Dr. Johnson asks, "Q: What are some of your ideas about reading poetry in translation? When I read Dante or Rumi, it's always a different English translation, and they always give a slightly different vibe from the previous translation. How much do you think is missed by reading a writer in translation? Thanks, I'll hang up and listen to the response on the air...I should add I'm a first time listener, long-time caller."
This seems like asking a virgin to describe sex. I can barely read German, and I have less skill with Latin. I've "read" some Goethe and Rilke, etc., in German and then read the English translations. I have some sense of the music of German poetry, but I can only understand a word here or there in the German. I've read even less Latin poetry.
1) I initially have a Poundian response to this. One can see poetry using the tools of melopoeia (sound), phanopoeia (images), and/or logopoeia (the play of words), etc. One can translate melopoeia only in spurts (according to Pound), but one can translate a great deal of imagery (phanopoeia). Logopoeia seems even more difficult to translate. I've read and loved a lot of Pound's translation and those he recommends (Arthur Golding's Ovid, etc.).
2. Rumi brings up the special problems of esoteric meanings, sufic, etc. I don't claim to understand those esoteric meanings or how to translate them. I think of the great bumper sticker, "God said it; I believe it; That settles it." I find the Bible difficult to understand in English, and I have no understanding of the original languages, in their esoteric or exoteric meanings.
3. I've become more agnostic about translations. Read whatever works for you. Two and a half years ago some tenth graders said they wanted to read Dante, so we put together a reading group. I immediately thought in Poundian terms and thought of using either the Dent or Binyon translations. My old copy of The Portable Dante had the Binyon translation, so I told them to buy The Portable Dante. I didn't realize the more recent editions of The Portable Dante used the Mark Musa translation, who translated the poem into blank verse, which I suspect would have horrified Uncle Ezra. Well, some kids had already bought the book when I discovered this, and it looked like both of the translations Pound had recommended had gone out of print, so I decided to go ahead with the Musa translation, and I ended up really enjoying it. In fact, when a passage of Musa's translation of the Purgatorio really moved me, I thought I'd look up Binyon's translation to find an even better version of it, and I found the Binyon version a little old fashioned and less effective.