Translation as an Art of Failure


“John Ciardi (1961: 17), in a piece for the Saturday Review, famously (if often misattributed) called translation “the art of failure.” Ciardi was the poetry editor for the Saturday Review and had been engaged for fifteen years in an effort to translate Dante’s Inferno. He argued, in the end, that the goal of the translator—and he is rightly uncomfortable with this term because it assumes an isomorphism, not just of denotation, but of register (my term), of history (his term), and of “muscularity” (his term), between languages—is to create “the best possible failure” (Ciardi 1961: 17).” (Webster, n.d., 1)


Ciardi is a poet and a great poetry theorist. The book “Ciardi Himself” (1986) contains fifteen essays on poetry, writing, and teaching. I read them all. The titles alone suffice for the assessment of the level of his praxis: “For the Love of Language,” “Serious Joy,” “The Act of Language.” I was delighted to see the reference on Ciardi in purely academic, non-literary, anthropological settings, in Professor Webster’s wonderful article.

The notion of the art of failure promises to be productive beyond the immediate context. We do encounter small and dramatic failures all the time. To treat “failure” as a modus operandi takes, however, I am sure, a certain strength.




Ciardi, John. 1989. Ciardi Himself: Fifteen Essays in the Reading, Writing, and Teaching of Poetry. The University of Arkansas Press. Fayetteville – London

Webster, Anthony. n.d. The Art of Failure in Translating a Navajo poem: Creative Transpositions, Thick Translations and the Phonosonic Nexus. MS, UT Austin

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