‘Translation is the opposite of war ’ Sarah Maguire
‘Who we choose to translate is political. How we choose to translate is political.’ Jen Hofer and John Pluecker‘s ‘Manifesto for Ultratranslation’
How I got into translation
I embarked on poetry translation, and now literary translation too, because my parents in Bradford voted ‘leave’.
I was furious, but reconciliation was called-for. I found myself, curiously, revisiting the affinity I’d found with east Berliners when I lived there post-reunification. My austere childhood in northern England had seemed similar to theirs in the GDR. I realised my parents’ ‘left-behind’ feelings and ‘cultural loss’ feelings parallel those of today’s east Germans, whose sense of injustice I can understand. It would seem to be one reason for east Germans voting for the AfD. Germany’s east-west divide mirrors England’s north-south divide, and the latter makes me at least as angry as the Brexit fiasco.
Motivated by empathy I began my exploration of (primarily east) German contemporary poetry. My main curiosity has been about living poets whose creative lives have been fed by having belonged to the GDR, then being taken in (or over, as some would say) by a non-socialist society. There is a rich seam of poets in Saxony… There is just so much to discover.
To cut a long story short, I’ve been in a poet-to-poet relationship with the award-winning east German poet and German Book Prize-winning novelist Kathrin Schmidt since 2017. For the year starting May 2018 I had an Arts Council grant to support my translation of her poetry plus the writing of my own poetic responses to it.
Why Kathrin? We are age-peers and her politics attracted me: socialist, feminist. I’m entertained by her mixing of coarseness and intellect; her themes of identity, gender and the body; her eroticism and subversiveness – while seeming a conventional grandmother living in a family home, back garden strewn with toys and sandpit.
Translations to date
Yearbook on Sustainable Economics, twenty-nine international papers, co-translated with Friederike Debus, AG Spak Bücher, Neu-Ulm, 2002
nomansland magazine: translations of four poems by Kathrin Schmidt, Issue 13, winter 2018
Twenty translations of Kathrin Schmidt’s poems: I am currently completing a manuscript comprising these poems plus my responses and a commentary, the result of my one-year Arts Council of England funded project.
East German short story collection (in progress): the award of a residency for 2020 has made it possible for me to translate from German a short story collection I’ve discovered that I think is great.
Multiple further works-in-planning are stuffed in a box-file and include contemporary and historical German poets, French poets, and a co-translated Chinese poet. I also plan to translate a historical German musical play, and so on; all alongside, and providing inspiration for, my own poetry and fiction-writing.
Inspirations and quotations
Prof Fiona Sampson was my first poetry translation tutor. I met her at the University of East Anglia Literary Translation summer school in 2018. She is brilliant, and it was life-transforming. And Fiona is involved in the following:
The Poettrio Experiment is a UK-based innovation in the sphere of poetry translation-into-English that I‘m really excited about. Why? Because it permits the participation of the likes of me, a non-linguistically-educated (though in my case keenly language-learning) poet. A ‘Poettrio’ is a collaborative process between a poet who has written a source text, a language advisor who is an expert in the source and target languages, and a poet (rather than some sort of qualified translator) who writes in the target language. The trio work together in person to translate source poems, with the language advisor facilitating communication between the poets and assisting with language comprehension and choices. The trio draw on a printed ‘interlinear’ text which is a line-for-line literal translation (as far as that is possible), giving explanations of culture-specific content if necessary. The interlinears are produced in advance of the trio session by language advisors. Great stuff. And furthermore, here’s a statement about ‚Translation after Brexit’ from the 2018 Poettrio summit I attended in London: As Britain struggles with the new isolationism, translation emerges as a key cultural tool. Our newly endangered relationship with Europe is a crucible for paradigms of world neighbourliness, from soft diplomacy to cultural industry. The ethos expressed here affirms my newfound zeal.
Sarah Maguire who died in 2017 feistily advocated ‘anti-elitist translation’. To quote from her 2008 StAnza lecture: ‘Translating poetry, especially if, like me, you don’t speak the language of your poet, demands patience and humility. What I’ve never wanted to produce are those show-off translations, so beloved of some of my colleagues, who use a distinguished poet’s work to further their own careers and who have a cavalier attitude (at best) to the original poet’s genius. [. . .] Translation always involves the translator taking a position—an aesthetic position and an ethical position. Does the translator wish to negotiate with, or to dominate, the poet they’re translating? Is their main aim to enhance their own reputation, or do they want to introduce a new voice into English poetry by attempting to render the original poet’s own work as vividly and vitally as possible? Plundering another poet’s work to produce yet another riff on your own anomie is child’s play.‘ Maguire attacked the“Imperial method” of translation as routinely practised by many Western universities and literary establishments, a “method” which she felt utterly disregarded the aesthetic and ethical positions a translator should take, instead turning the translated poem into a commodity to be traded – or not – according to the university or press’s own interests.
The Poetry Translation Centre was founded in 2004 by the politically motivated (see above) late Sarah Maguire. ‘The methodology she instigated was to translate in a seminar-style group situation and the aim was to produce readable and enjoyable English renditions of poems written in non-English languages’ (Andre Naffis-Sahely). The PTC has my gratitude for the training ground it offers to us poets. We can participate in its group translation workshops once a fortnight (though it means trekking to London), and hone our skills. Naffis-Sahely again: ‘The PTC’s collaborative approach [keeps] most workshop participants firmly rooted in modesty, a quality [Maguire] believed was otherwise absent in most Western translation circles, whether academic or literary.’ Read Naffis-Sahely’s article on Sarah Maguire here.
Deborah Smith: an inspiration! She won the Booker Translation Prize together with author Han Kang (2016) causing controversy because Smith had taught herself Korean, starting from scratch only six years prior to the translation’s publication. Established figures in the field, defensive of their elite skills and knowledge, trashed her translation. Smith is founder of the radical Tilted Axis Press which specialises in translating the literature of under-represented languages, especially from Asia. Her famous essay on literary translation – see here – is another anti-establishment voice in the world of translating-into-English.
John Dryden: ‘Providing a good translation of a poem is harder than writing a new poem, in which one is always free to change direction. Although the thought of a poem may not be its main poetic constituent, the translator has the responsibility to be as faithful to it as the conflicting interests of rhythm and sound permit; certainly he is not free, except in “imitations” to follow his will’ (Preface to Ovid’s Epistles, 1680).
John Berger (my paraphrase):
‘True translation is not a binary affair between two languages, but a triangular affair. The third point of the triangle is: what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written. True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal. […] A language is a living creature. […] Read and reread the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them to reach, to touch, the vision or experience that prompted them. Then gather up what one has found there; take this quivering almost wordless “thing” that is waiting to be articulated…’
Sasha Dugdale gets lyrical about the translator-to-poet relationship. Some extracts: ‘Translating someone’s work means listening to them so intently you can hear their pulse, you can hear them pausing to swallow… synthesis of your own subconscious and theirs… an act of enormous sympathy between the poet and the translator […] A poem is… an instinct or a sensation, a memory or a yearning… [We] attempt to befriend that initial impulse […] When my sympathy is engaged I am bound to want to make the poem live in my own tongue […] The old clichés about ‘bridge’ and ‘exchange’ are useless because they imply stasis and distance: two rocky islands with a cautious footbridge between them.’ Read her article in full here.
Shahla Badir Naghiyeva says (my paraphrasing): ‘poetry translation is much more difficult than other types of translation due to the translator having the responsibility of not only grasping the meaning of the original, but also, feeling it as the poet has experienced it, and then transferring the same feelings to the target language – through that language’s own literary and stylistic devices – so that it sounds like a poem to the new audience. Hence it would seem to follow that a creative writing gift on the part of the translator is essential to the (most) successful translation of poetry and literature‘. I myself have come to the literary translation endeavour as a poet and writer, not an academic linguist. I share Naghiyeva’s opinion that ‘it goes without saying that translating poetry is a creative task, and not all skilful translators can be involved in this process’. See full article here.