ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2011 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 57, No.4 - Winter 2011
Editor of this issue: Patrick Chura

Book Review

Emily Dickinson. The Banks of Noon (Pusiaudienio Krantai). Selected Poems. Translated by Sonata Paliulytė. Lietuvos Rašytojų Sąjungos leidykla, 2009.

A colleague and I have an ongoing friendly disagreement about how to read Emily Dickinson’s Poem 303. The point of contention is in the first four lines:

The Soul selects her own Society—
Then—shuts the Door—
To her divine Majority—
Present no more—

I think the stanza means that the Soul chooses the self as its only companion, shuts out all others, and is therefore “present no more.” The four lines comprise one sentence about self-imposed isolation. My colleague says that there are two statements here and a major shift between them. The first pair of lines tells about the act of isolation; then the poet directly addresses someone, warning this outsider to no longer “present” themselves before the Soul.

Dickinson scholar Helen Vendler reads the stanza as my colleague does, paraphrasing lines 3-4 as “do not present any more candidates before the Soul.”* Vendler is a brilliant reader, but there’s still room for debate: Lithuanian translator Sonata Paliulytė reads the poem my way. Her version of the stanza ends with the idea that the soul nuo šiol nesimatys, meaning that the soul is not—and no longer will be—visible, accessible, “present.” Nothing here about presenting candidates.

And this is why poetry in translation is fascinating and tricky. When I discuss “The Soul selects her own Society” with students, I can accept the readings of both Vendler and Paliulytė—my colleague’s take and my own—and use the ambiguity to start a conversation about reader response. But translators often don’t have the luxury of preserving or exploiting dual meanings; they have to pick one. While this is sometimes viewed as a serious problem—there are those who define poetry as “that which cannot be translated or expressed in any language other than its own”—it hasn’t stopped translators from plying their vital craft. In The Banks of Noon, Paliulytė makes binding choices about how to read Dickinson’s poetry. In doing so, she stakes out interesting interpretive ground and transplants a giant of world poetry from one cultural context to another. Her book is a substantial gesture of appreciation for Dickinson’s art and a testament to the skill of both poet and translator.

Paliulytė presents sixty poems, beautifully rendered side-by-side, first in English and then in Lithuanian. These contents go beyond the standard set of Dickinson works found in the Norton Anthology and most academic texts. The translator explains that she “made a qualitative selection as much as possible according to the criterion of variety.” Her assortment includes a handful of Dickinson’s shorter lyrics, along with several of the more famous poems that offer stiff interpretive challenges.

The book’s introduction, also given in both languages, outlines Dickinson’s critical reception and describes the translator’s methodology. “Sometimes I couldn’t avoid improvisation,” Paliulytė explains. She shows her ingenuity in Poem 632, “The Brain—is wider than the Sky.” This verse proposes that the Brain and God are equal in weight, that the difference between them is language, and that the purpose of a poet is to voice the normally unintelligible “sound” given to nature by the divine—thereby becoming, in a way, superior to God. Paliulytė does very well here to discern and preserve an important aspect of Dickinson’s thinking. The key final lines, “And they will differ—if they do— / As Syllable from Sound—” become “O jei skirsis kiek—tai tiek, / Kiek žodis nuo garsų.” Rather than use the Lithuanian for syllable—skiemuo—which is literally, but not interpretively correct, Paliulytė chooses “žodis” (word)—making the last line read “as word from sound.” This is a translator’s change, but not a mistranslation. It conveys Dickinson’s iconoclastic veneration of lexicon over and above an inscrutable divinity.

As an example of her priorities, Paliulytė recounts in her introduction her thought process regarding the translation of Poem 712, which personifies Death using a masculine pronoun. “Death”—mirtis—is feminine in Lithuanian, but Paliulytė does not see a need “to change the gender as used in Lithuanian and thus artificially emphasize what is not the essence of the poem.” Though this move sacrifices the gender-based notion of Death as gentleman caller that informs readings of the work in English, it is sensible because, as Paliulytė understands, the impact of the poem is elsewhere—namely in the poet’s exploration of the connotative difference between immortality and eternity.

The text also includes a brief foreword by Irena Praitis, an American scholar who has noticed how much Lithuanian university students enjoy reading Dickinson and is “delighted” at the “access to a great poet” that Paliulytė provides. I was teaching Dickinson at Šiauliai University when this book came out, and I immediately incorporated it into classes, finding that it added depth to our work on the poet. As the English skills of Lithuanian students continue their rapid development, The Banks of Noon—the title of which comes from an enigmatic line in Dickinson’s Poem 328—will be a valuable resource for teachers and for all who appreciate poetry.

Finally, The Banks of Noon is an especially attractive-looking volume with an appealing visual design by Romas Orantas. It’s interesting that Orantas enhances the text with two photographs of Dickinson, one of which is a well-known image of the young poet from a daguerreotype owned by Amherst College. The other, the book’s frontispiece, is Philip Gura’s photo of Dickinson at a later age, an image that is still controversial because some aren’t convinced it is actually Dickinson. I don’t have an opinion about the authenticity of Gura’s photo, but I’m certain that the version of Dickinson offered by Sonata Paliulytė is the real thing. 

* Helen Vendler, Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 188.

Patrick Chura