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Poetry Found in Translation by Robert Frost

April 3, 2012

Robert Frost cunningly remarks that poetry is what is lost in the translation. Were the latter to be true then Frost, as well as Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and John Milton, would have received all but the poetry in English versions of Job, the Psalms, the Song of Songs, and Isaiah.
— Willis Barnstone, The Poetics of Translation: History, Theory, Practice

In the USA, it’s National Poetry Month, and that’s reason enough to re-consider what poet Robert Frost alleged about poetry.  Of course, we all know that the Bible has poetry, translated, and that Frost found that to be just fine we presume, as Willis Barnstone points out.

The debt that Robert Frost owes to translated poetry could be acknowledged even more.  I’d like to suggest that Frost’s poetry found something in English translations of Dante’s Divina Commedia.

First, it should be clear that Frost borrows his whole notion of poetry being lost in translation from Dante, from the Convivio, where he discusses the impossibility of translating poetry.  Second, then, we want to see how ironic this is not only for Frost, who we’ll get to in a bit, but also for Dante.  Dante seems to have practiced something very different from what he preached.  Simone Marchesi notes this in Dante and Augustine: Linguistics, Poetics, Hermeneutics, where she says:  “The poetics of the Commedia return to and revise Dante’s earlier dismissal of biblical stylistics, moving the poetics of the [Italian] poem toward acknowledging the aesthetic quality of the [Hebrew] psalms: the potential sweetness of biblical poetry, which [Dante in his] Convivio deemed as lost in translation, is fully active in the Commedia” (page 13).   And can’t we all agree that Dante owes his poetic debt to Virgil and to the poetry of Virgil’s Latin Aeneid?

It may be a little easier for us English readers to see Frost’s English poetic debt to Dante.  This is not to say he would deny such a debt.  For instance, he told the Paris Review, not in French but in his untranslated, unpoetic English: “I don’t like foreign languages that I haven’t had. I don’t read translations of things. I like to say dreadful, unpleasant things about Dante.”

And yet he seems to borrow from Dante:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood“?

Might that not come from this:

Nel mezzo del ammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
chè la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era é cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

And might Frost also be finding some of his lines from Dante in translation of poetry?  For example, George Monteiro gives us reason to believe that, in his poem “The Road Not Taken,” the poet “Frost was, whether he knew it or not, following Charles Eliot Norton,” who translated Dante’s poem Inferno.  I think some of Frost’s lines or Norton’s English lines of 1903 might also have come from the blank verse English translation of the Inferno completed 1807 by Nathaniel Howard.

Moreover, Tina Blue suggests Frost borrows from Dante for another poem: “In Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ there is probably a very subtle allusion to Dante’s ‘Inferno’,” in his Italian, an allusion “embodied both in the poem’s rhyme scheme and in its central image, as well as in the thematic implications of that image.”  Furthermore, there seems as much a likelihood that Frost is following another English translator of Dante’s poetry with this same poem:

Doesn’t it seem that Frost had been reading the 1939 English translation of Dante by John D. Sinclair?  Listen to how Sinclair renders the Italian:

In the middle of the journey of our life
I came to myself within a dark wood
where the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard a thing it is to tell of
that wood, savage and harsh and dense,
the thought of which renews my fear!

Now could it be translator John D. Sinclair’s woods, from Dante’s fearful woods, that Frost watches, that he finds?

Here’s Dante again:

Io non so ben ridir com’ i’ v’intrai,
tant’ era pien di sonno a quel punto
che la verace via abbanonai

And here’s Sinclair again:

I cannot rightly tell how I entered there,
I was so full of sleep at that moment
when I left the true way.

So we watch:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening
of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Now it’s true that Robert Frost was not trying to translate poetry and was following Dante in asserting that poetry is what gets lost in translation.  But both poets found something in others’ poetry, and they also read others’ poetry in translation, found things in it, which inspired their own poetry.

Now, here’s some poetic justice.  We can find Robert Frost’s poem above translated into other languages.  For example, here is Albert Waldinger’s “Stopping by the Woods: Classic American Poems in Yiddish,” in which he provides in the appendix of the article (scroll down here) “A vald-bazukh in a shney-nakht,” the Yiddish transliteration.  Likewise, in Jorge Luis Borges’s Arte Poética: Seis Conferencias, we find that the Frost poem is “Al pasar por el bosque una tarde de nieve.”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dave Paul permalink
    June 24, 2012 3:59 pm

    What do you think of frosts two paths poem and the outline of Jeremiah 6:16: stand look choose the ancient path find rest?

  2. June 25, 2012 6:43 pm

    Dave Paul,

    Thanks for the question. I’m thinking about it now that you asked it. Let me look at the verse (not only this outline) and see what I can make of it.

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