Monday, 27 July 2015

BCLT Summer School:
Translating Poetry 1

BCLT is the British Centre of Literary Translation as founded at the University of East Anglia by W G (Max) Sebald in 1989. The Summer School, as the name implies, is an annual event, a week in which writers, translators and those wishing to be translators gather together. Each year particular languages are chosen for particular attention with a writer from each. This year's languages are Dutch, German, Italian, Korean  and Norwegian. The writers bring a recent book or a book in preparation, and an experienced translator (generally the writer's usual translator, if there is a usual translator) then sets to work with the students to examine and translate a few pages of the book.

My own role this year (I used to be on the board of trustees of the BCLT) was not unlike my role on two previous occasions, that being to work with those whose are not part of any of the given language groups and to devise a week's worth of useful and rewarding activity for them. On previous occasions the students were translating poems from English into their own languages, such as Czech, Polish, Hebrew, Russian etc. Now it is reversed. They are - five of them in all - translating from a foreign language into English, those languages being Bengali, Japanese, French, Italian and Spanish. We can't simply do what the set language groups are doing because everyone is from different languages and because I don't really speak any of them (except some French). Nor do they all speak each other's languages. Our procedures must be quite different from the collective efforts of those all working in the same language and concentrating on the same text.

There is a similar multilingual group for prose. I am not sure what they are doing but it would be interesting to find out.


The last time I did this was a few years ago so this year required some rethinking. This turned out to be the rubric that went out to them before they arrived.
Should poetry in translation be rendered as poetry and, if so, what are the essential aspects of the poetry we are trying to translate? Can we  divorce some elements of a poem from others in order to focus on the essential? Is there an essential at all? If poetry is, as Robert Frost claimed, what is lost in the translation, what do we sacrifice - or gain - by attempting it?
Since this group is translating from a variety of languages we will need some common touchstones where we already possess a range of possibilities. For that reason we will look at variant translations from Psalm 23 in the Bible; at Catullus, Carmine 5 (the 5 versions given in The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation), and two version of Paul Celan’s famous ‘Death Fugue’, as translated by Michael Hamburger and John Felstiner.
Students should bring with them a few poems they are looking to translate, a literal version of two of them, complete with their own notes on the nature and difficulties of the texts.

I said "a few poems" there. I suggested five in the end, not because we would succeed in translating all of them but because it is good to have options

The poems mentioned in the rubric formed part 1 of a pack they received on their first meeting this morning, and also included a short poem in Hungarian by Zsuzsa Rakovszky, complete with a basic glossary and some notes on background, style and so forth.

Part 2 comprises my own translation games: 7 versions of Mandelstam's Voronezh, 16 variations on an Akhmatova couplet, an invented short poem by Paul Celan in the form of two imagined translations (one by Hamburger, one by Felstiner) and, at the end, three variations of Apollinaire's Les Fenêtres. Part 2 is for later.


The first two sessions, both today, are given over to exploration of the territory.

So the starting point is poetry is itself. People introduce themselves, talk about their encounters with poetry and with translation, both writing and reading. Why have they chosen poetry? What is it they have chosen? What makes people write it? Is the prompt something simple or is it a complex of prompts acting together? How do they recognise the approach of a potential poem? What kind of feeling is it?

Then on to the essential characteristics of poetry. There is the association with music and dance, the idea of lines and sentences, the sense of economy and compression, the uses of ambiguity, the idea of form as set or invented or discarded, the whole idea of interpretation.

I want to focus on two of those main issues out of which arise many more. The first is the idea of meaning, the second the uses and qualities of formality.

For meaning I offer them William Blake's The Sick Rose and we look for levels of interpretation. Then we examine seven versions of Psalm 23, beginning with the King James bible. We think of still waters, quiet waters, cool waters, peaceful water, of streams, of waters of repose. We think of the valley of the shadow of death and what happens when the valley vanishes, or when death becomes simply a figure, or when the valley is merely gloomy (all these are in the variants). We consider that Bible in English is itself a translation. We think of the idea of sacred text, of text as theology, of text as tradition and so forth.

In the second session we read Catullus Carmine V in Latin then consider the translations, all pretty well contemporaneous: Campion's (1601), Corkine's (1612), Jonson's (1607), Chatwin's (c1685) and Langhorne's (c 1778). All rhyme when Catullus doesn't. All employ standard English iambics, some pentametric, some tetrametric, some in quatrains. Almost all of them edit the Catullus and take considerable liberty with it. Was it because everyone educated was supposed to know the Latin anyway? And if they take all these liberties are they translations at all? What are they? What are some of the other terms we might used to describe the spectrum of activities called, broadly, translation, for example version, imitation, adaptation, interpretation? Are these sufficient? What obligation do we have to various kinds of text? And what does the obligation to fidelity mean?

Big questions leading to ever more questions. We end the day by comparing the two Todesfuge translations. This poem too has an almost sacred status now. What do Hamburger and Felstiner's versions have in common and in what do they differ? Felstiner uses ever more German in his version? Why would one wish to retain some German in a translation into English? Celan's is all in the same language?

Today was dedicated to the questions. The deepest questions are those that ask (a) what is a poem, and (b) what is a translation? The answers I received are themselves interesting and lead to more questions so this brief summing up is something of a crude sketch.

1 comment:

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

I have translated from Russian: 'The Tiny Hunchbacked Horse' and 'The Poisoned Tunic'(both available from I also tried to translate Baudelaire's 'Les Fleurs du Mal' but quickly realised that I couldn't possibly hope to improve on existing translations.

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish