When the ex-editor of Modern Poetry in Translation, David Constantine, speaks about poetry, he quite often talks about it being a utopian activity, and that is partly because translation, by its very nature, will fail. As anyone who writes poetry will know, content and form are inseparable. What makes a poem is its sound, and the musicality of the chosen language. It is that which raises it above prose, and often gives it a meaning that you cannot quite put your finger on. So if you are trying to change that language, you will fail.
Your Call Keeps Us Awake is a co-translation I worked on with another translator, of Italian poet, Rocco Scotellaro, from southern Italy, who lived in the early twentieth century. His language is not that dissimilar from ours (and luckily, he also wrote in free verse), but his culture was very different. He was a radical socialist and activist, but his region within southern Italy was an area that, at that time, was like what we think of today as the third world. There was total poverty: peasants living in dire conditions, dying of malaria, swamps everywhere, and a very hierarchical system of land owners, which remained true right up into the early twentieth century.
As this project was collaborative, we had to learn about the poet’s culture together to be able to translate. My co-translator lived in east Lincolnshire, while I was in London, so instantly we were forced to use new technologies unknown to the original poet and context, in the form of emails. Through exchanging drafts we began to balance our two voices as translators, but in this project there were three of us—the original poet and us.
Each of us has our own poetic voices, which are inescapable, especially when you are writing in your own language. You constantly return to it, whether it is the rhythm or underlying pulse; whatever it is, it is recognisable. We had to balance between the three of us, walking this tightrope to try and discover that ‘third’ poem; you have got to get that balance absolutely right. It is a question of finding the spirit, that which is embedded in not only the poem, but also the context of its creation, all the while trying to remain as close as possible to the form of the original work.
A further example of this was when I worked with the poetry of a young Italian female poet, who was killed at the age of twenty-six in an honour killing. She lived her entire life in a castle, abandoned at the top of a hill, almost like a sort of mythical figure. Her work, in terms of form, the Petrarchan sonnet, is a very tight form of sonnet. The line endings rhyme abbaabba, so they are like little enclosed boxes. Quite apart from the difficulty of translating that into English, there is something that links the fact she was imprisoned in a castle, to how she was writing incredibly passionate poems within this very tight form. The form happened to be the conventional form of the time, but nevertheless, there is this tension, for me, when I am translating, of trying to get close to that form, because it reflects her life.
However much you succeed or not is for other people to tell, but I think in these cases, probably we did. Our aim, after all, was to introduce this work to people who do not speak Italian, who do not read Italian, but who deserve to know great poets. In this sense also, it is a utopian exercise because what you are attempting to do is get language to communicate across the world, across different cultures, and across different times.
It is, however, impossible to have a version that does not contain the translator’s voice. It may be possible in music, but different languages come between us. Some languages are closer to each other, where it may be more possible. For example, I have seen instances of Scandinavian poetry, bilingual versions, where several translators have translated the same poem, and the translations are very similar. However, if you are talking of, say, a Renaissance poet, who wrote in a very strict form in Italian, where you cannot help rhyming, and you are trying to turn that into a language which has far fewer rhyming words, you just cannot get close enough to the form, and that will affect the spirit. Again, as I said to begin, content and form in poetry are indivisible.
A step further than simply changes in fashion though, is the idea of versions. This is up the other end of the spectrum from a very close translation, where a version might be where you loosely use the original poem to create your own. Even more than that, nowadays there are experiments where people are trying multi-lingual verses, where you are sort of riffing on the original poem. How good or bad these are, is a matter of taste, it depends where you are within that spectrum, but certainly there are a number of new worlds there, and new ways of seeing and reading poetry.
Creating something new, a ‘third-point’, is a fundamental part of translation—a sort of mid-point between the original work, and the poet. As a translator, you want the reader to be unaware of what is going on in-between. You are aware that you are not there, but you still want the hearer or the reader to feel the original spirit as directly as possible.