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I must start by saying that I want to alter my title slightly – by one word in fact, to ‘Making the Crossing: a Poet as Translator’. I thought at first that I would address the issue of poetry translation in general, but it soon became clear that this wasn’t where my ideas led me. In fact I found that I wanted to talk mostly about my own experience of translating poetry, since that’s where whatever I know and think about the matter comes from.
When I sat down to think about the subject the other thing that soon became clear was that I have very little in the way of theory on the subject of translation, though I have read a good many translations. Like many people of my generation I was fortunate to have access to the Penguin Modern Poets series when I was a teenager developing an interest in poetry in the 1960s. Those were more expansive times for publishing, and it’s hard to imagine a large commercial imprint undertaking such a project nowadays. The poets who made a particular impact were Rilke and Zbigniew Herbert. I collected the series avidly and was both excited and frequently disappointed – excited by Herbert, for example, but disappointed by work that was clearly in dead earnest but didn’t manage to survive the crossing into English because at bottom – the language in which it arrived – English – wasn’t interesting enough as the translator deployed it. In time I came to think that this was because the translators didn’t believe in the end poem, the English poem which was surely, wasn’t it? – their object.
Much later, translation became one of the things I do. I started doing it by accident twenty-odd years ago because I was interested in two poems by Baudelaire – ‘The Voyage’, which I rendered fairly faithfully, and the less prominent ‘Paysage’, about the city rooftops, which I didn’t. Working on the second poem, I found Baudelaire’s smoky cityscape of roofs and chimney-cowls compelling, but around the middle of the piece another impulse made itself felt, and the final stanza became an invention which branched off in a slightly different direction.
I don’t think these alternatives are quite the same as those categories of translation which are familiarly described as ‘faithful but not interesting’ and ‘interesting but unfaithful’. On the one hand, any poet working on a translation must to some extent intervene, to emphasize this rather than that, to mitigate the loss of idiom or nuance; a neutral translation is likely to be inert and colourless. On the other hand, the original you are trying to translate may (sometimes quite unexpectedly) prompt a new strain of invention. There is an old controversy, centred on Robert Lowell’s book Imitations: what did he think he was up to, taking such a free hand with poems many of which were felt to be pretty important? And what about Pound before him? Perhaps the only way the work of the poet-translator can finally be judged is on whether the translation is a good poem or not. In some cases we gain the conviction that the original is a fine poem deserving of this attention.
There are some poets who ‘come through’ into English with a wholly convincing force. I would suggest that the work of Zbigniew Herbert is an example of this. Clearly he has been well served by his translators, though the laconic clarity and dramatic timing (supposing that’s what’s there in the original) seem to invite somebody to make the crossing with the poet. I’m thinking in particular of ‘Elegy of Fortinbras’, ‘The Envoy of Mr Cogito’ and ‘To the Hungarians’. The last of these with its sombre and ironical conclusion both affirms the courage of those involved in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and understands that in terms of the exponents of realpolitik their sacrifice is an empty category, without meaning. Here are two versions of the poem’s end in English, the first by Alissa Valles from the 2007 Collected Poems:
we stand on a border
that is called reason
and we gaze into a fire
and marvel at death
and the second an earlier version by John and Bogdana Carpenter:
we stand at the border
and we look into the fire
and admire death
Although I am uneasy with the proximity of the ‘fire’ / ‘admire’ rhyme, and would prefer ‘flames’ or – in fact – ‘furnace’ – I prefer the second translation: for one thing, the two stressed syllables at the end of the Carpenter version lend weight and decisiveness, whereas the Valles loses the interest of ‘marvel’ with a further unstress in ‘at’. More than this, ‘admire’ carries the kind of saturnine irony that confers on the understanding a power of sorts, even whilst this is a claim that in other ways the poem seems to renounce. It amounts to something more than what Louis Simpson referred to as ‘the poor man’s nerve-tic, irony’, something more like an irreducible self-possession whose very impotence creates a strange form of negative capability. This complication of tone is very attractive to many poets writing in English: it is more than lamentation in the face of the grim facts. It also speaks to the guarded, cynical element in the western audience rather than the slightly glib and Pollyanna-ish one implied by the first version, who might seem to imagine that violent political repression is really an interruption of normal democratic service rather than the condition from which presumed ‘normality’ has to be won. In the first version we receive an exterior idea of a historical event and a template for generalized empathy; in the second we witness, and are enabled imaginatively to share, an experience.
Which version is the more accurate? I couldn’t tell you, but I know which seems to me to work according to the criteria which animate my own interest in a poetry that deals with history and politics. I know which interests me more. Translation, to put it another way, often wishes to be virtuous when what it really needs is to be practical and expedient.
Trying to make a translation can at times also involve a sense of trying to recover something. I came across Stefan George’s poem ‘Entruckung’, ‘transport’ in the emotional and spiritual sense, in the sleevenotes of a Schönberg recording. What occurred to me when I read it – and of course it isn’t necessarily true – is that the original must have been better than the translation made it sound, or why bother? But there was the famous line: ‘This is the air of another planet’ to draw in the curious. In the event when I came to study George’s poem I found myself adding to the original and discarding some parts and subtitling the result ‘after Stefan George’ and eventually coming to suspect that the original itself might in some way be slightly fraudulent in its pitch, while also feeling grateful to have had chance to make whatever I made of it. At any rate I had to read the original with care.
I can read French and German. I have also worked on translations from languages of which I had no prior knowledge – Greek, Spanish, Italian and Cap Verdean. There are those who condemn poets who work on translations from languages of which they don’t know on the grounds of inauthenticity, because, in a sense, such poet-translators are ‘making it up’. There may be some of them here this evening, and may I just say, in a comradely spirit, I’ll call you. I understand the objection but clearly I don’t abide by it. Why? Because experience suggests that poetry is a wholly practical and necessarily impure activity – otherwise it would die. Fidelity and invention can at times be hard to tell apart. What is the poet-translator serving? Perhaps an instinctive response to language.
To illustrate this by travesty I want to recall to your minds a television advertisement from twenty-odd years or so ago. I can’t remember what was being sold. In the advertisement a hapless customer sits down in the chair of a sinister, very ugly barber who had a crazed ferocious stare and a haircut so appalling and lumpy and damaged that it looks as if he’s contracted mange. The barber tells the customer that he can have the same haircut, a ‘Lionel Blair’ (for anyone who doesn’t know, Lionel Blair, now in his eighties, was a famous dancer and variety artist, dapper and always beautifully groomed). The customer protests that Lionel Blair doesn’t have a haircut like the barber’s. At this the barber brandishes the clippers and says: ‘He does when he comes in here.’ So poet X may not say what I attribute to him – but he does when he comes in here.