Lost in Translation by James Ingram Merrill: Summary and Analysis

Lost in Translation by James Ingram Merrill was first published on April 6, 1974 which later included in his famous poetic collection Divine Comedies for which he was awarded with the most prestigious award the Pulitzer Prize in 1976. As the epigraph indicates, the exact translation is not possible in the language. When we try to translate, we are lost in it.

James Ingram Merrill (1926-1995)

The poet, who is the speaker here, had strained relationship with his parents and he uses his personal experience to comment on the nature of translation. In addition, the poem has novelistic structure, i.e. there are many patterns and subplots in the poem like, in a novel, but they are without any immediate and explicit connection.

This poem can be read in many patterns and subplots. On one level, we find the speaker as translator. He goes to the library to translate a text, but he is not able to give the exact translation. He realizes that there is no library in the world that can give exact the exact translation. This conclusion makes him conclude that "all is translation/ And every bit of us is lost in it" (line 208- 209). This is the major argument on the basis of which we can interpret the remaining part of the poem.  

The argument of the translation can be applied in the case of speaker's relation with the French Mademoiselle, who works as a governess in his life. The speaker did not get the love of his parents; therefore he translates that love in the image of his governess. Sometimes, as a mother, she teaches him to play; sometimes as a friend she shares her fears, hopes and sufferings with his boy. He translates this governess into different forms. The story of translation applies even in the case of this Mademoiselle. A widow in real life, she was born out of an English mother and Prussian father, has German husband and an American boy. Because she did not get husband's love for long, she translates all her feelings into the boy. Acting as a mother, a friend, and a governess, her life has become a translation from one thing to another but still she has not found the exact translation.

The poem is a complex study of loss and the artistic rendering of experience. Merrill presents fragments of experience that become apt metaphors of loss and dislocation in a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate world. The poem's fragmented yet ultimately unified form highlights the contradictory nature of the creation of art, as the artist strives to "translate" experience into the stylized structure of a poem.

Merrill focuses on the speaker's memories of his childhood at the point when his parents were separated and he was struggling to adapt to his newly disrupted world. The boy anxiously awaits the arrival of a puzzle, which he and his French nanny will put together. When the puzzle finally arrives, it comes alive to him, as it evolves into a metaphor for his own experience. As the pieces of the puzzle "translate" into a unified, meaningful whole, Merrill explores the tensions between art and reality and the problems inherent in establishing an absolute vision of human experience. The puzzle is the metaphor in the poem which stands for translation and life as well. As the puzzle is never solved, so is translation and life. As in the puzzle, we try our best to bring order, which in fact never comes and we all are lost in that puzzle.

Related Topic

James Ingram Merrill: Biography