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Advice from the judges

Some general notes on translating poetry
George Szirtes’ attempt to categorise translated poetry
Christ’s Hospital school’s school-wide translation project
Poetry translation activities
The Stephen Spender Prize 2015

Every year the judges write reports on the year’s entries, often including advice for future entrants, some of which is reproduced below.

Why translate
"The opportunity translation offers to explore one’s own literary resources is possibly the greatest immediate gain of its practice. But this is not the only benefit; engagement with a source text also obliges a translator to examine intensely that text’s own internal structure and working." (Daniel Weissbort)

Choice of poem
"Translating poems that seem to be very straightforward and easily understandable in the source language all too often end up as banal in English. Translating the apparently simple is, in a different way, as tough as translating a very complex text, for the effect of simplicity is only achievable with considerable skill, and a translator needs comparable skills."(Susan Bassnett)

"If the chosen poem is a long one, requiring the translator to submit an excerpt, it is crucial to choose a passage that works perfectly as a contained episode." (WN Herbert)

"Concise, vivid dramatic vignettes with a unifying motif – Neruda and Cavafy – seem to morph effortlessly from one tongue to another, while excerpts from longer poems need to be carefully selected for their internal, organic cohesion." (Edith Hall)

"Fidelity is not the same as unthinking attachment to a poem’s every feature, semantic or structural." (Alan Jenkins)

"Ezra Pound, poet-translator of genius, was once castigated for his ‘unfaithfulness’ and replied saying that anyone could produce a literal version using a cheap crib. What might be attacked as unfaithfulness in the translation of poetry may result in a poem that does more justice to the original poet than any close following of the original." (Susan Bassnett)

"What excited me was the spectrum of fidelity and freedom translators I saw. There were graceful, precise, faithful but not grindingly servile translations, and there were also smart and confident versions that took the originals as a starting-point and showed them a different kind of respect by going off at their own tangents. Good poems can take a bit of rough treatment. They aren't there to be stared at behind glass, they’re there to be taken off the shelf and handled (though all breakages, as they say, must be paid for…)." (Patrick McGuinness)

"Sometimes as judges we encounter good poems that are not necessarily good translations, while we also encounter translations that are so close to the original that they fail to work as English poems. Getting the balance right is crucial, and to achieve that it is often necessary for the translator to do some additional research. It is certainly necessary for would-be translators to read the work of poets in whatever language, so as to have a greater sense of what a poem can do." (Susan Bassnett)

James Holmes, who both translated poetry and wrote about translation, suggested that the translator of a poem establishes in his or her own mind what he called a "hierarchy of correspondences", in other words, a set of priorities of what to keep and what to discard. (Susan Bassnett)

"I admire formal solutions that don't necessarily reproduce the original’s form but stay true to the reasons for which form was chosen in the first place." (Patrick McGuinness)

"Strong form seems to offer more potential for transformation into a successful English-language poem than discursive, looser rhythmical structures. Entrants could be braver about the verse forms they translate into – there is no reason why a prose poem can't become a plausible sonnet." (Edith Hall)

"My advice to anyone wanting to translate into English rhyme forms is not to do so unless you feel very, very confident that the result will work effectively. Just because there is a form of rhyme in an original does not mean that it will translate easily into rhyme in another language where stylistic rules are different." (Susan Bassnett)

"Poetry is a unique form of human understanding where the understanding is always inseparable from the form. The challenge to any translator is therefore to reproduce that informing life of the original by whatever equivalent means a different – and sometimes radically different – language is able to offer. And in the process of translation the structure and resource of both languages involved in this singularly intimate transaction are laid revealingly bare." (M Wynn Thomas)

Balancing sense and music
"I kept in mind Pound's Centaur – his description of the ideal poem – in which ‘the thinking, word-arranging, clarifying faculty must move and leap with the energising, sentient, musical faculties.’ This is hard enough when writing an original poem, but to do so when bound in fealty to an already created poem, which is what translation requires, is indeed to ‘dance in chains’ as Paul Valéry put it." (Stephen Romer)

The need to re-read and revise
"A single jarring word can throw an entire piece out of kilter, emphasising the need, as in all literary endeavour, for constant editing and revision." (Josephine Balmer)

Be bold
"What we are looking for is not just a translation of basic lexical content and information, but the birth of a new text that works its artistic magic as a poem in its own right… Some of this year’s entrants have been too frightened of inaccuracy and not committed enough to sensory effect and aural felicity." (Edith Hall)

"We take a great deal on trust in translations providing we feel the trust has been earned. That trust is earned partly through the ear and the nerves. There are also the competing appeals of brilliant texture and wit as opposed to sonority of feeling. You can't help but notice brilliance, of course. Energy matters, but also the sense of deeper comprehension as though the translator were reaching under the words as well as running fingers over them." (George Szirtes)

And finally
"Reading translations of poems is not very different from reading poems. If it isn’t a poem we seem to be reading, the chances are the translator has missed something." (George Szirtes)