Visible, Audible, True, or Faithful?



Guests of Eternity, Larissa Miller, translated by Richard McKane

(132pp, 9.99, Arc)

Diversifications, Augustus Young, (87pp, Shearsman)



After wondering, rather vaguely, when reviewing previous Arc translations, about the meaning of VISIBLE POETS, here is another. The series editor, Jean Boase-Beier, says, contrary to the prevailing view that translations should seem like poems written in English, this series assumes 'that the reader of poetry is by definition someone who wants to experience the strange, the unusual, the new, the foreign,..' and so on.


Isn't there something spurious about this? The translations are in English, English has (I suppose) as many resources as any language and more than many, because of it's mixed origins: flexible, while still with limits. What the series editor seems to be saying really is, this series doesn't turn distinctive poems from other languages into mundane, routine, boring English. But what translator would seek to do that anyway?


I have no Russian, so when on page 109 I read the line, 'and one has to immediately hurry', I wonder if this is being faithful to a split infinitive in the Russian. On page 99 there is another, 'to quietly astound.' These are ugly. Is the Russian ugly in this way, or do the split infinitives have some other purpose?


Richard McKane says nothing in his brief introduction as to how this is a VISIBLE translation. He does know the poet personally, and her husband; they speak English, and I would think it likely that an empathy of friendship  is what marks these translations most engagingly..


I have wondered about AUDIBLE POETS, but Russian can't be carried over either visibly or audibly.


As an aside, after reviewing Inna Lisnianskaya, a VISIBLE POET in Daniel Weissbort's translation, I found (in his latest book, 'Headwaters') Rowan Williams'  translation of a few of the same poems. He thanks Daniel Weissbort for telling him about the poems and says he, Williams, has not 'invariably followed his readings of the Russian.'


This is a polite way of saying he has done a completely different job on them. Much freer, much (to my ear and pleasure) more readable, with (it seems) much more of the author present and alive.


But I can't know which translation is more VISIBLE, AUDIBLE, TRUE, FAITHFUL,... and it made me wonder about all the translations I have ever read. It seems every poet needs at least two separate translators, for a dialogue.


The split infinitives would have ruled out, for me, the book as a PBS Recommended Translation, but this accolade it does have, and there is a voice here carried over with something to say and not uniformly, in a spread of poems from the 1960s to the end of the1990s. I do think more audibly than visibly, the way my imagination reaches for the person. It's a strong personality I hear.



Augustus Young's book is very different. It makes the usual format of

translation, with or without the original language, seem somewhat timetabled. I retract that immediately, I value translation enormously, but here is a poet employing that magic word After, here in relation to Mayakovsky and Brecht, - and as to the latter some 'in the style of' - along with a section of  his own poems that make me wonder what 'his own' means after such a life dedicated (with many intervening years) to learning from and welcoming the influence of a Russian and a German, both with powerful personalities.


And throughout the book there seems, variably as to mode, a relaxed pleasure in the making. There is the urgency of the task allied with the relaxed 'no hurry' feel to it. His long list of publications date from the late 1960s to the present, and I confess I hadn't heard of him.


I don't know Brecht in German, so I don't know who has done what here. This is the opening of 'On the Suicide of the Refugee Walter Benjamin':


     You raised your hand against yourself

     to cheat the butchers of their cut,

     Eight years in exile was enough.

     The enemy widens its frontier

     until all borders blockade you.

     But you found a pass to pass through.


And here is the translation by John Willett (one of the translators in 'Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956', 1976):


     I'm told you raised your hand against yourself

     Anticipating the butcher.

     After eight years in exile, observing the rise of the enemy

     Then at last, brought up against an impassable frontier

     You passed, they say, a passable one.


Should I describe the first of these as writing with 'relaxed pleasure'? The whole book balances out as that, I think, and there is something closer to song if a bit awkwardly than with the rather (as its seems to me) text-book of John Willett.


At least I do mean Alexander Young's book speaks at every page of his choice of and pleasure in the task. He hasn't been commissioned to do it, is not in the VISIBLE POETS box, has chosen a relatively few poems to translate by writing after or 'in the style of'. Not to pigeon hole him with his Brecht, here is a short section of 'Down with Society' after Mayakovsky:


     Out he crawls, ears

     erect, straightening

     himself, no mean feat

     for a fat man. Gently

     wobbling his meat

     me-wards, reassuring

     ('Always a friend of mine').

      'Everything will be fine.'


I wonder, finally, if any translation can be anything but 'after'. Recently I bought a very colourful foil bag of Chinese tea bags, and in the bag is a little piece of paper with Chinese print looking, the way it is set out, so much like a poem, and as an object is beautiful. If this was a poem and someone 'translated' it for me, what would there be really of the original on the page and in the original's voice.


       David Hart 2009