All translation is metamorphosis. Even ‘mimetic’ translators, seeking to reproduce the form of the original, will, even at their closest, only ever produce in their own language something analogous and roughly equivalent. Forms called the same work differently according to the language constituting them. The alexandrine line, for example, was imported from France (via the Netherlands) into Germany in the seventeenth century; but in its one hundred and fifty years or so of frequent usage there it never sounded anything like Racine. In German, a heavily accented language, the central cæsura all too often chops the line in half; which the German Baroque writers, tending to view the world in stark antitheses, readily exploited. English blank verse, in part because of the abundance of monosyllabic words available to its users, sounds and works very differently than it does in German, which, being an inflected language, has far fewer such units to play with. Poetic forms may be thought to pre-exist a language, to be there waiting to be filled by words; but those words, of course, actually constitute the form: they give it its peculiar sensuous shape.
Words are shapes in themselves; and even if, in translation, we move across literally from ‘Brot’ to ‘pain’ to ‘bread’, the effective shape of each is quite different in each mother tongue. The shape of a word is the whole and ever-changing sensuous presence it grows into in its own language – which is to say, in its culture, in its way of life. So even moving across between the languages word for word, translators are, however literal or mimetic they may wish to be, transformers of shape.
But for a good part of this issue we have focussed on translations in which some radical and evident reshaping has been consciously undertaken. In two instances – John Greening’s ‘Coming Soon’ and Neil Philip’s ‘21 glosses on poems from The Greek Anthology’, the shift is out of a remote past into the forms, language, tones and concerns of modern life. In three others, Kathleen Jamie’s Hölderlin, Paul Howard’s Belli and Terence Dooley’s Queneau, the shift is largely linguistic – into Scots, Yorkshire dialect, street argot: and the shock comes perhaps from our being forced to concede that we expect a standard English, and here meet instead an appropriate and effective deviation. In the versions of Akhmatova the translators move more or less far (some via the medium of literal renderings of the Russian) towards or actually into poems of their own. Marilyn Hacker’s ‘For Akhmatova’ is the furthest along that line. And Josephine Balmer’s The Word for Sorrow, still in progress, sets together a classical poetry of exile (Ovid’s) and a twentieth-century documentation of wars abroad, in their shared location: the coasts of the Black Sea. That juxtapositioning (which is a shaping of the whole) lights up and defamiliarizes each era and its human fates.
Poems live on if they are lively enough; most translations aren’t, and don’t. Hölderlin wrote to his publisher Friedrich Wilmans late in 1803 apologizing that he had not yet delivered his Sophocles translations: their language, he said, was not yet lively enough. Metamorphosis is perhaps best understood as a way of staying alive. By its agility, by being able to shift and change, a translation makes a bid for longer life. The poem has this quality inbuilt, or it would not be a poem. The translation, bound one way or another and in greater or lesser degree to that vital original, has a harder job engendering the kindred vitality without which it will not live.
As we said in our first issue, by ‘modern’ in the name of this magazine we chiefly intend to signal a present liveliness. So we shall always be on the look-out for translations eluding death by changing shape. And this interest is very closely connected with our other staple topic: exile, the more or less enforced wandering abroad. Indeed, exile and metamorphosis do as a matter of fact have much in common. Languages on the move, the spirit of poetic utterance constantly on the move, constantly having to find itself new shapes… Do the writers thrust abroad still have a native tongue? One that will serve them for all they now must say? Must they transform that tongue? Or learn another, and transform it for their purposes?
This matters for the writers – they must move and change or die – and it matters for the readers too, who will settle comfortably into what is habitual, unless new things, or old things in new shapes, continually assail them. Changing appearances will help keep us in a living connection with things; they show us new facets, we view them from new perspectives. Translation – an act of changing shape – should be understood as partaking of an intention which is central in most poetics: to resist habituation, to unsettle, to awake and increase the reader’s liveliness.
This issue of MPT is, we think, very rich and various, and these remarks on metamorphosis and on some present instances of it by no means cover the material that has come our way. We shan’t ever be restricted by any particular concern, however large that may be. Given the chance – thanks to the generosity of Heinz Bachmann and Isolde Moser – of publishing their sister’s ‘War Diary’, naturally we seized it. The meeting that hurried text describes – between a young woman beginning to be a writer and a young man who could talk to her about writers – will stand as an emblem of friendship and free exchange across the frontiers, after the most determined effort in human history to prevent such friendships and such exchanges for ever.
We should like to thank readers of MPT for putting up with any subscription or distribution problems they may have experienced over the past few months during the transferral of the administration of the magazine to Oxford. You may like to know that we have now been lucky enough, thanks to the generosity of the Arts Council, to appoint the excellent Deborah de Kock as our new Administrator. This will certainly mean that we shall be able to run the magazine more efficiently. Deborah will be dealing with the business side of MPT, and may be contacted at email@example.com.
May we also remind you that you can now subscribe online: www.mptmagazine.com
David and Helen Constantine, May 2005