The Paris Review

Ms. Difficult: Translating Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson, ca. 1848. Photo: public domain, courtesy of Yale University Manuscripts and Archives Digital Images Database, via Wikimedia Commons.

When she was translating Rilke into Russian, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva wrote in a letter to Boris Pasternak:

And today I want Rilke to speak—through me. In the vernacular, this is known as translation. (How much better the Germans put it—nachdichten!—following the poet’s path, paving anew the entire road which he paved. For let nach be—(to follow after), but—dichten!, is that which is always anew. Nachdichten—to pave anew over instantaneously vanishing traces. But translation has another meaning. To translate not just into (the Russian language, for example), but across (a river). I translate Rilke into the Russian tongue, as he will someday translate me to the other world.

To speak through another always sets us down in a place of no return, a place of exile, translation’s natural habitat. However, precisely because it is a place of exile, translation allows for the confluence of several voices. And suddenly, sometimes, the almost-miracle:

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