Translating poetry well requires a special talent. A good translator has to be firstly a sensitive reader, able to grasp the nuances of the original writer and to comprehend the way in which the poem is structured. Then the translator has to build upon that reading and recreate the poem in another language, taking care to remain close, though not slavishly so, to the original while not sacrificing good poetry on the altar of literalness. In short, a good translator of poetry has to be Janus-faced, looking backwards at the original, forwards towards a new set of readers. The success of the poem in translation is entirely the responsibility of the translator.
This year, there was one outstandingly good translation, incredibly produced by someone who is only 18. What makes this so good is that the translator has struck just the right balance, demonstrating a thorough understanding of the original and able to construct a poem that works brilliantly in English. That the author was writing 2,000 years ago adds to the problems the translator had to face, for when a poem comes from a culture distant in time as well as place, the task of the translator is so much harder. The principle decision to take is whether to try and modernise the poem or to try and convey a sense of its antiquity in some other way. The judges noted that this year there were some very fine translations of ancient poetry, and all those we singled out had decided on a contemporary recreation. We even had one translation wittily written as a text message.
The range of languages submitted this year was wider than ever, the selection of poems very broad ranging, with some tiny poems such as the splendid Latin poem by the Emperor Hadrian and some extended narrative poems. In making our final assessment we took account of the different kinds of difficulty: sometimes a short poem in what appears to be simple language can be extremely difficult if not impossible to translate, for the simplicity is deceptive. Narrative verse presents another set of problems, for this is a convention that is not in the contemporary mainstream in English. We admired the way some translators had selected extracts from longer poems, such as the translation from old Norse and the extract from Pearl. This involves a lot of thought and careful editing, which we felt deserved to be acknowledged.
Sadly, the impact of the government’s decision to take literature out of modern language A levels is starting to appear in the submissions, though paradoxically, the emphasis on textual commentary in A level Classics is reflected in some of the very fine translations and commentaries of ancient texts.
What I love about this judging process is not only the pleasure of reading the great variety of work submitted but the often very moving personal stories that some translators generously share with us in their commentaries. This demonstrates more clearly than anything else could how important translation is to so many people. When you translate a poem, you enter into its world, and that world may hold a special significance which you seek to share. The good translator is someone who has a special relationship with a poem written in another language and is then able to make a reader who is unacquainted with the original feel that the poem is also theirs.