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Translating Poetry From Antique Lands

To write in another voice and from another time

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I spent some of my teenage years at school attempting to translate ancient Latin and Greek poetry into versions of spoken English. I remember most of our tyro efforts to decipher the Classics as stumbling translationese. A. E. Housman parodies the problems brilliantly in his ‘Fragment of a Greek Tragedy’ where the Chorus begins:

O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots
                   Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
                   Whence by what way how purposed art thou come
                   To this well-nightingaled vicinity?

Since then, I have tried to write poems in English and from time to time I have translated individual poems, ancient and modern, into English versions. The models and motives vary but it is both an escape and an extension to write in another voice and from another time, however much of a fiction that may be. The Romans, Catullus, Martial and Hadrian, the anonymous medieval Latin Archpoet, Michelangelo and the modern Greek poet Myrtiotissa have each received my attentions in the past decade or so. Indeed, the options facing a translator are now so diverse that I once produced ten variants of one Catullus poem (Carmen CI) and called the result ‘Versions and Perversions’.

In some ways, too, translation of a sort is at the heart of all writing. How does one convert this idea, incident, feeling, impression, thought, person, figment or fantasy into its equivalent in words? With a poem in another language and from an ‘antique land’, the verbal artefact is already there and will remain the same whether you manage to produce an equivalent version or not.

As the editors Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule say in their Introduction to The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation (1995), ‘Translation is doomed to metaphor. The words are bound together in their very roots: we get ‘translation’ from a Latin word for carrying something across, and ‘metaphor’ from its Greek equivalent.’ And later they add: ‘Where translation is concerned, then, dullness is deadly, and the field of classical verse in English translation is certainly strewn with unredeemed carcasses.’ I agree.

Sometimes, however, the act of translation is a way of getting closer to an original poem and staying close to the texture of that original. The activity must be somewhat like a conservator or restorer working on a painting although a clumsy or ignorant restorer can irrevocably damage a masterpiece whereas a translator of poetry can merely misrepresent it. The Sistine Chapel is a case in point. When the great Michelangelo was painting the ceiling for Pope Julius II, he wrote a tailed sonnet complaining about the physical trials of painting while lying on his back on scaffolding. A colleague introduced me to the sonnet and I had enough Latin to make sense of the Italian with the help of expert commentaries. Eventually, after a number of failed attempts, I produced a version and in my remarks on it I referred to the recalcitrant nature of the artist’s materials, paint, words or whatever.

Otherwise, I can be provoked into trying to translate a poem by the seeming ineptitude of the plain prose translation offered in small print underneath. This happened to me once with Myrtiotissa (1883 –1967). I was dipping into The Penguin Book of Greek Verse (ed. Constantine A.Trypanis) which selects from one of the longest unbroken literary traditions in the world when I read the pedestrian words which provided a translation of the rapturous love poem by Myrtiotissa above them. They were enough to induce me to attempt a more or less faithful version in rhyming English verse which took me ages and still fell short.
Faithful or free is often the question but it is not usually as simple as that when it comes to translating a poem. On this topic, the preoccupations for a translator of poetry have been admirably expressed by the poet, George Szirtes:

‘There will always remain the question of the faithful translation. The difficulty is deciding what it is one should be faithful to. A poem is a complex whole made up of many elements, not one of which has an exact equivalent in another language. Yet we hope for recognition, for some ideal combination of surface and depth fidelities. The ideal doesn’t exist. But living translations do: echo on echo on echo.’
                                      From the Stephen Spender Prize booklet, 2009

For what I suspect are temperamental reasons, I tend to be rather more successful when translating wry or dry humour rather than lengthily plangent and tragic profundities, although I like to think that some of my more vivid translations tend to the tragicomic or elegiac: Hadrian ‘On His Soul’, for example, or The Archpoet’s ‘Confession’. My alter egos would perhaps like to be able to produce a lively acting version of, for instance, The Bacchae by Euripides but others can do it so much better, sometimes by taking more liberties with the original than I would feel entitled to. In some cases of literary adaptation, it even seems to help writers not to know (much of) the original language. And yet recent years have seen highly enterprising new translations by scholarly experts of such longer works as The Iliad, The Odysse y, and De Rerum Natura by Lucretius.

I am full of admiration for those assiduous translators of poetry who devote their hours and indeed years to translating the long or complete works of a poet. However, I could not immerse my mind so comprehensively in the full works of another writer, as I fear that my own work, such as it is, would be overwhelmed. The closest I have come to working on that scale is by translating around a hundred selected epigrams by the Roman poet Martial.

As a schoolboy in the 1960s, I remember encountering in the London Magazine the early versions of Christopher Logue’s War Music, his adaptations of The Iliad, and I thought then how very unlike Homer’s hexameters they were, as we were set to translate them. I now have much more admiration for such wholesale rewritings but I still think it tends to be a case of Ted Hughes’ Ovid and Tony Harrison’s Sophocles. I also admire Robert Lowell’s impressively wide-ranging Imitations but, or rather because, they refashion the poems of other writers into versions of Lowellese.

Over the years, I have collected some stimulating quotations about poetry and the art of translation, apart from such famous remarks as Robert Frost’s ‘Poetry is what gets lost in translation.’ As far as I know, Frost published no translations whatsoever. Philip Larkin said:

Almost all translations seem to me to be poetic zombies, assemblages of properties walking around with no informing intelligence or soul, unless the original poem can be digested in the imagination of its translator and used to produce a new poem.

By contrast, in Stepping Stones (2008) Seamus Heaney admitted:

I now actually like translation because it’s a form of writing by proxy: you get the high of finishing something you don’t have to start.

Although Cervantes may have said that translation is like looking at a tapestry from the wrong side, it is also important to remember Anthony Burgess’ dictum: ‘Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture.’

I enjoy those anthologies which present a classical poet in English translations over time: Ovid in English or Horace in English. They are reminders of how poetic fashions change and how each era seems to remake admired poets in its own somewhat reductive images. Relatively rare is the translation which becomes a definitive work in its own right but for me one of the prime examples is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Edward Fitzgerald. As he said in 1859: ‘Better a live sparrow than a stuffed eagle’, but it may help us as readers to have no working knowledge of the original Farsi. Instead, we encounter in Fitzgerald’s work a Victorian poet liberated by his perceptions of another culture.

Paul Valéry famously said: I write half the poem; the reader writes the other half. And he also said that to translate poetry is like trying to dance while loaded with chains. Sometimes that is what writing poetry can feel like too. So where do translating poems and reading those translations take us? They expand our potentially insular and self-centred horizons and help us to approach people and cultures that might otherwise seem remote and obscure. They help us to gain an insight into other times, distant places and into others’ minds which may or may not seem like ours.

Behind the alien or dead languages, however, there is the breathing of fresh life and revitalised humanity into words and characters that previously lay inert on the page. The very act and effort translates us to and from ourselves and the long dead can sometimes speak to us again in a language unknown to them.

Poet Duncan Forbes read Classics and then English at Oxford. He has published six collections of poems, the most recent being Lifelines, his selected poems.

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