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.

Tuesday 14 July 2015

Greece and Europe

In view of a brief exchange about the loss of idealism in Europe, I want to clear my own relatively uninformed and inexpert mind a little.

 As I understand it the EU consists of three ideas in no particular order of importance:

An arrangement that ensures European powers do not go to war with each other which entails agreement over certain core principles and methods involving representation. Core agreements mean little in law unless they are codified. The various countries of Europe are free to apply to be a member of this union. Once in it they are required to comply.

The sense of this in an ever more globalised world is that Europe may act on a more equal footing with the great continental powers of China, Russia, the United States, and, in due course, India, part of South America and the countries of what used to be colonies in Africa and Asia. It also implies a care for the general wealth and well-being of the people of its member states.

The Common Market and all that that involves including lifting of trade barriers, some pooling of resources which includes financial resources in institutions such as banks and funds. The pooling of those financial resources have led to developments in banking (not in Europe alone) and the establishment of a common currency (in parts of Europe).

People talk about idealism and about betrayal. My own idealism, or rather hope, is entirely invested in (1). It assumes a sharing of most political and cultural values as well as a belief in the best Europe has to offer in those fields, meaning government by some form of democratic representative consensus and agreement on certain values combining the best of the Enlightenment, though not The Enlightenment alone, but any major cultural work embodying the range of European streams of thought and feeling including all that have continually entered and refreshed Europe while remaining within the scope of Europe and continue to do so

As to (2) I assume some of it is necessary to achieve (1) not only in constitutional and cultural but also in security terms.

I am in no position to understand (3) except in terms of certain values implicit in (1) and, to a lesser extent in (2). Neither (2) nor (3) is an object of idealism.


As concerns Greece, the causes of the current crisis seem to be to be complex but the effects are simple enough.  Causes, as I read,

On Greece's part: a long history of corruption since the Colonels in 1970; a long history of tax evasion; extremely generous, possibly unrealistic social packages for people in certain important sections of society; deception about Greece's financial situation at the point of joining the Euro (or was it the EU itself?); over-dependence on one or two key industries.

On the EU's financial part: As with all the banks in the western sphere, the encouragement of endless credit, an encouragement based on an economic model that has been shown to be irresponsible and divisive; the encouragement of the same debt to the advantage of some individuals, corporations and possibly states at the expense of others, certainly at the expense of people outside the corridors and levers of power

Effects are simple. Mass unemployment, danger of financial collapse, sense of helplessness and resentment in Greek people whose responsibility for the condition of the Greek economy is pretty minimal. Like many other people in Europe, the US and other places, they did as the bank advised and spent and borrowed. (I lost count of the number of leaflets we received from the banks exhorting us to borrow more.)

The situation is generally presented as Germany versus Greece, but Germany isn't alone in its demands: Finland, Holland and the Baltic states and others are just as pressing. Some have already undergone spells of severe austerity (more severe than in the UK).They have, as cliché has it,  "tightened belts" and don't see why the Greeks should get away with less.

Except Greeks haven't got away with less. They are in a horrible mess with no hope of repaying what is required of them, and the interest mounts.


If we take the most favourable view of the EU, in view of the record so far, it is not surprising that it is reluctant to take the word of Greek governments without some proof. There is also the fear of setting a precedent that could bring the whole house down some time.

I can't take a favourable view of the activities of the banks or the models on which they have operated because I can't see one. The principle of the virtuous circle whereby debt means spending means consumption means production means employment means investment means borrowing means more debt etc. was brought crashing down in 2008. Promises are just promises and money is just money in the end but  the ever more concentrated ownership of real estate, of resources, of means of production, of art objects-as-investment and the creaming off of vast profits at the exchange point are levers of real despotic power, however subtly phrased or sold.

I am very sympathetic to a Marxist reading of history and to its analysis of economic interests at any time but it seems fairly obvious that socialism and its fair-weather-friend, social liberalism, is on the retreat pretty well everywhere and most people, for now, feel they have to live with things as they are. There is no great revolutionary mood, or at least, not a coherent one, nor an ideology with a programme.

It will be interesting to see how Jeremy Corbyn fares in the Labour leadership election. It will be interesting to see how far the SNP represents a left-leaning body of ideas beyond its nationalism.

In the meantime the desperation and hopelessness of Greeks is a terrible lesson in something we are only just learning.

Europe isn't idealism. It is the sum of what we are and have been.

Monday 6 July 2015

Poetry as Protest
Positive Action and Negative Capability

These are some reflections on the event in which I took part at Ledbury Poetry Festival yesterday. It was the event for which I had originally been booked but owing to various cancellations by other people I found myself in three others: a reading with Chris McCabe and Jo Bell on Friday, a celebration of Maya Angelou on Saturday, and a dialogue with Maddy Paxman about her late husband, the poet Michael Donaghy, on Sunday, right before the protest discussion.

The invitation came about because I had written the introduction to the anthology, Catechism, in support of Pussy Riot (the first link is to this blog where I reprinted it, the second to the English PEN site, the book being downloadable as an e-book here), and a much more recent invitation from PEN to write a short piece about Protest as Dance.

The discussion involved Ursula Owen, Jo Glanville, Josh Ekroy (a late stand in for Sabrina Mahfouz - it was a tough year for late cancellations at Ledbury)

I don't want to rerun the discussion which was very well attended and meticulously prepared by Ursula who asked questions to which Jo, Josh, and myself provided answers as best we could. The central questions were whether there was such a thing as protest poetry (it being mostly assumed there was), whether we as poets felt an obligation to write it, whether poetry was effective as protest, what the subjects of protest poetry might be, what it might mean to write it in a society like ours (in my case in Hungary too) and whether there was solidarity among poets.

My most positive thoughts on the subject are in the Protest as Dance article above which values wit above slogans, grace above rage, and irony over polemic. My doubts, beyond that, are as follows, always accompanied by an on the other hand.

My first doubt concerns the Keatsian imperative about despising poetry that has a palpable design on us. That seems to me less poetry than an advertising of one's views. As I understand poetry it is a series of improvisations that discovers its complex of feelings from a certain instinctively known base. It doesn't exploit language or pretend to know everything: it moves and dances with words in the hope of discovery. On the other hand there is a brilliant history of satirical poems, some delicate, some savage, some both that clearly do have a target. The distinction then is not in the intent to articulate or attack a view but in the extra the verse does: in the nimbleness and surprise of its development. The poem is not a strategy: it is grace and wit in martial action. We have examples of it from Juvenal, through Pope and Swift and Shelley, well into the 20th century and beyond.

My second doubt concerns distance. There seems, occasionally, something almost disrespectful about writing protest poetry about those whose fate we may find difficult genuinely to comprehend, let alone share. We do, of course, have empathy, but apart from actually doing something - one would give water to a thirsty person - how far can we appropriate that person's thirst as an aspect of our imagination. Grub before ethics, as Brecht once said. On the other hand there is no easy answer to this, none at all: one has an imagination, one has feelings of empathy, what to do with them? One is a writer, therefore one writes. Perhaps one just has to be careful, to be a little humble about one's capacities and powers. There is little worse than someone bragging about their great heart. But that may  be my own squeamishness speaking.

My third doubt springs from the second and concerns risk. Few of us in the west risk anything by writing a poem about anything. That can relax us and make us intellectually flabby. We can make grand gestures but the police are not going to take us away. Frankly, we don't matter that much. We present no danger. You can publish the most scabrous cartoons against the government and the ministers will simply collect them as souvenirs. There was in the seventies, eighties and nineties - I have written this before - an almost tangible desire to live under tyranny if only so we might matter, so our poems might develop a moral edge sharp as a razor blade. We could write poems about say, Bosnia, but sending money was more useful. On the other hand we could both send money and write poems and if enough of us wrote poems, enough good poems, we might at least register the fact that some people - some artists - opposed whatever horror happened to be at hand at the time (no shortage of those).

My fourth doubt is about preaching to the converted. There is always a great danger of the good agreeing among themselves that they are in fact the good, and that anyone thinking anything slightly  different must be in league with the devil. (How can you possibly think that!?!) There is a party line in goodness and a poet should be against all party lines, even his or her own. In any case, the trouble is that 'the devil' thinks exactly the same and considers the other party the devil. ISIS has its poetry, as did the Nazis, the Stalins, the Pol Pots, the Francos, and the rest. As does the person who may share some but not all opinions with us. Poetry, like music, like art, does not invariably take the 'good' side.  Metaphor and ambiguity are at the heart of poetry. On the other hand there have been historical moments when a poem could trigger something, or at least encourage. There are the great anthems, the signature songs of movements, the songs sung by demonstrators and battalions (not necessarily our battalions). Poetry, in the sense of 'the poetic' is always needed: it is what makes life worth living, but the acute need can produce the real poem. When you have no shoes you need poems, said the Hungarian poet István Vas. Once you have shoes the poems seem less important.

That is enough doubt for now. I could go on but this much is worth saying. The pure Keatsian is full of negative capability, is always in doubt, but the world is not always Keatsian.

In the course of the discussion Josh and I were asked to read one of our relevant poems. The poems we read are now up on the PEN wall and can be read here. Josh's poem dances and is witty. It doesn't bully its readers nor does it assure them what splendid and heroic fellows they all are. I like it very much as a poem even before I like it as an opinion. My own poem, Cargo, imagines drowning, drowning without trace or significance. I think I can imagine that. Is it a protest poem? I doubt it would be chanted at the head of a procession.

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Free gigs, delights, running for trains

Brief reading for the anthology, Happiness: The Delight-Tree, produced the UN and World Heart Beat Music Academy, edited by  Bhikshuini Weisbrot, Darrel Alejandro Holnes and Elizabeth Lara.

Lovely event in the Academy which is situated in an old office building in Wandsworth, I share the readings with Mumamad Tawfiq Ali, Shirin Razavian, Gernot Blume (who plays the harp as well as writes), Shazea Quraishi and Greta Stoddart. There is also a choir of tiny children, all girls, who sing two short songs, one composed by two of them. The tiniest one, eyes shining, enthusiastically claps along with the audience when they end. Unfortunately I can't stay for Shirin, Shazea and Greta, and miss half the programme as I have to catch the last train back from King's Cross at 9:45.

It's delightful and a little mad. I read three of my poems on behalf of Hungary. I hope Hungary is duly grateful (Greta is England). Greta has come in from Devon, Gernot from Bingen in Germany. They are staying overnight in London: I have to return as I am doing a phone interview today, a concert tomorrow and Ledbury the rest of the time till Sunday night. My trip from Norfolk is about three and a half hours each way, so that's seven hours travel in all. Like everyone else I am doing this for free, without even travel expenses. My reading is seven minutes long. It's easily the hottest day of the year,

When I go, Sahana Gero - the artistic director of the academy - kindly drives me to the nearest tube, Southfields, so I should have an hour and twenty to make my train (55 minutes allowed by TFL). Unfortunately there are signal problems and the District Line crawls all the way to Earl's Court. Then the Piccadilly Line has a long delay at one of the stations to 'even out the timetable". At King's Cross the train is boarding on Platform 0. I run like mad to catch it and am relieved to find a seat. My lungs are bursting. I remember I am getting on towards sixty-seven and have diabetes 2. I have to stop a couple of times as I run which adds to the anxiety.

This is all a little crazy. I am more than a little crazy. I am downright stupid. I say to myself: I bet Carol Ann Duffy doesn't do this. I bet Don Paterson doesn't. I am willing to bet Simon Armitage doesn't either. This is not how pensioners behave. I might be wrong: perhaps even now, as I write, CAD is running to do a small spot on a free gig, paying her own fare, on her Laureate circuit. On the other hand Gernot, Greta, and Muhamad have traveled a good distance too - Gernot far further.

Was it worth it? The mindset I was born into is one that is always flattered to be invited anywhere and the idea of helping something good happen, even in the insignificant way of turning up to do a brief reading, is an enticement. Yes, is my middle name. But its hair is thinning and its lungs are not what they were.

Perhaps the gods will take that into account when the lungs, or something else, finally collapses 'No, sod off,' they will say. 'That too is vanity and self-flattery'.

Would the event have missed me anyway? I doubt it. I think I read well and the audience seemed enthusiastic enough. Maybe that's the reward, to think of it as seven hours and seven minutes well spent.

But this is thinking very loud indeed.