'Hautes Fenêtres: Thoughts on the place of translation in recent Australian poetry' by Simon West

Reviewed by
July–August 2011, no. 333

'Hautes Fenêtres: Thoughts on the place of translation in recent Australian poetry' by Simon West

Reviewed by
July–August 2011, no. 333

In a 1995 interview for the Paris Review, Ted Hughes was asked if the 1960s boom in translated poetry, particularly with series such as the Penguin Modern European Poets, had influenced poetry written in England. ‘Has it modified the British tradition!’ he replied. ‘Everything is now completely open, every approach, with infinite possibilities. Obviously the British tradition still exists as a staple of certain historically hard-earned qualities if anybody is still there who knows how to inherit them. Raleigh’s qualities haven’t become irrelevant. When I read Primo Levi’s verse I’m reminded of Raleigh. But for young British poets, it’s no longer the only tradition, no longer a tradition closed in on itself and defensive.’

A tradition closed in on itself and defensive is a good description of the way authors and their writings tended, from the Renaissance until the twentieth century, to be straitjacketed into concepts of national literatures. For Johann Gottfried Herder, who first theorised this idea, the national character of a literature was considered to be fixed in a series of unique traits. Literary histories were composed and taught accordingly, and established a sense of independence and isolation. Even the various periodisations of national traditions rendered comparison difficult, as the confusion surrounding the use of the term ‘modernism’ in distinct European contexts testifies. Yet it was modernism, as we intend this term in English, that began the process of eroding national literatures in favour of considering authors and texts as part of fluid, complex, and international literary spaces, as Pascale Casanova describes them in her book Le république mondiale des lettres (1999), translated as The World Republic of Letters (2004).

While Casanova’s book, now more than ten years old, has come in for strong criticism (I think, for example, of the book Debating World Literature [2004], edited by Christopher Prendergast), I find the concept of literary spaces a useful one when examining assumptions about the literary contexts in which I, as a poet and translator, write. It is to my own experience as a writer that I wish to refer here in order to argue for the importance of encountering the foreign in our literary spaces; and against Philip Larkin, who, with characteristic gall, asserted in Required Writing (1983): ‘deep down I think foreign languages irrelevant. If that glass thing over there is a window, then it isn’t a fenster or a fenêtre or whatever. Hautes Fenêtres, my God!’

In general, Australian poets, like writers from other post-colonial countries, are long used to thinking about themselves in relation to multiple and very fluid literary spaces, from the local, the national, the imperial, and the variously international. It would seem that we haven’t needed to fight the battle against the insular tradition described by Ted Hughes, because, on the whole, tradition, since European settlement, has been seen to come from elsewhere. True, for a long time this importation happened exclusively from the United Kingdom. But right from the start it has involved rethinking the English and, more recently, the US models to fit a local context. Take, for example, the description of Australia as a reversal of expected norms. Richard Whately, born in 1787, writes:

There is a Place in Distant Seas
Full of contrarieties:
There, beasts have mallards’ bills and legs,
Have spurs like cocks, like hens lay eggs.

This becomes something of a topos in the opening English-language poems from Les Murray’s New Oxford Book of Australian Verse (1986). Murray himself, of course, is a more recent example of the poet who sees his role as reworking a discursive inheritance in a new world. In turn, this process involves a questioning and re-centring of the tradition, and reminds us that the paradigm of importation can just as well be conceived in a positive light.

Indeed, in his essay ‘Rhythmical Knots: The World of English Poetry’ (Debating World Literature), Bruce Clunies Ross describes how global poetry in English in recent decades has led to a polycentric space where much of the innovation is happening on the edges, beyond traditional centres such as the United Kingdom and the United States. He quotes Joseph Brodsky, who, in an essay on Derek Walcott, ‘The Sound of the Tide’, describes how cultures and languages live on through impulses from the outskirts. New currents produce a de-centring, a devolution. The outskirts are not where the world ends, they are where it unravels and takes new form. This introduces a further space, one we might call English-language poetry, or global English poetry. After all, poems belong to languages rather than to nations.

Surely, then, writers and readers in Australia are entitled to some optimism, for English, with its many diverse speakers today, is well placed to produce a range of poetries in one common tongue. Well, I’m not so sure. On the one hand, there is the risk that A.D. Hope once described as the ‘international standard poem’, in which the author compromises the poem’s embodiment of a unique here and now of place and language, and aims for a ‘thinner, though more widely ranging, internationalism’(The New Cratylus [1975]). But what I want to discuss further here is a different risk, one that stems from the most tyrannical of borders, language. National frontiers may have become more permeable, but can the same be said for linguistic ones? There is a danger that in a climate of perceived openness we ignore the need for translation.

How should we deal with this boundary of language? I would argue that poetry is better placed to overcome it than other forms of writing. In order to suggest how, I would like to propose a literary space that is not considered in Casanova’s book: that is, the space of poetry. The idea of a space requires a sense of commonality, of which language is perhaps our most fundamental. But there are also common elements in what we call the genre of poetry that allow us to consider it a space, one in which all poets have an interest. And if they have an interest in world poetry, they must also have an interest in the peculiar issues of its translation. Indeed, writing and translating poetry are closely connected activities.

What is it that defines this genre? Above all, I suggest, it is an approach to language that recognises the openness of words, and their physicality. What do I mean by the physicality of language? It is most obviously the vibrations that are produced when we enunciate. It is alliteration and other phonetic echoes that link words in ways other than syntax. But because the word is a sign on the page, visual and etymological links can also be important. On a broader level it involves metre, rhyme, form, and a poem’s structural unity and harmony. On another level still, it is the relation between syntax and rhetoric, and between syntax and metre.

These aspects of poetry remind us that words are not static signs or concepts that pass easily from one reader to another, or from one language to another. They are complex objects, elusive in their spheres of meaning, different for each of us, and tied up with our sense of self. In drawing our attention to such a situation, poetry keeps language vital, and challenges our assumption that words can signify easily. Poetry, then, is in the strange position of wielding words to communicate meaning, and at the same time allowing those very words to reveal the gap between language and experience. I imagine this is what Charles Bernstein had in mind when he described the difference between prose and poetry in ‘Dysraphism’ (1983): ‘in prose you start with the world / and find the words to match; in poetry you start / with the words and find the world in them.’ Six centuries earlier, we encounter a different description for something similar in the sestet of a sonnet by the medieval Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti in praise of a loved lady:

Non si poria contar la sua piagenza,
ch’a le’ s’inchin’ogni gentil vertute,
e la beltate per sua dea la mostra.
Non fu sì alta già la mente nostra
e non si pose ‘n noi tanta salute,
che propiamente n’aviàn canoscenza.

No human voice can hope to sound her grace,
She moves with Virtue at her side
And even Beauty holds her forth as god.

Our minds have never stretched so high before,
Nor have our senses felt such joy,
That we could ever know her perfectly.

In describing poetry as an engagement with the possibilities of language, I see it as a process or as an activity, rather than as a fixed text or as a series of formal structures and thematic fields. The Italian poet Andrea Zanzotto, in his essay ‘Qualcosa al di fuori e al di là dello scrivere’ (1979), writes: ‘Per quanto mi riguarda ho il sospetto che la poesia non sia affatto scrivere. … Si tratta di scalfire scalpellare graffiare la lingua o di sprofondarvi, più che di usarla’ (For me, I suspect poetry is not writing at all … it involves chiselling away at, scratching at language or sinking into it, rather than using it). This has important implications for the question of translation. Here, the distinction that Yves Bonnefoy makes frequently in his essays between a poem and poetry is useful. While a poem is a unique language object that cannot be translated, it is itself a searching after something beyond language. The spirit of that search may be recreated when the translator is open to the initial experience of the source poem. Bonnefoy calls this experience présence: a fleeting sense of the self as it engages with the world through the medium of language; a sort of epiphany not dissimilar from Hopkins’s idea of inscape.

The more I think about it, the less I am able to see a distinction between the act of writing poetry and that of translating it, for writing is translation into a linguistic medium of our experience of the world. Certainly, in translation we are faced with a source text, not with amorphous, unstable experience. But what text is not itself unstable, and what experience is so amorphous that it is not mediated by language? This does not necessarily mean the translator is freed from all responsibility (just as free verse is not free at all). For Bonnefoy responsibility is increased rather than lessened in the attempt to recreate poetry rather than the poem. The translator must go beyond the words on the page to that state beyond language, but this only happens when one respects the poem as an expression of an individual engagement with a specific time and place through the medium of language, while realising one’s own struggle within a different language and context.

Let me give one brief example of such an engagement from my work translating Cavalcanti. The play between syntax and rhetoric, and particularly those aspects of repetition so common in poetry such as alliteration and assonance, are not guided by fixed rules, and their effect on the whole is impossible to calibrate. There is no bilingual dictionary of poetic tricks to help the translator. However, aspects of poetry that may be considered on a more concrete level are structure, metre, and rhyme. A question that faces any translator of poetry written in such forms is to what extent constraints like rhyme should be imitated. Rhyme is an important element in the poetry of Cavalcanti. Should it be maintained? Ideally, yes. But rhyme in contemporary English language poetry has a very complex set of cultural assumptions behind it. With the odd exception, rhyme was considered essential in lyric poetry from at least the fifteenth century to the end of the nineteenth. But during the last hundred years the place of rhyme in a poem has changed: today, rhyme may sound old-fashioned, or it may indicate the playful spirit of a poet inspired by the Oulipo, or it could stand anywhere in between. It is naïve to presume that use of rhyme automatically enables one to come closer to the original. Just as there are many types of English, so too there are many types of rhyme.

To ignore rhyme and the part it plays in a poem by Cavalcanti seems equally dangerous. My approach was something of a compromise. In many of the translations, I used fragments of rhyme: sometimes full rhyme, sometimes assonance; sometimes following the rhyme pattern of the original closely, sometimes altering it. Fragments, like the ruins of the Roman forum, suggest to the imagination what once existed but also that which has suffered a change through time and language, never to be fully restored. Fragments acknowledge both the ideal original state and the impossibility of recreating that original perfectly. The translations do not eschew rhyme altogether, pretending it once played no part. But they do not attempt to recreate a rhyme pattern precisely, for that only comes at the exclusion of other elements of equal importance. This may seem a rather haphazard approach. Fragments, after all, suggest something incomplete. But it is important to remember that translations themselves, by their very nature, are imperfect artefacts that require the imagination of the reader to be realised, just as they will always require the original to be valid and complete.

I have talked briefly about two literary spaces: that of English-language poetry, and that of poetry as a genre, and how this second space is intricately tied up with issues of translation. I would like to conclude by raising a further question. Should we worry if the translation of poetry is not happening in Australia, as long as it is being translated into English somewhere in the world? I offer two tentative responses. Firstly, Australian poetry will be poorer where translation is not undertaken by its poets, for the reasons advanced by Michael Hofmann in Behind the Lines (2001): ‘Translation upsets expectations, it extends the field of comparison, it forces even the sluggardly to re-evaluate and to re-contextualize. A period of good writing has to be a period of good and abundant translating also.’

It is hard to argue with that. But Hofmann’s words raise another question that has been troubling me for some time. Is it enough that translation is taking place? Can’t it just as easily fall silent within a literary market that has no space for foreign-language poetry? Whose expectations is translation upsetting? I’ll give you an example. I came across a book called Moscow Trefoil: Poems from the Russian of Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, by David Campbell and Rosemary Dobson, published in Canberra in 1975, in which the two Australian poets publish their own poetic versions of the same Russian poem. These versions, A.D. Hope tells the reader in his preface, ‘are to be seen primarily as the equivalents in another country and another language’ of the originals, a way of  ‘exploring a foreign territory, to absorb and recreate it in a new medium’. At the same time, there is a more literal version of each poem by Natalie Staples, who is described on the cover as the translator. For each poem there are three English-language versions side by side. I was pleasurably struck by the novelty of this approach, but then also less pleasurably struck by the thought that the book is so little known.

My despair at the lack of interest in translation in the marketplace is somewhat mitigated by the following. There is no denying that Hofmann is right: periods where translation is strong are more likely to be periods in which writing in general is strong. But the upsetting done by translation is not limited to its influence on readers. Indeed, this is often exaggerated. I, for one, find reading poetry in translation unsatisfying most of the time, particularly in the case of a poet such as Mandelstam. The real benefits of translation are those afforded to the poet–translator, who is forced to see English afresh as it barters with another language.

To get back to the question as to why more translation needs to happen in Australia, my second response is a personal one. Many of my readerly moments of illumination and insight suggestive of new ways of perceiving and conceiving the world and ourselves have come from encounters with foreign languages. I often ask myself to what extent this is due to inherent qualities in Italian poetry, say, that are absent in English-language poetry; and to what extent it is an effect of that strange sensation of suddenly viewing one’s mother tongue from new perspectives, which is part of learning another language. It is no doubt a bit of both. I cannot imagine myself as a poet without that experience of multiple languages, and the process of moving between them.

I suspect that this was also the case for David Campbell and his engagement with twentieth-century Russian poetry. Moscow Trefoil was followed by a similar publication, Seven Russian Poets, Imitations by Rosemary Dobson and David Campbell (1979). The final section of Campbell’s last book of poetry, The Man in the Honeysuckle (1979), titled ‘Secret Lives’, also contained a series of poems inspired by encounters with Russian individuals and texts, including five further imitations from Mandelstam. This work spanned a period of at least ten years, and coincided with a change in Campbell’s own poetry away from closed metrical structures, as well as with a widening in his thematic interests. Philip Mead, in his selection of Campbell’s work Hardening the Light, Selected Poems (2006), attributes this change to the Vietnam War and to Campbell’s encounters with a younger generation of poets in Canberra in the 1970s. I like to think that another reason may have been Campbell’s discovery of Russian poetry and of the process of its translation.

Moscow Trefoil may not be as unknown as I thought when I did it the favour of discovering it, to paraphrase a line from Peter Porter. Campbell and Dobson’s interest in Russian poetry was not an isolated occurrence. One thinks immediately of their contemporary A.D. Hope, but also of a younger generation of poets living in Canberra at the time who continued this interest, poets such as Mead, David Brooks, and Kevin Hart. Notable too here was Poetry Australia, which, despite its title, was easily the most international of the local poetry magazines of its generation.

This returns us to an earlier point. Perhaps we are so used to considering Australian poetry within or in relation to Anglo-Celtic and US literary spaces (the spaces of English-language poetry) that it has been easy to overlook foreign-language influences, particularly those of Europe. They do exist, and they have enriched our local poetic culture. They have done so not only through the reading of translation, but also through the multilingualism of our poets. I have offered only a fragment of such a history here, and it would be interesting to follow such influences through a more systematic study of recent Australian poetry. Such a review might help counter the voices of any local Larkins. More importantly, it might bring the role of multilingualism to the attention of a wider Australian literary culture, whose dominant literary spaces remain largely monolingual.

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