Friday, January 11, 2008

Ted Hughes' "Selected Translations" Book Review

A mixed bag of treats from this justly famed poet whose "Tales from Ovid" provided me with such education and delight a decade ago. The best renderings to match those from the Metamorphoses appear from an incomplete mss. giving us "Sir Gawain & the Green Knight," in a freer line that still keeps, thanks to the Yorkshire cadences of its reworker, a strong sense of the alliterative structure and harshly honed cadences of its Northern original. I also liked a sadly scanty attempt at the Bardo Thödol, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for its clarity and calmness in the face of horror. Lorenzo de'Medici's Renaissance celebration of the market and its sumptuous wares offered by and on behalf of women kept its refined innuendo; the attempt at a pre-literate, pure sound language for the Persian performance "Orghast," as if imitating birdsong and primitive speech, also haunted me. The range is vast here, although the heights were reached more rarely. Many of the poems depend upon a modernist presentation of striking images. and the pictorial quality that Hughes appears to have been captivated by, and through which the literal (but not fussy or overly scrupulous) conveying of the original voice mattered more than technical fidelity to a dictionary definition. This pleases Weissbort as much as Hughes. For me, perhaps conscious of my own struggles in language learning, I remain hesitant.

Most of the "translations" of more contemporary poets failed to enchant me. As his editor and one-time colleague Daniel Weissbort explains in helpful notes (and especially the appendices that quote Hughes' own elaboration of his methods), Hughes (akin to Ezra Pound perhaps?) did not work from the original languages in many cases. Hungarian and Russian, unsurprisingly, were not mastered by Hughes as were his Latin, Greek, and Middle English. Even those, for the classics, appear to have depended greatly in initial stages on cribs. For such as Yehuda Amichai's Hebrew or János Pilinszky and Ferenc Juhász''s Magyar verses, the authors provided line-by-line renderings that were-- or in some cases were hardly at all-- refashioned into Hughes' own poetic style. Is this translation as we'd expect it?

Not in the scholarly manner of an editor, steeped in the acquired language or the second tongue as well as the one he knows as a native, or a bilingual from birth in the rare case. The editor admits as much. Take Juhász, earlier translated by another hand: Weissbort finds it "intriguing" how Hughes "felt able to rewrite the English version without reference to any source text." Compare this with the manner in which the long Hungarian poem "John the Valiant" from Sándor Petöfi was translated by John Ridland painstakingly as the latter worked word for word with dictionaries and gradually worked up his own crib into a scaffold before adding the elegant finish that tried to match the original verse to a rough English equivalent. I'm not sure if Hughes using his own "sense" of the original text betters a scholar's meticulous setting side-by-side of the original words with handwritten definitions before constructing them into more polished verse. Many scholars by nature if not wish lack the poetic gift; do we trust poets to glide over verbal gaps and syntactic cruxes in their longing to present us with the "feel" of the original they, nearer to birdsong, cannot fully translate so much as articulate as their Muse moves them?

This is the question that this collection leaves me, and you, to ponder.
(Review posted to Amazon today.)

Here's a website with an article by Christina Peter on post-1989 publications of Hungarian poems with English translations. She places Hughes among the second of two categories of translators-- the ones who do not know the original language.

1 comment:

Bo said...

I nearly bought this the other day, and like you was fascinated by the Orghast material. I think I may have to pick it up.

Translation is a mug's game,as I know all too well from translating from the celtic languages, and at one stage Latin and greek. One can never do it very well, and then - bam! - along comes some stupendously gifted sod who does it miraculously well.