An Essay on Translation (first published in Stand Magazine in 1971)


A review by Anthony Howell of Poem into Poem: world poetry in modern verse edited by George Steiner (Penguin 10/-) first published in Stand 12, no. 2, 1971

For the sake of argument let us say we can do without everything but the masterpiece.

The only valid equivalent of a masterpiece in one language is another in the language into which it has been translated.

Because masterpieces present us with a new, not readily recognizable construct their approach into the limelight tends to be slow. The translation of contemporaries involves the risk that the original work chosen may be slight. This need not matter if the translator is a Baudelaire. But another risk is that the translator may be put off by having a live and possibly irascible original peering over his shoulder.

Producing a masterpiece in one’s own language is a full time task—a particularly difficult task if the gallery of native tradition is as rich as that of England. When engaged on his own poem the writer may alter the sense as he discovers form: with a translation he may neglect form in order to adhere to the sense. If sense is thus sacrosanct he may have opted for a limitation which narrows the play of his native abilities to the extent that a masterpiece must be ruled out.

The modern poet wrestles with words to establish some meaning. He knows that his skill as a wrestler over-rides the demands of a pre-selected sense. Perhaps he ought to know little or nothing of the tongue from which he is translating—then his curiosity is aroused and he translates in order to read the original. This process of translation in order to read comes nearer the struggle in which he is usually engaged. For in order to appreciate the foreign he must find in it some native felicity. Pound, curious, unravelled the Chinese ideogram for autumn and discovered an image. Someone more fluent in Chinese might simply have written autumn. A Frenchman I spoke to recently was excited by the element of the French rapport in the English reporter; an element which I, blinded by a fluency which could only imagine the word in a journalistic context, had quite overlooked.

From all this it may be suspected that if it is a masterpiece the translation will derive from a foreign poem of an earlier epoch, will have been translated by a poet whose skill is at least com¬parable to that of the original writer, and who may have no equipment to deal with the foreign language beyond his curiosity. Extreme as it is, this point of view is rarely publicized, and it should prove rewarding to examine contemporary translation while bearing it in mind.

In the introduction to his anthology, George Steiner speaks of ‘a characteristic international¬ization of the poetic temper … a shared logic of emotion, an agreed code of reference and symbolic device’ among modern poets. This he sees as part of a larger syndrome which has in¬fected other areas of western art:

‘The Javanese tone sequence in a Debussy score, the African mask in a Picasso, the translations of Hindi or Nigerian lyrics into English verse, embody a common appetite for renewal, for the vitalizing shock, and a com-mon guilt towards that which we have too long pillaged or scorned as mere colonizers.’

But with music and painting there is no language barrier. We behold the mask intact—even if the witch-doctor has never stepped out of his village. In the case of poetry we lack the witch-doctor (that is the cultural surround) and the mask has to be re-fashioned in wood from a different tree.

Languages differ as Balsa differs from Ebony: they can never produce an identical mask. It turns out to be easier to re-fashion the witch-doctor—he is human at least—and the new popularity of recital, when a wild eyed poet stands up and harangues the gathering to the accompaniment of saxophones and drums, may currently be the most interesting translation of Nigerian poetry—perhaps it captures the spirit.

Most of Steiner’s translators have avoided con¬temporary foreign verse, and the major poets among them have done so almost invariably. Eliot’s translations of Perse and the Cornford/Spender collaboration over Eluard are exceptions, and both produce near masterpieces—the trans¬lators were also fluent in the foreign tongue. How¬ever, in Auden’s version of Akhmadulina, another exception, rhythm and rhyme produce a dampen¬ing effect, while the verses lack that apt choice of adjective and elegance of syntax found in his best work. The translation does not stand up to com¬parison with Lullaby:

‘… Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy . . .’
(Lullaby verse 2)

‘… Realms ever denser and colder
Weigh on each brutal shoulder,
But the old wicked visions keep
Visiting them in their sleep . . .’
(Volcanoes Akhmadulina)

Where less talented writers in Steiner’s stable attempt the foreign poetry of bygone epochs the results are often interesting—but far from being masterpieces. Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey, well represented, moves with the narrative speed of a thriller and has much the same impact, but it does not enthral, does not incite me to re-read, as does Chapman’s version, which, although lacking the rolling fourteeners of his Iliad, a rhythm like a wave of troops assaulting the reader, has about it a certain stateliness of narration, so that I hear the story and imagine the cultural surround of the original—tinged with the renaissance admittedly. This I re-read not only for the adventures but to capture once more an aura of telling.

Where these writers stick to our own times the results are disappointing. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard produce translations from modern Greek which deliver the general sense, but they are written, albeit competently, in those loose and prosaic verse forms I have come to recognize as the dull norm; also falling into vagaries of phrase which stop short of delivering their ultimate mean¬ing—‘sweetness filled my mouth/ I stood, a lyre, caressed/ by its profusion . . .’

The finest poems in the anthology appear where a major poet has taken the work of a long dead writer in a language he may not speak with ease and made it into something his own. Rossetti’s Italian poets, Swinburne’s Villon, Yeats’s trans-lations from Ronsard and Sophocles, Pound’s various contributions, Marianne Moore’s La Fontaine: all these tower above the rest, assured masterpieces—while Tom Scott’s Villon is excel¬lent. But why are Synge’s brilliant prose poems from Petrarch missed out? Why include Roy Cambell’s rather poor version of Baudelaire’s A Carrion, when Allen Tate’s version of the same poem exemplifies everything a translation should be in terms of adherence to the sense while re¬maining one of the finest lyrics of the century? Steiner does include a longer poem of Tate’s—from the Latin—but it is not so arresting as that particular version from Baudelaire. And why are the dates of the original writers not given?

To sum up, though Steiner apologizes for omis¬sions due to lack of space, this anthology seems to contain altogether too much dead wood. But then, I am looking for masterpieces, there is plenty of sound jobbery.

Sentences which would sound too pretentious in prose chopped up and arranged down the page. Moody statements loaded with unspecified pre¬monitions so that one cannot tell the difference between a translation from the Korean and a translation from the German. Arbitrary word juggling in the name of an esteemed Dadaist. Lists beginning with one or other of the personal pro¬nouns. Tedious stammerings of some distant com¬mitment. Excessive use of the copula. These are some of faults to be found in the lazy writing too voluminous to particularize but all finding its way into print somewhere under the excuse of being a translation. The bookshops are crammed with renderings which seem to fulfil no purpose—since they are neither faithful to the original nor poems in their own right, though they use the need to be either as justification for their failings. Sometimes a sort of versified journalism comes across—not as a masterpiece, but as something worth reading. Then descriptions of action are easiest to translate. Very occasionally a poem moves one by its sheer honesty—Roots by Miklos Radnoti, for instance, translated in Stand 11 no. 4. But verse which is a film of events, or simply honest, seems hardly important considering the need for a poetry which is the only possible ex¬pression of individual life—the Radnoti trans¬lations are a tri-fold collaboration.

I could do with less internationalization if it leads to khaki poetry; if it leads to the neglect of a poetry which is not the vehicle for purposes that can be more solidly realized through other means, but language com¬manding attention—whatever the thoughts, feel¬ings, actions, intentions—yet at the same time attempting ‘to wed Desdemona to the huge Moor’. Introducing her Selected Poems, Laura Riding describes the crisis facing modern poetry, and then goes on to show how the problem may be shelved:

‘lf poets strain hard enough they must reach the crisis-point at which division between creed and craft reveals itself to be absolute. If, with intuition of final trouble ahead, they slacken the straining to a slow, morally com¬fortable rate of subsidence, neither they nor their public will feel anything worse to be happening than a tempering of moral intensity to the dignity of advancing maturity.’

This may be true for some of our elder poets: has translation been adopted by our younger poets as their method of shelving the problem?

About anthonyhowelljournal

Poet, essayist, dancer, performance artist....
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