Hughes the translator / “Übersetzen” von Gedichten

I recently quoted a review of Ted Hughes’ ‘translations’ of poems from languages he did not speak.

In the latest TLS, parts of which are online but I don’t know for how long, since I receive my non-virtual copy with a few days’ delay, Robin Fulton, a Scots poet and translator of poetry from Scandinavian languages, has a letter to the editor quoting precisely the bits that irritate me. He finds questions raised about ‘how we use the word “translation”‘.

Sir, – Clive Wilmer’s review of Ted Hughes’s Selected Translations (June 1) is perceptive on many points but prompts larger questions about how we use the word “translation”. Of Pound he tells us that “In writing Cathay –- at a time when, incidentally, he knew no Chinese -– Pound discovered a mysterious process . . .”. People who translate from languages they can’’t read certainly move in mysterious ways, yet “’incidentally’” is an odd word to use here: surely it was of the essence of Pound’’s text that at that time he was unable to convey anything at all from a first-hand knowledge of Chinese?

…Of Ovid, Wilmer suggests that a “limitation in Hughes’’s art and outlook” helped him to imitate the Metamorphoses, “eliding the principle of order that unifies the poem and its vision”. It might be argued that “’eliding’” here means something more like “ignoring” or even “vandalizing” –- be that as it may, we are left wondering if the alleged limitation is a vice or a virtue in Hughes as a “translator” of Ovid.

Fulton concludes that it might be useful to use the title ‘poems inspired by other poems’ rather than ‘translations’. ‘Then we could take them or leave them and even admire them without imagining we have gained access, mysteriously or otherwise, to the worlds of the original authors.’

The Independent (and surely other papers too) has an obituary of Michael Hamburger, another poet and translator, who died on June 7. And by clicking around on the TLS site, you can find all the poems to be voted on for the current poetry competition, and an interesting article on French bread, but unfortunately not Hugo Williams’ commentary on changes in colloquial language.

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