On Translation

A selection of my poetry has been translated into Hungarian by a prolific Hungarian writer who turns his attention occasionally to writers who catch his attention. He has already translated P. Fallon’s work, which was launched here at the Hungarian Embassy in March. My own selection will be launched in Budapest on September 5th. It is not a bi-lingual selection, and I do not speak Hungarian or have the slightest sense of the lingo. It makes me remember that all translation happens on trust (even if it is bi-lingual). If it’s bi-lingual, the writer possibly imagines s/he can have a fair go at assessing the quality of the translation, sometimes even without a smidgeon of the foreign language! I guess it’s fair to say one can grasp a good translation to several of the European languages which many of us have soaked up one way or another – German, French, Spanish and Italian – Irish too, obviously, but even so, the expedition into translation necessitates (for me at least) a background feeling that nothing can be completely translated, but that something can be. In an ideal translation I’d like more than the spirit of the work to be intact; I’d hope there would be some literal equivalences present, but I wouldn’t lose sleep if poetic liberties were taken. I also believe that the translated work is, in a way, a brand new poem intercepted by the translator and creatively frescoed or applied to the wall of her/his native language. It is a sign, a flagship, a motet, an element of the whispers of world languages that shimmer and jostle together beyond the cognitive level. The language and intention of poetry is often debased and diminished by commentators in one’s own language – that almost goes without saying – but somehow, if it is offered as a reinvention, a new entity in another language, it achieves a renewal of possibility. The main aim, of course, is to bring other voices to other readers who do not share the same language, and that works both ways.

At the moment I’m reading ‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada. It was published originally in 1947, the year that the author died. This edition is brilliantly translated by Michael Hofmann and seems to me to do all the things that translation should do: it catches the nuances of ordinary speech, the slang, the vividness of the vernacular in ways an English-language reader will identify with immediately. But we are in no doubt that this is not ‘English’. This really has the feel of German too. Perhaps as a German speaker I am more aware of that, but this sense of the language being absolutely true to the original is balanced at the same time by the reader knowing that the book was never written in English. Nobody would ever mistake it for an ‘English’ novel. This of course is a tribute to the fact that Hofman succeeded in capturing the essence of this marvellous novel. I hadn’t ever heard of Hans Fallada before I met the German poet Sabine Lange about six years ago when I had written a foreword for her Bloodaxe published collection “The Fishermen Sleep” (Die Fischer Schlafen). She holds responsibility for the Fallada archive in Feldberg, and her poetry was translated to English by Prof. Jenny Williams of DCU. This is getting very complicated! I keep introducing links and more links, which only goes to show the serendipidous pathways that lead one to a hitherto undiscovered writer. 

But back to translation matters: some writers have a gift for it, a natural, instinctive yet very careful feel for this work. I believe it requires a really strong understanding of the language, something beyond bread-and-butter social basics, an understanding which is well embedded in the translator’s psyche; it also requires someone who is prepared to take risks and to assess these risks – should s/he be highly literal and/or totally adhere to the rhythms and (if it applies) rhymes of the language to be translated OR should s/he take the decision to make a respectful work that recogniseably belongs to poet S from country Y but which may in the process of translation have acquired some twists and turns that make the poem(s) true to an English-language reader. By ‘true’, I mean a poem that really does connect back to the original, even if it is not entirely identical to it. Identikit-translation would be pretty hopeless, it seems to me, and I’ve seen various versions of the work of Ingeborg Bachmann translated into English (including some of my own work on her). The best translator of Bachmann, to my mind, was the US poet Carolyn Kizer, whose translations appeared in the Modern Language Journal (not sure that’s the correct title).

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