At a recent discussion of literature in translation I heard a number of people, including some eminent poetry translators, ask publicly, and in a sort of bewilderment, ‘who reads poetry in translation?’ Some of them even confessed that they didn’t – even though they devoted long hours to creating it.
Of course this is the familiar rhetorical self-deprecation. We are a modest bunch: we know that readers of poetry make up a fraction of the reading community, and of that select bunch an even more ‘elite’ group read poetry in translation. In fact many of us suspect we are related to our most regular readers, or at the very least know them by name.
But what lent us such a noble sense of our own obscurity? Our literary history has many examples of translated poetry which has changed lives, brought about revolutions, even deposed kings. I have been talking to secondary school students about translation. We begin by considering the work of Tyndale, translator of the Bible and supreme poet, whose translations were sent back to England from Germany hidden in bales of cotton and printed in books small enough to fit into the ploughboy’s pocket. We also discuss the translators of Homer, amongst them the sixteenth-century translator Chapman, whose work stirred Keats to write that he felt like a ‘watcher of the skies’ on seeing for the first time a new and unknown planet.
In both cases the translators allowed poetry apparently written for the elite to be read by those lower down the steep social pyramid. One of the reasons why Chapman’s Homer was a revelation to Keats was that Keats had not had the chance to study Ancient Greek. Without Chapman’s introduction Homer might have remained a distant stranger to the young poet. Tyndale’s translations were widely circulated and read by those who knew no Latin. This direct access to the word of God, couched in strong, unadorned poetry, filled with resonant phrase and clear metaphor, was a powerful blow against the ‘God-given’ authority of the church. Tyndale is reputed to have said to a ‘learned man’, ‘if God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost’. His life was not spared. Translation and poetry performed revolutionary work, and the church could only answer with garrotting and burning.
Chapman and Tyndale are particular cases, but what links them is the highly poetic nature of their translations and the influence these translations had on generations of writers – and on the English language itself. Both men made poetry of translation because they understood that poetry is sound and form and meaning – and when one or other element is missing we read out of duty, for education, not for revelation. We want it as ‘naturally as Leaves to a tree’ –
This is no argument for translation into known poetic shapes, to images and forms that fit our sense of poetic convention and therefore seem ‘natural’. The strangest images and sounds can seem natural, we know them instinctively for truths, even when we have never encountered them before. But this is an argument for the seriousness of poetry translation. Like poetry itself it exacts the truth of the imagination, but translators are also required to listen to another music and another truth, no less insistent in their demands. There are many translators who achieve this. ‘Between Clay and Star’ is filled with the resulting poetry.
Sasha Dugdale, Summer 2013.