Translating Emily Dickinson

Last week, the University of Massachusetts Translation Center and the Emily Dickinson Museum hosted an online event featuring two translators who have taken on the difficult but rewarding task of translating Emily Dickinson into their native languages: Adalberto Müller and Marcel Riera i Bou.  Müller, an associate professor of literary theory at the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, has recently finished translating Dickinson’s collected poems into Portuguese (see links, below).  Riera, a poet and editor, has translated a comprehensive anthology of Dickinson’s work into Catalan.  It was a fascinating discussion. Here are some highlights from each speaker’s remarks about translating this unique American voice.       

Adalberto Müller  

It took 7 years to translate Dickinson’s complete work into Portuguese.  Müller got into the habit of translating one to two poems a day.  Now that he’s done, he said he “doesn’t know what to do every morning.”  He was completely drawn into her poetry, joined the Emily Dickinson International Society, and visited Dickinson’s home museum in Amherst, Massachusetts. He found it an extraordinary experience to be in the presence of her everyday objects:  “In the museum, we can feel the proximity of her life in her garden, her clothes, her room… This is so important for a translator.” For Müller, it is crucial for a translator to know not only the text, but the context.  

“Poetry is what happens between sound and meaning.”  Müller emphasized that it was very important to capture the sound as well as the meaning of the original; this is a subtle balancing act.  To not honor Dickinson’s play with sound and rhyme would be “to kill the poem.” 

Dive deep into the work.  To translate a classic, one must become thoroughly familiar with it, including the many translations that have come before.  This familiarity can only enrich a new translation.  As part of his process, Müller read all the great previous translations of Dickinson, not only in the target Portuguese, but in German, Russian, and Spanish.  The translator must ask the question, “how can I do the translation now, considering the translations that came before?”

Dickinson is an important poet for this moment.  Müller reminds us that she “lived in a moment of great divide in America,” and that part of her project was to “break down walls and barriers.”  Despite her circumstances, Dickinson had a cosmopolitan worldview, somewhat unusual for her place and time.  She was aware of issues taking place abroad, and referenced other countries and locales in her work.  Importantly, Dickinson was a founder of modern poetry, and deserves this recognition.  Müller considers this a social justice issue: “It is more important to translate female poets right now.”

Marcel Riera i Bou       

Gaining a deeper understanding.  Riera first encountered Dickinson’s poetry in English as a reader whose interest was piqued.  Wanting to gain a deeper understanding of the poems he was reading, he made copious annotations in the margins, which eventually led to the translation of entire poems.  He called translating Dickinson into Catalan “the most difficult thing I have ever done.”  

Interest grows.  After he had prepared a number of translations of Dickinson’s work, Riera approached an editor to discuss publication.  The editor was dismissive, believing there would be no market for such a volume, miscategorizing Dickinson as “old-fashioned and elitist.”  Eventually, however, Riera convinced the editor to publish a soft-cover collection of about fifty translated poems.  This generated enough interest that the editor agreed to put out another volume, this time of a hundred poems (“but still soft-cover”).  After that, a volume of two hundred poems was authorized —  “and in hard-cover,” Riera chuckled.           

Just look at the difference.  Riera spoke about some specific challenges a Dickinson translator faces. “I can never manage to make things as brief, in a Latinate language, as Dickinson does in English.”  Riera put a Dickinson poem up on the screen (“My life closed twice before its close”), a perfect example of how Dickinson says so much in so few words.  He read his translation aloud, which was displayed beside the original.  The visual difference alone was striking, the lines in Catalan often twice as long.         

About those dashes—.  Other challenges for the translator are Dickinson’s sometimes idiosyncratic syntax, punctuation, and grammar, which include extreme compression and ellipsis.  Indeed, the act of translating lays bare the very bones of a poem’s being.  Riera credits this process with sharpening his own writing skills.  

Dickinson in Translation: Amherst Arts Night Remote, 11/5/20

Presented by the Translation Center of UMass Amherst and The Emily Dickinson Museum

Featured speakers: Adalberto Müller and Marcel Riera i Bou


Event details 

Müller’s volume of translations

Riera’s volume of translations

“My life closed twice before its close” by Emily Dickinson

The Emily Dickinson Museum

The Emily Dickinson International Society

The University of Massachusetts Translation Center