Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dr Johnson, making no bones about it

From today's Wordsmith mailing:
Poetry, indeed, cannot be translated; and, therefore, it is the poets that preserve the languages; for we would not be at the trouble to learn a language if we could have all that is written in it just as well in a translation. But as the beauties of poetry cannot be preserved in any language except that in which it was originally written, we learn the language.
-Samuel Johnson, lexicographer (1709-1784)

1 comment:

E Mena said...

I want so much to both agree and disagree with this - because if poetry is unique in the arts then what, if not its inability to be moved through languages, describes its special properties? The mystery of poetry, the inexplicable properties, seem to rely on this fixity. Something that can neither be explained or replicated.

But if poetry truly cannot be translated, to what end should one read outside the languages they know, expand their world through literature? Doesn't this encourage a kind of cultural mypoia and, eventually, arrogance?

And what about the universal properties of poetry - those that make great works timeless and placeless?