Lost in Translation (poem)
"Lost in Translation" is a narrative poem by James Merrill (1926–1995), one of the most studied and celebrated of his shorter works. It was originally published in The New Yorker magazine on April 8, 1974, and published in book form in 1976 in Divine Comedies.
The poem opens with a description of a summer Merrill spent as a child in a great house in The Hamptons, with his governess, waiting patiently for a rented wooden jigsaw puzzle to arrive in the mail from an Upper East Side Manhattan puzzle rental shop.
"Lost in Translation" is Merrill's most anthologized poem, and has been widely praised by literary critics including Harold Bloom.
Background to the poem
Merrill wrote in his lifetime mainly for a select group of friends, fans, and critics, and expected readers of "Lost in Translation" to have some knowledge of his biography. Born in New York City, Merrill was the son of the founder of the world's largest brokerage firm. He enjoyed a privileged upbringing in economic and cultural terms, although his intelligence and exceptional financial circumstances often made him feel lonely as a child. Merrill was the only son of Charles E. Merrill and Hellen Ingram. (Merrill had two older half siblings from his father's first marriage.)
Given that his parents were often preoccupied, his father with business, his mother with social obligations, Merrill developed a number of close relationships with household staff. "Lost in Translation" describes a profound childhood bond with the woman who taught him French and German. Merrill's parents would divorce in 1939, when Merrill was thirteen years old, in a scandal that was front page news on the New York Times.
Not only is "Lost in Translation" a poem about a child putting together a jigsaw puzzle, it is an interpretive puzzle, designed to engage a reader's interest in solving mysteries at various narrative levels.
The poem is dedicated to Merrill's friend, the distinguished poet, critic, and translator Richard Howard. It consists of 215 lines with an additional four line epigraph. The poem is mainly in unrhymed pentameter but includes a section in Rubaiyat quatrain stanzas. "Lost in Translation" may be classified as an autobiographical narrative or narrative poem, but is better understood as a series of embedded narratives (stories within a story).
A mysterious epigraph in German
- Diese Tage, die leer dir scheinen
- und wertlos für das All,
- haben Wurzeln zwischen den Steinen
- und trinken dort überall.
- These days which, like yourself,
- Seem empty and effaced
- Have avid roots that delve
- To work deep in the waste.
In "Lost in Translation", the narrator's puzzle-making companion is his French governess, whom he repeatedly refers to as Mademoiselle. Part mother, part teacher, part nanny, part servant, she is described by Merrill as "stout, plain, carrot-haired, devout."
At one point in the poem, Mademoiselle speaks the same phrase in French and in German. In addition to playing with the boy's marionettes and doing jigsaw puzzles with him, Mademoiselle is teaching the young James Merrill languages which would be critical to making him the sophisticated and urbane lyric poet of later life. By giving name, in several languages, to objects and tasks around the home, Mademoiselle helps the young James Merrill come to understand a doubleness about language itself, that objects and activities can have different names and connotations across languages.
From the child's point of view, the "puzzle" goes well beyond what is taking place on the card table. Merrill is puzzling through the mystery of his existence, puzzling through the mystery of what the world is, what objects are, what people do in life. An unspoken puzzle is solved when the young Merrill determines what his relationship to Mademoiselle is, given the frequent absence of his own mother. Mademoiselle knows "her place", he writes, indicating his first consciousness of his own class privilege, as well as (perhaps) the limits placed on Mademoiselle's maternal role.
Yet other puzzles are not solved until later in life. At one point the narrator's voice modulates into that of an adult. We find out that Mademoiselle hid her true origins from the boy (and from his family) because of the political tensions leading up to 1939 and to the outbreak of World War II. Mademoiselle claimed to be French and hid her German or Alsatian birth. She presumably gained a French family name through marriage to a soldier who died in the Battle of Verdun in World War I (1914–1918). Mademoiselle could let no one know she was German for fear of losing her job and her employers' trust. This explains the fact that Merrill's own French, learned in imitation of his governess, was always spoken with a slight German accent. The boy finds out the full truth only as an adult, after a chance conversation with Mademoiselle's grown nephew, a United Nations interpreter, who tells him the story of the governess's true origins.
The poem includes several other secondary narratives, including a section in which the puzzle itself is put together. Inspired by Omar Khayyám's Rubaiyat quatrains, Merrill describes an imaginary harem-like 19th century Orientalist painting, by an alleged follower of Jean-Léon Gérôme, that begins to appear as the puzzle pieces are put together. When the puzzle is nearly done, the piece that was missing the whole time is found under the table at the boy's feet. The missing piece is, in fact, an image of the boy's feet. When it is put in place, the portrait of the little boy in the puzzle is finally complete.
A puzzle within a puzzle...
At the center of the poem is a mysterious sequence in which the poet, attending a present-day séance, describes a medium who is able to divine that a piece of a wooden jigsaw puzzle has been concealed inside a box.
To understand "Lost in Translation", the reader must work out and solve a puzzle in the narrative text, revealed by a confession Merrill the adult makes at the end of the poem. The little boy has apparently kept a piece of the jigsaw puzzle, in the shape of a palm tree, throughout his life. This fact has jogged the memory in Merrill of a poem called "Palme" by the French Symbolist poet Paul Valéry (1871–1945), and that memory in turn has reminded Merrill of a German translation he has once seen of that same poem by poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926).
The poet knows that he has seen and read the Rilke translation before, because he can picture the words on the page. "The owlet umlaut peeps and hoots/ Above the open vowel", Merrill writes, in some of the poem's most quoted lines. Yet despite remembering the experience of reading the Rilke translation, he cannot locate a copy in Athens, Greece (where Merrill and his partner David Jackson were living six months of the year), and begins to doubt whether it exists except in his imagination. The poem "Lost in Translation" assumes the form of a letter to Richard Howard seeking an actual copy of that translation.
But the translation turns out not to have been lost, or a figment of the poet's imagination, for it is used to write the poem "Lost In Translation." The German epigraph at the beginning of the poem offers the key clue here. The four lines come from that "lost" German translation by Rilke of Valéry's "Palme". (Merrill's own English translation of "Palme" is the source of the translated quatrain above. See Merrill's "Paul Valéry: Palme" in Late Settings, 1985.)
The original in French:
- Ces jours qui te semblent vides
- Et perdus pour l'univers
- Ont des racines avides
- Qui travaillent les déserts.
from Paul Valéry, Charmes (1922) Palme classical dizain 7th Stanza
The solution to the puzzle of the poem is hidden in plain sight all along. "Nothing's lost", Merrill suggests, when it comes to translating experience or memory, at least according to the way Merrill understands our human experience. The poem's coda salutes the power of the transformative imagination to recover meaning in the world from all we see and remember. Its language and phrasing offer a veiled tribute by Merrill to the poet he most admired from his father's generation, Wallace Stevens (author of "The Palm at the End of the Mind"):
- But nothing's lost. Or else: all is translation
- And every bit of us is lost in it...
- And in that loss a self-effacing tree,
- Color of context, imperceptibly
- Rustling with its angel, turns the waste
- To shade and fiber, milk and memory.