The motives for translating can be many and various, and showcasing a language is one. This year Esperanto was touted as a language of neutrality in a period of international tension; Ukrainian and Georgian signified cultures resurfacing following the break-up of the Soviet empire and Turkish the steady eastern extension of Europe; Tagalog represented the constellation of languages of South East Asia, a vast, rich and complex cultural region still little known in the West; an Afrikaans poem served as a reminder of a culture much more humanly attractive than memories of the apartheid system would suggest. There are other translations that are the products of the 9/1l syndrome. Triggered by acutely critical and distressing events, they include one fine and moving example in memory of a wife claimed by Alzheimer’s disease. And then there are the products of the Housman effect – ‘the poem makes my hair stand on end.’
Cultural trends can also be clearly discerned, such as signs of a rapidly emergent multicultural Britain. Alongside an ancient aboriginal language such as Welsh there are many others recently become native. Whereas many of these could be readily predicted, others – such as Romanian – could not. Over the coming decades this linguistic enrichment of British culture could result in a translation boom such as the USA has enjoyed since the Second World War. On the other hand, what is gained from this multilingualism may barely outweigh the catastrophic consequences of the appalling decline of language teaching in the British education system. And there is one paradox worth pondering: natural bilingualism may be as much of a curse as a blessing for a translator. The linguistic and cultural inwardness with which a translator is thus privileged is offset by the danger of unconscious linguistic interference, of double exposure, of producing an English text subtly ghosted by its ‘foreign’ source. It is a problem I experience not infrequently in Wales, a country whose bilingualism is already almost two centuries old.
In general, the single greatest fault seemed to me to be an insensitivity to the language of form – to the way the complex structure of a poem constitutes its meaning. To apologise for failing to reproduce the rhyme is beside the point unless one realises what this may signify – namely a failure to realise the generative matrix of sound and rhythm that is a poem’s core identity. A poem’s vivid figurativeness may be a distraction here, giving the impression that to translate the tropes is enough to guarantee capture of the text.
That said, I continue to be astonished at the number of translations that had the power to possess me. And, as always, several of my favourites failed to make the final cut. Among these were a sumptuously evocative version by Nicholas Slater of Rilke’s great meditation on loss, ‘Orpheus. Eurydike. Hermes’; a free, yet sensitive, account by J S Tennant of the dismemberment of Orpheus from the Metamorphoses; and Jack Farchy’s spirited, ingenious rendering of an enigmatic piece by Khlebnikov.