Jonathan Mayhew notes that
To understand Creeley, say, you would have to know about Williams, Pound, Duncan, Olson, Levertov. Also Ginsberg and O'Hara and Lowell--representing directions he didn't take. Maybe also Thomas Hardy and some of Creeley's other favorite British poets. Some medieval lyrics. The understanding of Creeley within his context and tradition entails a very dense and nuanced positioning.
It strikes me (and this is not a new observation with me) that we tend to read "foreign" poets in a quite different way. We never see them against the backdrop of their mediocre contemporaries who never get translated. Usually it is only one or two poets from any given country who are at all known at any given time, so there is rarely a sense of Creeley's "company," the social network of poets. The poet translated stands pretty much alone.
While I ultimately believe that a work of literature can and should stand "pretty much alone" in the reader's immediate aesthetic response to the work, the provocation to which remains, in my opinion, the primary ambition of poetry and fiction under any plausible conception of their "literary" status, to "understand" a poet's, or a fiction writer's, body of work more broadly surely does require--or at least certainly is enhanced by--locating it within the writer's "context and tradition." Although this context includes both historical context and the web of direct and indirect influences, ultimately it encompasses the writer's particular relationship to his/her native language and the set of practices with which he/she most closely identifies. Such context can be "dense" indeed, tracing out its dominion not just "nuanced" but a potentially never-ending task.
For those of us who must read "international" writers in translation, we unfortunately must for the most part make do without this context. The text "stands alone" in a way that deprives us of a linguistic foundation that would give our reading experience solidity. Combining this with the vagaries of translation as part of the "book business," which leave us without knowledge of the "social network" to which Jonathan alludes, in effect puts most American readers, at least, in a position of ignorance when assessing poems and novels outside the "English" context. This problem is arguably more acute with poetry, which embodies an especially intimate connection to "context and tradition" and which is translated even less frequently than fiction, but I think the problem exists with fiction as well. Perhaps I could simply pick up one of the Roberto Bolano novels that now seems to be on everybody's reading list and read it with adequate appreciation, but I really doubt it. While the "context" provided by the "tradition" of Latin American fiction is probably more accessible to American readers than many other international literatures, somehow it doesn't seem likely that the context in which the Chilean Bolano was nourished is interchangeable with that in which the Colombian Marquez came to literary maturity. That doesn't mean I won't read Bolano, but before I do so I am trying to understand as much of his "context" as I can from the accumulating number of reviews and critical essays about his work now becoming available.
Of course, I'll never be able to acquire all the context I need simply from reading reviews and gleaning what I can from them. This is where someone like Jonathan Mayhew, who is himself a scholar of Spanish literature (specifically modern Spanish poetry), could play a valuable role in making translated work meaningful to nonspecialist readers, if publishers would allow him to do it. In my experience, most translations come without any context at all, except occasionally through a translator's introduction that usually doesn't go very far (through no fault of the translator, I'm sure, who has to fight the effort among American publishers to hide the fact of translation in the first place). Scholars and critics fluent in the "context and traditon" of the national literature at hand, ideally of the specific writer in question, could provide, through preface and appendices, relevant commentary that would surely illuminate some of the darkness in which we are now asked to approach translated work. Ideally, some sort of textual commentary (made as nondisruptive as possible) could also be included. I realize that this kind of apparatus is usually reserved for "classic" works intended for classroom use, but I don't think we can pretend that translations shorn of such support are sufficient for presenting the work, poetry or fiction, of translated authors, especially authors to whom we come completely unfamiliar.
Even if such aids to reading were routinely offered, however, we would still fall woefully short of understanding the "company" every writer keeps. Only the kind of immersion in a national language that fluency in that language makes possible would allow us to approach such understanding. And as long as only "one or two poets from any given country" (perhaps a few more fiction writers) are available even in translation, we'll get no more than a similacrum of familiarity with either individual writers or the "social network" to which they are connected. On the other hand, few of us put forth the effort to comprehend the literary context from which writers in our own language emerge, which, as Jonathan's brief survey of Robert Creeley's influences attests, can be a daunting task in itself. Whether this makes one's dependence on translation for access to so many important writers seem less, or more, futile is a hard question to answer.
ADDENDUM Miriam Burstein makes some useful remarks about this subject.