Reading Across the Gutter

Some thoughts on publishing poetry in translation

Several weeks ago, I was at a roundtable discussion on editing poetry translations for literary magazines1 at which the question of presenting translations along with their originals resulted in such a range of responses I’ve been unable to let the question go. Unsurprisingly, it was harder for the editors of print journals to accommodate two texts, even if they wanted to: both space and funds are at stake. On the other hand, Don Share, editor of Poetry Magazine, argued that publishing just the translation honors the translator’s work and grants the translation its independence. Erica Mena of Anomalous Press had a different—and to me, fascinating—approach to managing a translation’s independence: not wanting to encourage “reading across the gutter,” the online journal she edits (which you should absolutely visit) publishes the source text in a pop-up window, not en face. “Reading across the gutter,” as I understand it, refers to the sort of reading in which a person compares original and translation word-for-word and line-by-line, checking for “mistakes”—in other words, the sort of reading an en face presentation could unintentionally promote.

I often take it for granted that publishing bilingually is best for translation—or for poetry translation anyway (it can get much more complicated for prose). But things taken for granted are worth re-examining. “Gutter” can be an ugly word and an ugly image. In the world of designing books, it refers to the middle part of a book where the pages meet, a useful space between blocks of text; but outside this world, gutters can be irksome, getting clogged with debris, obstructing the easy flow of water. If not cleaned for a while, the debris in a gutter might rot and stink up the place.

I want to think about this gutter, visually and metaphorically, a bit more, to see what it does to translation. Because the sort of reading Mena wants to discourage is the sort of reading I want to discourage as well. Translators make choices, not mistakes. Sure, some choices can be seen as mistakes (linguistic, cultural, prosodic, etc.), and some translations can be full of choices that contribute to an overall sense of failure in the project, but it’s not worth assuming that a translator sits around ignorantly (or purposefully) dishonoring the text with which she has chosen to work. As Rosmarie Waldrop says, “the unit of translation is the whole work rather than the single sentence or line—let alone the single word, as Benjamin suggests.”2 And speaking of the whole work, often a translator is attempting a large-scale project (re-contextualization, hybridization, etc.) that a line-by-line analysis would likely miss. To this end, I can see how an en face presentation might encourage a certain type of reading, though not all readers would be inclined to it.

An en face edition also produces a rather eerie visual mirroring across the gutter: something that suggests we are looking at an object and its mirror image. This is different from the previously mentioned effect in that, here, one might assume the two texts are “equal.” I’m not suggesting that a translation is less valuable than its source, rather that it is uncomplicated to assume a translation is doing exactly the same work as the original simply because they look almost alike (similar form, similar line lengths, similar-looking scripts in some cases, and so on). Asymptote’s July 2012 cover by Hong-An Tran has long been a favorite of mine because the reflection of the window and plant in the mirror aren’t perfect—in fact, I wouldn’t venture to guess which the source is and which the translation. It’s worth mentioning at this point that Asymptote presents source and translation on two separate webpages that you can switch between, but you cannot see the two texts simultaneously unless you print the work out or open two browsers. The Buenos Aires Review, the other online journal represented at the roundtable, also does not present en face: you get to change the entire website from English to Spanish and vice versa.

This discussion began with literary journals, but I really do want to talk about books. So I’ve decided to look at my poetry translation shelves and make some, possibly contradictory, observations:

1. I own very few bilingual editions of poetry. My first reaction was one of surprise—I thought I loved bilingual editions! My second reaction: resignation in the face of complicated, economic issues related to publishing poetry in translation.

2. I cannot do without my bilingual edition of Rimbaud’s Illuminations (tr. John Ashbery; W.W. Norton, 2011). It allows me to read the book three ways: only the French poems; only the English poems; French and English poems simultaneously, studying, if I choose to, Asbhery’s choices and learning from them. It’s also, well, economical: having a minimum of two books for the price of one—perhaps only useful for languages one is capable of or learning to read.

3. I am less interested in the bilingual nature of my copy of Pessoa’s The Keeper of Sheep (tr. Edwin Honig & Susan M. Brown; Sheep Meadow Press, 1997) because I can’t read Portuguese, though I sometimes pretend it is my long-lost mother tongue. I have more fun comparing various available English translations to each other. Note: Richard Zenith is pretty fabulous.

4. I would hate for my beautiful, slim volume of Inger Christensen’s alphabet (tr. Susanna Neid; New Directions, 2001) to be bilingual. I am recalibrating for a second to see if “hate” is too strong a word—no, it’s not. Given that alphabet can be read as a long poem broken into sections (structured, as you may know, on the Fibonacci sequence) and that it works so stunningly with anaphora, having the Danish originals on one side would upset both continuity and the poem’s incantatory effects. In fact, the disruption of continuity might an issue for all books that comprise (or that can be read as) a single work, or books containing several long poems.

5. I know absolutely no Greek, but feel it is vital that Anne Carson’s Sappho translations (If Not Winter, Vintage, 2002) include the originals because the originals are themselves translations, having either been transcribed from disintegrating bits of papyri or recomposed from quotations of her work by other ancient writers. Noticing where the brackets (which indicate missing text) go in the Greek versus where they go in the English makes for a fascinating study. A stunning visual poetics.

6. I wonder if I unconsciously prefer bilingual editions when the original text is in a language whose script is not Roman, like Chinese or Yiddish. Amal al-Jubouri’s Hagar Before the Occupation, Hagar After the Occupation (tr. Rebecca Gayle Howell with Husam Qaisi; Alice James, 2011), for example, will sometimes let you press the Arabic (going left-to-right) almost exactly into the English (going right-to-left) as you bring two pages together; sometimes this type of mirroring is not possible—which itself is worth considering.

7. Observation #3 notwithstanding, being able to look at the source text (especially in a somewhat familiar script) and the translation simultaneously does allow one to notice, for example, the texts’ relationships to negative space, rhymes and refrains, and how the translator chooses to reproduce, modify, or abandon them altogether. Also: punctuation. It boggles my mind that not all translators translate punctuation.

8. Although technically not a book, an issue of Circumference (once a print-only venture, today both online and print) is a stunning object to behold. Its left-hand pages are filled with poems in languages from across the world and its right-hand pages offer their translations. It’s a beautifully designed journal, a labor of love, and an important shaper of contemporary discourse on poetry in translation.

I could go on with these observations, but I’ll stop here with some final notes and questions. First, it’s clear that my expectations are different for different projects, but also that the material context of a book (or journal) significantly affects how I read it. I’ve claimed that I love my bilingual edition of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, but maybe I’d love it just as much as a pocket-sized paperback containing only Ashbery’s translations. It would be a different sort of reading, for sure, but no less valuable, economics aside, than a bilingual edition.

Second, I want to suggest that the gutter can be both a good and a bad thing, depending on context and the reader. To go back to the ugly image of the stinking gutter, with rotten objects in it, I want to ask: what if the rot turned into something beautiful and productive, like rich soil? I’m no doubt influenced by the PBS show The Mind of a Chef (currently available on Netflix), whose first season focuses on chef provocateur David Chang’s culinary influences. Among Chang’s many obsessions are processes that involve aging, smoking, and fermenting food items into something new and delicious. So maybe the things that fall into a book’s gutter—marginalia composed of annotations, word definitions, corrections, and the like, but also eraser bits and sandwich crumbs and unarticulated thoughts—can also age/ferment into a third, beautiful, hybrid text. Forrest Gander, for instance, writes about reading [aloud] across the gutter of the en face edition of his translations of Coral Brancho’s poems: “I found my eyes sliding across the gutter of the en face edition . . . and plucking Spanish lines from the left page as I read the translations in English on the right. I developed a strategy for including Spanish lines as part of a performance that allows an audience to hear the original language in conversation with English. Surprisingly, rather than deforming the music of the poem, the technique seems to me to intensify and clarify the music.”3 But again, this depends on context and reader. At the same time, I wonder if there are other ways to present poetry translations in a book without going the en face route or by finding a way to avoid the eerie mirroring. For example, would it be useful to publish scans of the original poems (from a first edition or a literary journal in which they first appeared) on the left-side pages instead of typeset text?

And finally, since my thoughts are tentative and still evolving, I’m curious to know how others respond to bilingual presentations of translation, en face or otherwise, and whether one’s role (translator, editor, scholar, language learner, etc.) in relation to the text makes one type of presentation more valuable over the other. I’m also curious about bilingual editions of prose works—do they exist? Should they?


1. The discussion took place at this year’s ALTA conference in Bloomington, Indiana (October 16-19). The panelists were Don Bogen (The Cincinnati Review), Nandi Comer (Indiana Review), Jennifer Croft (The Buenos Aires Review), Erica Mena (Anomalous Press), Orlando Ricardo Menes (Notre Dame Review), Don Share (Poetry Magazine), Sidney Wade (Subtropics), and myself (Asymptote). Russell Scott Valentino (Autumn Hill Books) moderated; it was his question “Do you publish the originals along with the translations?” that inspired what I felt was a complex and illuminating discussion on various editorial perspectives of publishing bilingually.

2. “The Joy of the Demiurge.” Dissonance (if you are interested). The University of Alabama Press, 2005. 139.

3. “The Great Leap: César and the Caesura.” In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means. Ed. Esther Allen & Susan Bernofsky. Columbia University Press, 2013. 114.

  • Stephanie

    Thanks Aditi, I really enjoyed this post.

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  • brian1248

    I like bilingual translations. I used “The Penguin Book of French Poetry: 1820-1950; With Prose Translations” (896 pages) to brush up on my long-neglected French. This was side-by-side, which I found quite helpful. And though the title says “Prose translations”, that merely means that sense was not sacrificed to try to fit the form of alexandrines or octosyllables or impair lines or whatever. The translations were still very poetic in their own right.

    After working my way through most of this, I began to tackle “Les Miserables” in the original French and it came quite easily due to the mental exercise of reading the poetry side-by-side and having to make connections. Certain words in French are now indelibly associated with certain poems where I first encountered them, and this serves as a mnemonic device.

    I also have “Twentieth-Century German Poetry: An Anthology” ed. by Michael Hoffman, which, like the French work, is side-by-side. Here there were frequent attempts to fit the form as well as translate. And some of the translators in this work obviously re-imagined some of the poems, a fact that I could detect even with my weaker grasp of German.

    Likewise, I have some Russian poetry (Yevgeny Yevtushenko) in side-by-side translation, and this comes with the double task of a different alphabet along with a different language. But I found it interesting to try to work out some of the words in Russian and detect patterns. I was able to begin recognizing certain common words and get a feel for the Cyrillic letters.

    When reading books with side-by-side translations,I never felt like I was looking for “mistakes”, though it was often interesting to see the choices that the translators made.

    In fact, I have another book of Russian poetry “Twentieth-Century Russian Poetry” ed. by Glad and Weissbort, that has the English translation only, and it has many fine poems that I would assume, because of their quality, to be very fine translations, but I miss the…artistry…the…feel… of seeing the original work even if I do not comprehend it in the original language and orthography.

    It is an interesting question. And it comes up not only in poetry, but in things like cinema: Does one prefer subtitles or dubs? Does it make a difference if one prefers subtitles or dubs if it is a live-action work or an animated work?

    For example, with live-action I prefer subtitles, since it is difficult to match the mouth to the sound of a dub, and the dubbing looks and sounds awkward, but many animated works do well with dubbing (e.g. Cowboy Bebop, and some of Disney’s dubs of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films), though there is still a strong group of folks who prefer subtitles there as well.


    I was brought here from PFFA