Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Judging Translations

Stephen Spender

I am talking primarily about judging translations of poetry rather than prose fiction.

I was one of the judges of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2004 but that was quite different because the balance between judging the work and its translation was - is, I think - tilted towards judging the work as you perceive it through the translation.

And you can do this reasonably well, because even when a great novel is merely adequately translated the main outlines of the work are still visible. The novel's structure, treatment of plot, character, level of psychological perception, and so forth, will not be altogether obscured by a reasonable if uninspired translation. On the other hand the translation is the grace note that can raise a book to an even higher level. That is the point of effectiveness on which the prize is judged. However, a brilliant translation of a bad novel still remains a bad novel.

In poetry, though, so much is invested in language that it needs more than competence to leave the reader with any sense of the poem's nature and scope. The translator's art is far more conspicuous. Baudelaire's Edgar Allan Poe is a greater poet in French - it is often said by English language readers - than he is in the original English.


My thoughts here are prompted by being part of the panel judging the Stephen Spender Prize over the last few years. (It might be my time to retire now).  As concerns the Open category, it was the finest year yet in my experience. Other judges said the same.

There is, of course, an immediate problem. There are far more languages being translated than lie in any particularly panel's competence to judge. A smattering of a language won't do. At least one of the judges has to be able to feel in the other language too.  The trouble is four judges are not going to have all the translated languages between them. But then the juries are not there to judge of philology or linguistics, unless these seem to be particularly problematic in something that seems convincing otherwise. When in doubt, any translation of an original poem in an unknown language can be sent out to a language specialist for advice.

These are some of the broad categories of attractive translations received. I am assuming French, German, Spanish, and Italian to be the core European languages, but also Latin according to education chances. Less so Ancient Greek:

1. Virtuosic translations of justly famous formal poems in one of the core European languages

2. Ditto of lesser known formal poems by famous poets in one of the core European languages.

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

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

4. Translations that render a lively narrative in a historic or archaic language as above, by subtle use of rhythm and register

5. Translations that manage to render recognised complexities in any language by way of invention or skill

6. Translations that manage to render assumed complexities in any language not known to the panel

7. Translations that effectively render the simplicity or clarity of language in a first-rate poem that is chiefly dependent on narrative.

8. Translations that take some liberties with the original but produce outstanding poems that point directly to the original and would not exist without it.

9. Skilful translations of poems in lesser known, or possibly minority languages anywhere that are interesting, or even important in broadening the field of appreciation

10. The utterly unknown that we only know by translation, but which blows us away by its sheer beauty or energy.

I may be missing some other aspects but that covers most of it.  Ten seems far too convenient a number. There are, of course, differences of age, experience, education, and between translators whose original language is that of the poem and translators who are translating into their native language. We don't have any such information at the time of reading, except that some of the translators were in the 14-and-under category, some were aged between 14 and 18, and the rest were over 18. These three distinct groups have their own competitions and prizes.

I stress it is entirely my list of categories. I made it up. It does not exist as any form of guideline. Not that it would help if it were a guideline. Nevertheless it is interesting to see the various birds of various feathers, the various forms of the cloud of unknowing we face.

The difficulty is in comparing a fine example of any one category with a fine example of another category. Judging is very hard and likely to be swayed by the firm opinions of other judges: at the same time, any one of the judges could suddenly see something they hadn't seen before.


In the end my gut feeling is that it is a gut feeling about the English language poem in front of the panel that decides it.

My personal gut feeling is that, in the end, it has to be apprehended as a first-rate poem in itself, so you say: This is a marvellous poem, and then think: Ah, it has an original that resembles it this way and that.

My personal gut feeling is that it's cloud on cloud, mounting.

1 comment:

havantaclu said...

Some years ago I read two translations of a short part of 'Oedipus at Colonos' to my husband. He doesn't have a literary background at all. Of one, he said, 'that's just striving for effect'; of the other, 'that man's telling the truth.' I expect you can guess the translators, but just to confirm: the first was W.B Yeats, the second, Stephen Spender.

The poet, then, needs to convey the truth. Whether in an original, or in a translation.

Would you agree?

Love and peace