Poets, Translators, and Princeton Professors Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky Come to Westminster


Ukrainian author Ilya Kaminsky hosted a poetry reading for the Westminster Community

On April 23, Westminster welcomed the renowned poets, translators, and Princeton professors Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky to campus. The two spoke to a group of Writing Fellows, who are part of a creative writing and workshopping class, and talked with them about their experiences as writers and creators. In addition to meeting with the Writing Fellows, their visit also included a reception and poetry reading on Monday, April 17.

Especially in this day and age, with the globalization of literature and art happening at such a fast pace, language is simultaneously a greater barrier than ever and invisible. Art and writing have always been a reflection and an interpretation of society, and as society changes, not only does the art change, but also the ways in which the art is expressed and perceived have changed.

The development of technology heavily contributes to the removal of language boundaries in poetry, allowing for poems to quickly be translated into a variety of different languages. However, a question commonly asked is: when poetry is translated, does the original meaning get lost? To ensure that poetry is translated in the most authentic way possible, it is suggested that the authors specifically are the ones to translate the poems to ensure that the poetic meaning is not lost in the translation and its potency is not diluted. 

The Writing Fellows had a unit on translation, where they themselves translated pieces. They first learned the history of translation, including the translations and interpretation of the Bible, and then worked on translating Japanese Haikus and poems of Vladamir Mayakovsky. 

Later, they received feedback from Kaminsky on these translations. During the visit, they had the opportunity to ask Kaminsky questions, listen to him speak on colloquial language, and listen to his reading. 

Additionally, throughout the unit, Katie Farris was present, and she assisted the students with the translations. 

“Katie helped a lot with the actual translation, whereas Ilya was more of an ideas person. She had a less scattered way of talking about sound and about literal translation vs. inspiration,” said Writing Fellow Riley Isakson.

One thing Writing Fellow Sarah Kim noticed was that each person’s translation was different, which showed how translation can lead to error in interpretation. This can be seen as a beautiful thing, in the way that the translators themselves create something new from the poem.

Ilya Kaminsky was raised in Odessa, Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union. At age four, he lost most of his hearing after a misdiagnosis, and has been hard of hearing since. He earned his BA from Georgetown University and received his JD from the University of California, Hastings College of Law. 

In an essay called “Various Tongues: An Exchange,” he discussed the question of “Is true translation impossible?” This essay tackles the question of whether or not when a poem is translated, it still remains the same poem – essentially, if a translated poem can still be considered the original work.

He also speaks on his experiences with language in poetry and translation, while being hard of hearing.

“Specifically, in the field of linguistics, deaf culture has taught us that language is not limited to speech alone … language is one of the primary aspects of our human condition.”

He interprets his experiences as proof that poetry is not limited by language, and is a strong advocate for the widespread translation of poetry. 

Language is a fragile thing – each word has a precise function and purpose in a poem that transcends its definition. Each word is chosen with care and placed consciously for the sound it contributes, and when translating, translators ensure that that special aspect is not lost when put into a different language with a different set of words. This is why, when looking at the interpretation and understanding of poetry in this age, the role of translators like Kaminsky and Farris are crucial.

Edited by Alexandra Kent