Monday, 5 September 2011

Being translated into oneself 3: the chase and the three-legged race

I am currently judging - along with three other judges - the Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry Translation. There are hundreds of poems to read, by children, by older school pupils, and by adults. The commentaries by the adults are often learned, dedicated, hopeful, wise. Sometimes they are re-translating the well-known work of the well-known, sometimes the lesser-known work of the well-known, at other times the work of poets well-known in their languages but little known - or unknown - here. Some present us with several poets, some with a series of translations from just one. Some translations are glitteringly formal, even jauntily so, some are supple and move freely between the lines of the original looking for an appropriate seam to mine. Some of the poets translated are contemporary: the majority are historical.

The famous names - Ovid, Baudelaire, Rilke, Neruda, Prévert - gallop past us. The French come romping home, a whole length ahead of the Spanish with the Latins and the Germans a head behind them. The Italians are in the middle distance with the Ancient Greeks, the Russians and the Chinese neck and neck, half a length behind them. The rest are nowhere.

No, but when they appear they strike us with their sheer rarity: a Catalan, a Malaysian, a Tibetan, a Romanian, an Old Norse, a Danish, a Swedish, a Sindebele, plus a couple of Yiddish, a couple of Hungarians, a couple of Czechs and Anglo-Saxons. Six Welsh, seven Dutch, eight Portuguese. But they all finish the course and enter the paddocks of the modern English language one way or another.

Poetry translation isn't a branch of scholarship, not exactly. The dull, correct, fully footnoted, dutiful trot isn't going to get anywhere. Poetry is supposed to be exciting. The problem is that excitement is generated from within a language, not across languages. A spark passes between the two - at the beginning, in the process, it hardly matters - and the translation tries to live with it, to make it its own while continually glancing across to its source. To stick with the racing analogy, it isn't a three-legged race, it's a parallel sprint.

There is a point at which translators feel as pleased with themselves as if the poem were theirs, and they the poet. Sometimes the receiving language believes them. So-and-so's Shakespeare is better the the original, the readers cry, knowing the original - if they know it at all - only as a second language. The reward of the translator is not in the recognition, and certainly not in the reward, but in the excitement.

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