8 July, 2013Issue 22.6LiteraturePoetryTranslation

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Roots Revival

Andrew Houwen

Sasha Dugdale (ed.)
Modern Poetry in Translation
No. 1, Strange Tracks, Spring 2013
128 pages
ISBN 978-0957235410


“Foreign poetry? No!” This was Philip Larkin’s famous reply to Ian Hamilton in a 1964 issue of the London Magazine when asked if he was reading any. It came to epitomise a particular view, often repeated, that the world of contemporary British poetry was, in Edward Lucie-Smith’s words, “ingrown, priggish, and provincial”. According to Ted Hughes, however, “a unique tidal wave of poetry translation swept through English in the sixties and early seventies”. The pages of the London Magazine, which were filled with the latest translations of French, German, Italian, Russian, Greek, and Japanese poems, provided evidence that Larkin was not representative of the whole country, as did those of Stand and Encounter, as well as the “International Poetry Incarnation” at the Albert Hall (held the year after Larkin’s answer) and the annual Poetry International festivals which Hughes organised from 1967 onwards.

In the year of the “International Poetry Incarnation”, Hughes also launched Modern Poetry in Translation, together with Daniel Weissbort. Their editorial for the Spring 1967 issue laid out the preferred approach: “The very oddity and struggling dumbness of a word for word version is what makes our imagination jump”. It did, however, suggest that “In the present fertile period of translations […] there should be plenty of theories in the air – the more opposed the better”. The selection weighed strongly in favour of European poets, with special issues on contemporary Czech, Greek, and French poetry. This was, as Hughes himself later admitted, an “important, almost political business”. MPT’s publication of Popa, Herbert, Holub, and Voznesensky, among many other Eastern European poets, suggests that the “barriers” which Hughes wished to break down through translating poetry included those made of iron.

The relaunch of MPT this spring marks a return in many ways to Hughes and Weissbort’s original magazine, as the editorial makes clear. Its design, by the University of Reading’s Katy Mawhood, is based on “back issues from the 60s, 70s and 80s”. The magazine is, like the original issues, lighter, bolder and simpler than the thick, lush numbers produced by the previous editors, David and Helen Constantine. It also feels contemporary: its typefaces, uppercase Ronnia on the cover and Maiola inside, have a fresh, modern feel, and its appearance (as well as its student subscription price) seems suited to a younger demographic. There is another respect, though, in which Sasha Dugdale’s editorship marks a return to the Hughes/Weissbort issues. Instead of the vast global range under the Constantines, in which poems from Tagalog, Burmese, Urdu, Mongolian, or Tigrinya would appear, the focus has shifted back onto poetry from Europe and the Americas: the Chinese Zhang Zao and the Israeli Tuvia Ruebner are the issue’s only poets outside these regions. There is certainly an interesting discussion to be had about which approach is best.

This emphasis on poetry from Europe and the Americas is also apparent in the “focus” section of the relaunch issue, in which Dutch poetry is given the limelight, to be followed in later issues by Polish and Brazilian focuses. Publishers such as Bloodaxe (the Selected Poems of Esther Jansma) and Carcanet (Raptors, by Toon Tellegen) have, in recent years, published poetry from the Netherlands. However, two of the three Dutch poets focused on in this issue, Ester Naomi Perquin and Menno Wigman, have not yet had collections published over here. Perquin is particularly new, having only been published in the Netherlands since 2007 (she has, though, already won the country’s top poetry award, the VSB Prize). Her two poems included here concern a nightwatchman who allows stuffed birds to fly out of their cages (“In Defence of a Nightwatchman”) and a mysterious creature washed ashore (“Stranded”). The “stifled song” of the caged birds in the former poem takes flight, as do Paul Vincent’s translations themselves. They travel well and stand as poems on their own. In “Stranded”, rhymes are captured without overstraining the rest of the poem:

We sliepen onrustig en zonder idee.

Nu wordt hier gepraat over goden
en fabels – wie weet waar hij is.

Een zonderling spoor loopt naar zee.


We slept restless, unable to think.

Now there’s talk here of gods
and fables – who knows where it is.

Strange tracks lead down to the drink.

In order to preserve the rhyme, “zonder idee” (“without an idea”) is replaced by “unable to think” and “zee” (“sea”) by “drink”. A balance is thus struck between the rhyme and the poem’s referential meanings. Vincent’s expansion of a single strange track (“een zonderling spoor”) to “strange tracks” leads to an aptly chosen title for the issue.

The poems by the third Dutch poet, Tellegen, are accompanied by an interview with the original poet and his translator, Judith Wilkinson. This forms another welcome part of the magazine: there are, as Hughes once demanded, “plenty of theories in the air” and different translation approaches interrogate each other across the issue. The Tellegen/Wilkinson interview spans eight pages and goes into detail about the practical decisions involved in translating poetry. They discuss how to render idioms and allusions and how to manage the negotiation between fidelity to Dutch and English. Elsewhere, Susan Wicks discusses how she tries to match the “boldness of the poetic procedures” in Prix Apollinaire winner Valérie Rouzeau’s poems with “an equivalent boldness”. She unpacks puns and also adds words here and there to maintain the rhythm she seeks in English, as shown by “25 December”:

La ville est froide le coeur nu
Le sapin brille on l’enguirlande comme il faut une branche morte
Sur la parabole quel oiseau


The town is cold the heart is bare
The fir-tree shines they decorate it as befits a branch that’s dead
And on the TV dish parabola what parable of bird.

Here, “the heart is bare” and “a branch that’s dead” are preferred to the more literal translations “the heart bare” and “a dead branch” in order to alternate stressed and unstressed syllables instead of ending the lines with a spondee. In French, “parabole” can mean both a parable and a TV dish; the pun is illustrated in English through the echo of “parabola” in “parable”. Rouzeau’s uneven lines, wordplay (as the pun above suggests) and repetition (exemplified by the line “Bite into life bite into life bite into life bite” at the close of “Thirty-two Teeth”) contrast with Perquin’s tighter use of metre and rhyme, giving the issue a healthy diversity.

This diversity ensures that we can continue to stay up-to-date with the best contemporary poetry from abroad and avoid being “ingrown, priggish and provincial”. With UK publishers such as Bloodaxe, Shearsman, Arc, and Carcanet continuing their interest in translated poetry despite hard times, the future of MPT—and translated poetry more generally—looks relatively positive. Today’s answer to Hamilton’s question appears, increasingly, to be “Foreign poetry? Yes!”

Andrew Houwen graduated from New College, Oxford, with an MSt in English in 2011. He is now reading for a DPhil in English at the University of Reading.