Faculty Research at Morehead State University


Elizabeth Bishop's "Brazil, January 1, 1502" and Max Jacob's "Etablissement d'une communauté au Brésil": A Study of Transformative Interpretation and Influence

Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2003


Elizabeth Bishop's misgivings about free translation are well known to scholars of her work. Fearful of misappropriating creations not her own, her preference was to translate cautiously and literally.1 In her unpublished Remarks on Translation - (Of poetry, mostly), she enumerates several "complaints about translations/' including "inaccuracy - the wrong word" and "using three words - or more - when one would do" (2). She offers the following advice: "When a word is repeated - repeat it! (Just be- cause English has more words than any other language except Russian - doesn't mean we have to use them all. . . .) When a line is repeated - repeat it - and also - stick to the structure." Translations were to be handled, as she wrote in a letter to Anne Stevenson, "with a minimum of bloodletting or seepage" (qtd. in Lombardi, 138). Even Robert Lowell's Imitations (1961), a body of work that, as most critics agree, is best understood as creative personalized reinterpretation of French poems rather than free translation, triggered discomfort in Bishop. Responding to Imitations in several letters that emphasized to Lowell the importance of fidelity to rhyme, meter, and poetic intent, she concluded with the com- ment: "I just can't decide how 'free' one has the right to be with the poet's intentions."