W.S. MERWIN, A POET TRANSLATES THE TRUTH IN POETRY

Published on Feb 26, 2020

by Marcos Dinnerstein

Summary: W.S. Merwin, a well-known poet, in his 91 years produced an extensive range of poems, prose, plays, and translations.

“Modern poetry, for me, began not in English at all but in Spanish, in the poems of Lorca.”

-- W. S. Merwin

The Beginning

Born in New York City, William Stanley Merwin grew up across the Hudson River in Union City, New Jersey. In 1952, after graduating from Princeton University W.S. Merwin moved to Spain with his first wife, Dorothy Jeanne Ferry. While on the island of Majorca he met and collaborated on a play with Dido Milroy.  After splitting with Jeanne Ferry, he and Dido Milroy married and moved to London. He subsequently found work in Boston as the poet-in-residence in Cambridge, Massachusetts and as an editor for The Guardian. In 1968 he moved to New York City and, in the 1970s when he moved to Hawaii, ended up divorcing Dido Milroy. In 1983 he married his third wife, Paula Dunaway with whom he lived until his death on March 15, 2019.

But these are only the external events of Merwin's life and don’t show anything about the person and what he dedicated his life’s work to. 

His study and love of poetry began in earnest during his studies in Princeton. In his time in Europe he wrote plays and translated works of poetry and a Spanish novella. His collection of myth centered poetry, A Mask for Janus, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize. 

On his return to the United States, he continued to write poetry and was among a group of poets who wrote about the Vietnam War. This was part of an evolution in his writing where he turned from addressing themes based on myths and legends to writing from a more personal perspective.

A Sampling of the Translations by W.S. Merwin

Spanish

The Poem of El Cid (Unknown)

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (Pablo Neruda)

The Life of Lazarillo de Tormes: His Fortunes and Adversities (Anonymous)

French 

Products of the Perfected Civilization, Selected Writings of Chamfort

The Song of Roland (attributed to Turoldus)

Robert the Devil (Anonymous)

Japanese

Sun at Midnight, poems by Musō Soseki

Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson


Italian

Purgatorio from The Divine Comedy of Dante

W.S. Merwin in numbers

8 Notable Awards: W.S. Merwin was celebrated with the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the PEN Translation Prize, and being named U.S. Poet Laureate among others.

30 The number of poetry collections he published over the course of 65 years.

21 The number of translated works he published. 

10 The number of languages he translated into English. He translated both literature and poetry from Spanish, French, Latin, Italian, Sanskrit, Yiddish, Middle English, Japanese and Quechua.

On March 15, 2019, W.S. Merwin passed away peacefully in his sleep in the aptly named town of Haiku, on the Island of Maui in Hawaii. His final home was on an 18-acre piece of land that he had transformed, or better yet, translated from a former pineapple plantation into the Merwin Conservancy. This conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of his hand-built, off-the-grid home and the rare palm trees that Merwin and his wife grew there. These palm trees are the most bio-diverse grouping of palm trees in the world.

You might call the changes to his land a translation from one true state to another. Both are nature but one involved the intervention of an aesthetic that favors biodiversity.

For someone who was arguable one of the most lauded translators of his generation, the following quote shows Merwin's humility and how much he respected the work of other poets.

“...there were degrees in the impossibility of translating poetry…”

W.S. Merwin


More on W.S. Merwin
The Mystery of Translation

W.S. Merwin: Online Resources

More in MotaWord's Famous Translators Series
The Self-translated Author: Samuel Beckett 
Global Shakespeare: Translating Iambic Pentameter 

W. S. Merwin, accomplished poet, and his exclusive full interview with 92nd Street Y



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