The intensity of experience that poetry speaks and springs from is, for me, the single most compelling thing about it. In this it encapsulates the essential human condition: when all's said and done what marks Man (and Woman) off from other animate species is that quality of consciousness and self-awareness that gives rise to that intensity. Poetry and music I remember from a very early age as being important elements in my life. At that young age I wouldn't have been - and certainly wasn't - capable of saying how or why. It was just that they felt qualitatively different as experiences - the rhythm and rhyme, the strangeness and appositeness of words, the joy, pain and sadness they conveyed, as did the melodies, harmonies and discords of music produced by instruments or voices. They ''spoke'' to me. I don't claim it as a gift or as anything exceptional. I can well believe that in other ways it left me quite obtuse. It was anyway a star - not altogether consciously perhaps initially - I followed.
I was born and went to school in Huddersfield, then, after National Service in the RAF, to Leeds University where I read English Literature. Then I taught in the state educational system at various levels for over 30 years, during which time I married, had children who now have children of their own. My interest in the translation of poetry from other languages dates back to beginning to study French at grammar school and later some German; later still some Italian, later still - ad hoc - some Russian and some Spanish. My own practice and belief in translating is where possible, and that means just about always, to stay with the style, rhythmic, prosodic etc. of the original - to do justice to its emotional feel, its intensity. You have to get at that, to convey that as closely as possible, if you're seeking to be honest and to serve the value of the original, to honour it. It is not your own poem: but in staying as true as you can to what it offers both technically and emotionally, you arrive at something close to its meaning. And then it may also have something of you and become, quixotically, humbly, yours by proxy.
In my own writing, which I’ve practised lifelong, I’ve tried to submit the raw experience and gestalt of observation and impression to the requirements of form – by that meaning not simply ‘established’ poetic forms but a disciplining shape or format which has simultaneously (in many cases) meant exploring, even creating, through the medium or device. If that sounds somewhat arid or intellectualised, I’d argue there are strong precedents within the history of the arts , and I leave others to judge mine: I have, almost invariably, found the tension between wanting to say something/having something to say and the constraints imposed by ‘form’ or ‘style’ to provide unexpected satisfactions. I thus see a clear parallel between my approach to translating poetry and writing my own.
Keats said: ‘Poetry should come easily as leaves to a tree – or not at all.’ His own marvellous fluency and facility is everywhere apparent in his work, the prose of his letters as much as in his poetry, but he was only half right in his dictum. Many major poets would fail the test. Still, you can perhaps see what he was aiming at – a naturalness of delivery within the artifice that the poem essentially is. When it comes to translating a poem, how much more daunting Keats’ stricture might appear to be. Some critics would assert that the task is impossible: the nuances of inflection and style remain locked in the original beyond any translator’s guile. Anyone seriously engaged in the activity will concede so much and yet we persist. The craft is to be persevered with; may result in art; the buds may indeed break into real leaf.
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