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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.


Tatiani Rapatzikou 
(Associate Professor, School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece; Advisor and initiative co-ordinator





Translating Poetry: Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter”

After my first encounter with poetry translation during my undergraduate studies, I would not miss the opportunity to gain more hands-on experience, and to put myself out of my comfort zone, since admittedly, poetry translation is the most challenging type of translation, the one that requires the greatest deal of compromise and includes inevitable loss. Will the translator focus on maintaining form at the expense of content or vice versa? The question is not that simple, since form and sense are interrelated and connected. Form might carry as much meaning as language. Even without rhyme and metre and “all that stuff”, there is always an inner rhythm underlying any work of poetry, which the translator has to perceive and transfer as adequately as s/he can. Things are yet more complicated as poetry does not simply function on the semantic and the aesthetic level, but also on a pragmatic level. What the translator needs to achieve is the overall impression that the original work created to its readers, that is, an equivalent effect that is as close as possible to that of the original. Of course this effect varies among readers, as well as the perception and interpretation of the content. The practical difficulties are such, that some scholars have gone as far as claiming that poetry translation is impossible. This claim contains, according to Desmond Egan, a misapprehension about poetry: “the idea that it is essentially a word-game rather than […] an insight which precedes language and which never finds perfect expression because all words are metaphors” (227). What does seem practically impossible is the simultaneous achievement of equivalence on all the levels on which a poem functions, so the translator is continually faced with choices and compromises (Misiou, “TIS 311 Literary Translation”). Thus, as Jeremy Munday puts it “the question of translatability becomes one of degree and adequacy” (60).

I went through the work of various postmodern poets, before settling on Frank O’Hara and “Why I Am Not a Painter.” I had a couple of different motives. O’Hara’s poetry is the one that touched me the most at the time and I felt like digging deeper into it; and what better way to comprehend a poem than by translating it? “Why I Am Not a Painter” actually made me want to translate it even before I had finished reading it. I also found out that the poem has not been translated into Greek before, and so I took the chance to add to the already existing translations of O’Hara’s work.

Regarding the translation process, I followed a number of steps some of which I had planned beforehand, based on previous practice and knowledge gained in university courses, and some I came up with in the process. To begin with, the first thing to do before starting translating a poem is to get to know the poet better. Reading more of O’Hara’s poems, delving into analyses and studying his work, reading about his life, about the culture and society he was born into, I gained a better perspective into his style, the main characteristics and the effect of his poetry. This is necessary for the translation to have an equivalent effect as close as possible to that of the original.

What I understand to be one of the main characteristics of his poetry is spontaneity. The reading of his poems feels like listening to a person’s stream of thoughts, completely unprocessed and unfiltered, or having a casual conversation with this person. This immediacy led him to “personism,” whereby a poem could as well be part of a telephone conversation, or as he puts it in his essay “Personism”, “[t]he poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages,” “I don’t even like rhythm, assonance all that stuff. You just go on your nerve” (Levine et al. 411-412). In many of his poems, as in “Why I Am Not a Painter,” he seems to be casually narrating what he is doing: “I drink; we drink. I look/up.” (7-8). These came to be known as “I do this I do that” poems. It feels like O’Hara takes up the task to turn the real, unfiltered everyday life and experience into art. Even though O’Hara wrote “Personism” as a joke, to mock the tendency of the multiplying literary movements of his time, his “resonant casualness” and his “I do this I do that” poetry proved very influential. His style, by encouraging other poets of the time to follow his example, shaped part of the “New York school” of poets, thus shaping part of postmodern American poetry (Levine et al. 507). As reflected on O’Hara’s poetry, “New York School poetry tended to be witty, urbane, and conversational. The poets allowed everyday moments, pop culture, humor, and spontaneity into their work, seeking to capture life as it happened” (Poetry Foundation). “Why I Am Not a Painter” is a very good example of O’Hara’s conversational style, with its casual and subtly humorous tone, making the poem sound so effortless. All these are features that I considered important to maintain and convey while translating the source text, and therefore, kept them in mind throughout the whole process. When translating a poem it is essential that the translator keeps in mind these distinguishing features that mark the poet’s work, so that the outcome can qualify as this poet’s work.

Moving on, I came to realize through practice that what is of fundamental importance after translating a poem, or even throughout the process (depending on its length and complexity among others), is to distance oneself from it, that is, to hit pause, take some time off, stop thinking about it (well, at least, try) and come back to it with a clearer mind. It is surprising how naturally an answer can show up, when only two days ago you were racking your brain to find it. In the case of “Why I Am Not a Painter,” I did not face this kind of struggle, but I did have doubts (I still do) and I did encounter a number of practical difficulties. Even if the translation seems to be flowing relatively smoothly, distancing yourself from it is always a profitable use of time. Every time you come back to a translation, you find something you could have rendered differently.

Regarding the difficulties I faced in “Why I Am Not a Painter,” they were for the most part related to the differences in the structure and terminology of English and Greek, which verifies Roman Jakobson’s assertion about the nature of difficulties in translation (Munday 60). For example, the absence of grammatical gender in inflections seems to make English rather more flexible than Greek, which is highly inflectional. In “so much more, not of orange, of/words, of how terrible orange is/and life” (22-24), the adjective ‘terrible,’ which in Greek inflects according to the noun that follows, refers to both orange and life, which in Greek are of different gender, that is, neuter and feminine respectively. Therefore, the rendering of ‘terrible’ as neuter in the translation provides grammatical agreement between ‘terrible’ and ‘orange,’ but makes the whole sentence sound a bit awkward, as ‘life’ seems to be left out. The result, however, seemed to me rather fitting, after all, since ‘life’ in the original poem is in a way detached from ‘orange’ through O’Hara’s line breaking and “awkward” word order (“how terrible orange is/and life”), the effect of which would be lost in the equivalent Greek word order (it is nonsensical to say «πόσο τρομερό το πορτοκαλί είναι/και η ζωή»). In this way, the grammatical disagreement in Greek makes up for the inevitable change in word order, thus creating an effect close to that of the original.

Another point that puzzled me was ‘ORANGES’ (28), which, as made clear by the context, refers to the color. It posed a problem due to the ambiguity of the Greek equivalent ‘ΠΟΡΤΟΚΑΛΙΑ’. ‘Orange’ in English is a homonym that denotes both a citrus fruit and a color, whereas in Greek, even though the spelling is the same, the accent is on different syllables, making the meaning of the word clear (πορτοκάλια, πορτοκαλιά), unless it is in uppercase! Capitals do not allow for accent, so the uppercase ‘ΠΟΡΤΟΚΑΛΙΑ’ allows for two different meanings. Even though the context indicates that ‘ORANGES’ refers to the color, the equivalent ‘πορτοκαλιά,’ that is, the plural for the color ‘πορτοκαλί,’ is a highly unfrequented word, unlike its singular form, which made me suspect that most readers would instinctively pronounce it ‘πορτοκάλια’ (the fruit) at first sight. To verify this, I had the poem read aloud by a number of people, family members, friends, and fellow students. As expected, most of them pronounced it ‘πορτοκάλια,’ hesitated and then corrected it, or paused before pronouncing it. To avoid this stumbling in reading I took the liberty to change the number and render ‘ORANGES’ as singular in Greek (ΠΟΡΤΟΚΑΛΙ).

What puzzled me the most however, were the sardines in the painting. First, we learn that Mike Goldberg “[has] SARDINES in it” (8). Then we learn these are gone and “[a]ll that’s left/is just letters” (15-16). Are we to assume that he has painted actual sardines, or that he has painted the word ‘sardines’? So, the first thing I did after reading the poem was to search online for the painting. Yes, there are both fish and the word in it, but smudged in a way that one might not see either, in much the same way that O’Hara creates ambiguity with his reference to the painting, drawing a parallel between abstract expressionism and the New York School of poetry. It is an ambiguity that needs to be maintained in the translation.  

These were some of the points that posed a challenge for me and led me to draw some conclusions about translation. I think the most efficient approach to poetry translation is one close to André Lefevere’s strategy of ‘interpretation,’ and specifically ‘versions,’ whereby what is important to maintain is the substance of the source text (76). Translation does build bridges between cultures, resulting to a “cultural cross-pollination” (Young 90). But it also results to a deeper perspective and understanding of one’s own language.



“An Introduction to The New York School of Poets.” Poetry Foundation, Accessed 10 May 2019.
Egan, Desmond. “Poetry and Translation.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, vol. 76, no. 302, 1987, pp. 227-234. JSTOR. Accessed 7 June 2019.
Levine, Robert S., et al. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.
Lefevere, André. Translating Poetry: Seven Strategies and a Blueprint. Assen and Amsterdam: Van Gorcum, 1975.
Misiou, Vasiliki. “TIS 311 Literary Translation.” Winter Semester 2019. Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Lectures (notes).
Munday, JeremyIntroducing translation studies. 3rd ed., Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2012.
O’Hara, Frank. “Why I Am Not A Painter. Poetry Foundation, Accessed 18 Feb. 2019.
Young, David. “Recent Poetry in Translation.” The Antioch Review, vol. 45, no. 1, 1987, pp. 90-97. JSTOR. DOI: 10.2307/4611703. Accessed 7 June 2019.

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