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An attempt to categorise translated poetry

by George Szirtes

Poetry is very hard to translate because no poem means just one thing. Or rather, if two of you read a poem you might agree on a lot, but you'd take away some impressions that were different. That might be because your experiences were different – one reader might like spiders and enjoy being reminded of them because of the delicacy of their webs in the sunlight, while another might hate them and prefer not to think of their scuttling on the floor. So one reader thinks about webs, the other about scuttling.

That's just a personal difference depending on you as an individual reader, but there are a great many things that may be interpreted differently. That is because language is simply like that. It gives you a word or a phrase then leaves you to make the best of it. It isn't completely fixed. It can and should be loved but it isn't always to be trusted.

You could argue that it is the same with language in stories but the difference in stories is that they develop a momentum made up of a series of actions and because we are eager to find out what happens next we don't stop at this or that word but take the most obvious option for meaning and continue. Our eyes move along the lines and blocks of print, constantly seeking the next thing. The words are there but we move past them. It's the story that matters after all.

A poem has much more white space. Its lines don't simply run on, they stop at some point suggested by rhythm or breath then start again underneath. There are fewer words to look at, there is less reason to rush on, so we become aware of their sounds, their odd associations, their possible meanings. The words are more exposed, and so is language, that weird system whereby we make noises and attach meanings to them.

Not all poetry is like that. Ballads for example are clearly concerned with a story, but there are repetitions and white spaces in them too so even ballads are not page turners in quite the ordinary sense. Poems are more page keepers than page turners. They exist because life is not always about action and what we do, it is also about what we are and where we are and how that feels.
Someone once said stories are rivers that run by you while poems are lakes you gaze into. I think that is on the right track but there is always some moving water in a poem and moments of still water in a story. Nevertheless that someone wasn't exactly wrong: a poem is often something you can gaze into, and maybe you even begin to see your own face reflected in it.

A bad story may have lovely language but a brilliant translation of a bad novel still remains a bad novel. The brilliant translation of a bad poem can't help but be a good poem.

But that makes translation of poetry especially difficult because if words can mean many things in a poem in your own language how do you decide which is the best one to use when translating from another?

The fact is there is no such thing as an absolutely correct translation of a poem. Because if each reading of an English language poem is an act of interpretation by the English language reader (you can agree on quite a lot but not on everything) how much more difficult it must be to translate from a language where you may not be aware of many of the possible meanings of the poem for its own original readers.

It seems impossible and so it is. But that is why we try, and every time we try we establish a small area of possibility. In fact if we are doing it well we are doing more than that: we are establishing an area of possibility that is itself a poem and the world is never poorer for a new good poem, which is like a new piece of knowledge of the world.

There are a good many such areas of possibility and I want to think about some of them. I have sorted them out into six and a bit categories not because I think the categories are strict but because, in my time as a judge of the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation, I have simply noticed them. The examples I quote are not necessarily those I think best – anything that gets on the short list is very good and there are many wonderful translations among the prizewinners – but those I think make the point quickly and clearly.
Here they are:

1. Translations of famous poems in the major European languages that look and sound much like their originals

Here's a good example. It's la Fontaine's famous 'The Cricket and the Ant' as translated by Johanna Reimann-Dubbers in the 14-and-under category in 2010. It's a simple but sprightly poem translated in a skilful, sprightly manner that conveys the original poem's teasing playfulness with plenty of energy in English. It is not that the translation is copying everything in the original but the translator understands it and we, the readers, believe in the poem, which not only looks quite a lot like the original but has its spirit too. Its spirits are catching. In the Open category there is the constantly virtuosic work of Jane Tozer to show us ways it can be done, or John Richmond's translation from Victor Hugo's 'The Retreat from Moscow'.

2. Translations from famous poems that have often been translated but are vigorously reinvented and re-imagined so we see them anew

One of the most dramatic examples of this was Paul Batchelor's translation of a famous passage in Dante's Inferno, where he changed the original terza rima form of it and supplied a new one. Its freshness is like having a cold cloth applied to your brow when you are falling asleep. It certainly wakes you up.

Such things are a risk and people might claim they are not proper translations at all. The difficulty lies in defining a proper translation. But there are lots of translations of world famous poems. That's what makes them world famous. A new translation can afford to take risks because the old ones are established. Paul Batchelor's translation is a big risk but it takes us right back to an original that suddenly looks like a great discovery – as it would have done to its original readers.

3. Skilful translations of any poem from any language, the original poem clearly requiring a high level of formal or other skill

Many poems in the original have a formal character. Form is not decoration, nor is it something different from the meaning. It is a part of the meaning. It is the way the poem addresses us. But we should remember that form in one language doesn't necessarily mean the same in another. So, for example, Greek and Latin hexameters had a familiarity to their original listeners and readers that they don't have for us and we might – though not always – have to find equivalents. This translation by David Meijer (in the 14-and-under category of 2012) of a poem by Dutch poet, Annie M. G. Schmidt, 'The Lion Is Loose', shows great skill in not only presenting us with a natural sounding English rhymed equivalent but also in moving the loose lion from Amsterdam to London.

Having said that classical metres don't hold the same position in English as they would have done in their own time, there are increasing numbers of translations where some equivalent of the metre is followed, such as this passage from Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by Anna Thornton in the 18-and-under category in 2006. Our ears become accustomed to the movement that gathers authority as it progresses. English language poetry is not stuck with a fixed bag of tricks. It never has been. We can learn and adapt. Also look at the excellent translation of a part of Homer's Iliad by Naomi Ackerman (18-and-under, 2009).

4. Translations that in some way re-interpret, possibly update, a famous poem in an archaic language, or an older form of a current language including English.

Form isn't everything, or rather, form isn't metre and rhyme alone. Copying metre and rhyme doesn't always work unless the translation falls as naturally into our ears as we assume the original did into the ears of those who first read it. There are many ways of translating old text for a modern reader. It's good to look at Meghan Purvis's translation – the winner of the 2011 Open category – of some lines from the Old English of Beowulf. Beowulf had recently been translated into modern English by Seamus Heaney so a slightly different approach was necessary. Purvis has written three beautiful quatrains of English verse that arise out of the original rather than follow close on its heels.

That is a subtle way of doing it. The marvellous work of Jane Draycott on the Old English of Pearl is another example.

There are more obvious modernisations, such as this version of the Roman poet Catullus by Joseph McCrudden, who was joint-winner of the 14-and-under Prize in 2006. It's a consciously cool adaptation, as if Catullus lived in our time, in our kind of society. It doesn't look like the original at all, but it catches the flavour with a real raciness. One could have too much of mere coolness but this carries a real gusto and ends beautifully.

5. Translations of songlike or narrative poems that depend on an apparently simple language and respond to it simply, clearly, economically, with a natural grace of their own.

Simplicity is never as easy as it looks. Translating an apparently simple poem means hearing the clean, clear sound of the original and finding an equivalent. We may think all water is the same, but we know from experience that the apparently clear plain flavour has many varieties in many places. It is the source and processing of water, its local production that make it what it is. So with the translation. Clear water for clear water. Cadence for cadence. Here Josie Chubb, the winner of the 14-and-under prize in 2007, renders a short poem by Pierre Reverdy into an English that touches base with an almost timeless clarity.

And this beautiful translation by Allen Prowle (winner of the Open category in 2007) from the Italian of Attilio Bertolucci carries the lyrical conviction of the original without apparently working at it at all.

6. Translations that introduce us to poems from less known languages that should be better known and do so with conviction.

These are very valuable. There are so many languages beside those we immediately think of as world languages, some of them spoken by many millions of people, each with its rich store of experienced as poetry.

There is 'Omolkaanthi' from the Bengali (hardly a minority language!) translated by Damayanti Chatterji, this beautiful translation into majestic simple English from the original Irish of Derry O'Sullivan by Kaarina Hollo and one from the Welsh of Hedd Wyn by Iona Hannagan Lewis.

But you'll find poems from the Bosnian, from Flemish, from Vietnamese, from Old Norse, from Russian, from Hungarian, from Esperanto and many others – not to mention Classical Chinese, Japanese. We could always do with more.

That is not to say that there is a peculiar charity towards translations simply for being from less submitted languages – it is the quality of the translation that matters – but that they are very welcome.

An extra plug for poems that are not translated into standard English

There are poems that use non-standard English to take wonderful liberties, like A. C. Clarke's interpretation of a prose poem of Baudelaire into Scots verse and Brian Holton's translation from Classical Chinese into Scots, re-titled 'Spring Sun on the Watterside Clachan'. There is often something to be gained by translating a classical work into the most vigorous colloquial at your disposal. It can become overbearing but not if you love the language into which you are translating.

Love is the key: love and distrust. You can never get too cuddly with language because it will slip out of your arms and likely bite you back.

And do read what the translators themselves say about their work. You may recognise yourself there – or at least some part of yourself, and recognition is the unspoken part of poetry.