Because I can’t pretend to real competence in any foreign language other than French, finding the winners of these excellent awards was never going to be, for me, a matter of judging their language-competence, in Latin or Greek or German – or Romanian – but their poetic instincts and abilities.
This isn’t the place to expound a theory of translation, but my rule of thumb is that fidelity to an original – especially an original poem – is not the same as unthinking attachment to its every feature, semantic or structural. Literalism, in a word, will only take you so far. Many of the translators, in their commentaries, elaborated on this very thought in instructive and arresting ways. Too often, though, their translations fell into the very trap they believed they had avoided. I began to fall hungrily on translations that showed some verbal flair and élan, some flicker of imagination or invention, a sense of rhythm, of meaning business – the attributes, in other words, one would look for in a poem written originally in English. In translations that had any of these, I hoped to find (and depended on my fellow-judges to confirm) a real engagement with the original, a submission to it that was not just a slavish obedience to its rules. In the winning poems in both categories – long, ambitious translations of complex and highly wrought works, both containing lines and touches that I and I think any poet would have been pleased to produce – I found all the above, in abundance.
It was a special pleasure for me to come upon the translations by Adrian Pascu, of the early twentieth-century Romanian poet, Ion Minulescu. For a few moments I breathed again the heady atmosphere of the early Eliot and his masters Jules Laforgue and Baudelaire, a Parisian atmosphere of Symbolist fogs, laughing corpses and solitary flaneurs; and I heard an unmistakeable echo of the fin de siècle in a voice that was, as Mr Pascu describes it, ‘sonorous and musical, witty, sophisticated and ironic’. I hope Mr Pascu and all the young translators whose achievements are recognized here will feel encouraged to persevere in their difficult, scandalously under-valued art. For, while everyone knows Robert Frost’s ‘Poetry is what gets lost in translation’, how many also know the late, lamented D.J. Enright’s rejoinder, ‘Yes, but not nearly as much as would get lost if no one translated it’?