πολύ ευχάριστος άνθρωπος./ Σ’ ευχαριστώ. Παρομοίως» (17-18), highlighting the conversational element in Ashbery’s poetry.
Thus, we reach a point where we understand that Ashbery’s poetry might be acknowledged as obscure and belonging to a state of constant flux, but this unique way of writing is his own medium which he uses to articulate his ideas and feelings. For Ashbery, poetry should portray everyday life as it is happening by giving voice to its personas in order to express their philosophical and existential concerns. Therefore, I consider it is of great importance to be as close as possible to the source text in order to produce an almost equal translation.
Ashbery, John. Selected Poems. Penguin Books, 1986.
“Ashbery John.” Poetry Foundation. www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/john-ashbery. Accessed 22 June 2019.
Carson, Luke. “John Ashbery’s Elizabeth Bishop.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 54, no. 4, 2008, pp. 448-71. JSTOR. www.jstor.org/stable/40599953. Accessed 24 June 2019.
“Glossary of Poetic Terms: New York School.” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/new-york-school. Accessed 22 June 2019.
Koethe, John, and John Ashbery. “An Interview with John Ashbery.” SubStance, vol. 1, no. 4-vol. 12, no. 1, 1982, pp. 178-86. JSTOR. DOI: 10.2307/3684190. www.jstor.org/stable/3684190. Accessed 24 June 2019.
Munday, Jeremy. Introducing Translation Studies: Theories and Applications. 4th ed., Routledge, 2016.
Vincent, John. “Reports of Looting and Insane Buggery behind Altars: John Ashbery’s Queer Poetics.” Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 44, no. 2, 1998, pp. 155-75. JSTOR. DOI: 10.2307/441869. www.jstor.org/stable/441869. Accessed 24 June 2019.
 “A group of poets aligned with the New York School of painting in the 1950s and ’60s. A diverse group of writers, the main figures of the New York School are Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schulyer, Kenneth Koch, and Barbara Guest. Influenced by relationships and collaborations with painters such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, and Larry Rivers, the New York School poets are known for their urbane wit, interest in visual art, and casual address. A second generation of New York School poets grew up in the 1960s and included Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, Ron Padgett, and Anne Waldman” (“Glossary of Poetic Terms: New York School”).
 “He won nearly every major American award for poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Yale Younger Poets Prize, the Bollingen Prize, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Griffin International Award, and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant” (“John Ashbery”).
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