Interlitq: How did you first start translating poetry??
JBB: Translating into English was always the most interesting part of French ‘A’ Level; I realised that you could do all sorts of different things with the English, and it would still be a translation. A few years later, when I’d moved to Germany, I managed to get a job at the university, which involved translating German folk songs. At that point I also became interested in theories of translation. And I started to read English novels in German translation. The first was Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Then I read some of Thomas Hardy’s novels in German translation. The translations were dreadful. Surely it couldn’t be right to give the Dorset farm-workers a jaunty North German accent? And those scenes in Jude the Obscure where you see everything through the boy’s eyes: they’d become neutral. Ted Hughes, whose poetry I had loved since our teacher read it out to us when we were 5 or 6, had become small and flat. So I started to think about what makes some translations work better than others. This was when I did my first real translations: of German poetry into English.
I moved to the University of East Anglia in the early 1990s and a few years later I was talking to my colleague W.G. (Max) Sebald, and we came up with the idea of a series of bilingual poetry books. Actually, I think it was initially Max’s idea. So I phoned Tony Ward at Arc Publications, who had already published one of my books. He immediately agreed. And so I became an editor of translated poetry as well.
Interlitq: Would you say scholarship in Translation Studies just describes what translators do, or does it actually influence the way they translate? Does it influence the way you translate?
JBB: I have always enjoyed listening to translators talking about what they do, but I don’t particularly like to read about it. There is only so much that can be said. When scholars and researchers produce models of what translators do it’s often more interesting because such models aim to explain as well as to describe. Many theorists, as well as translators, would say that that’s all we can do: describe what happens in as precise a way as possible. There is no real reason why such theoretical statements need to be anything more than a description: they aren’t intended to be instructions. And yet, I can’t see any reason why theoretical descriptions shouldn’t be developed into suggestions.
As for my own work, where I find theoretical considerations have a real influence is in making me aware of new things that might need to be taken into account. I have to say, though, that usually it’s not translation theory that does that. Often it’s theories from other areas or disciplines. For example, a couple of years back I read a lot about narrative theory, and whatever I could find on the translation of narrative (very little). Simply because I am mainly a poetry translator it wasn’t an area I’d worked with much up to then. Finding out about new areas is always great fun. But it was more than that. I started to realise just how subtly the point of view of the story being told could change. Then I started to notice such changes of perspective and point of view much more in the poetry I was translating. There is a particular poem by Volker von Törne, ‘Beim Lesen der Zeitung’ (‘While Reading the Paper’), that I keep returning to in my academic books and keep slightly changing in my translation. It’s only 4 lines long, but what’s interesting is the question of whose point of view is being represented. The anthology with the English translation of that poem will be appearing next year, so by then I’ll have to decide finally how I’m going to translate it.
Interlitq: How do you see the relationship between translating poetry
and writing original poetry?
JBB: This is the question I always get asked and it’s hard to answer because in one sense translating poetry is writing original poetry and in another sense it’s not. It is original poetry because what you write has to be a poem, so you have to know how to write a poem. It’s original because no-one else’s translation could possibly be exactly like yours. It’s in the nature of poetry to allow lots of different – sometimes very different – translations, since so much depends on the reader’s interpretation. But it must be different from writing original poetry because otherwise why would be bother to do it?
I bother to do it in part because I think we want to read those original foreign poems, even though they are going to be filtered through my way of seeing them. But also in part it’s because I can’t write like Paul Celan or Rose Ausländer, or Volker von Törne or any of the other poets I have translated. And I can’t write English poetry that’s as good as what a good English poet writes. I can spend a week reading the same poem by Ted Hughes or R.S. Thomas but I doubt I could produce one that anyone else would want to spend that much time on. To me, it makes more sense to do what you think you’re good at than to do what you’re at best mediocre at, when so many other people can do it better. To translate you have to be able to see what made the original poem work. That’s not the same as being able to do it. Only if you know what made it work – or think you do – can you make it work in another language, and being a good poet doesn’t necessarily make you able to do that.
I think sometimes translators talk too much about the creative nature of poetic translation. Not because it’s not creative but because it so obviously is. It seems to me that to try and capture, say, Celan’s voice, is rather an extraordinary thing to do. After a while, it becomes a sort of compulsion. You read differently. Whenever I read a poem in a foreign language I am imagining what it would sound like in English.
Interlitq: You often translate Holocaust poetry. What first made you do this and isn’t it sometimes depressing?
JBB: I get asked this a lot when I give readings. I started translating Holocaust poetry partly out of a feeling of powerlessness. So many people had been murdered; like with any preventable catastrophe you wish you could turn the clock back. My strongest feeling on first finding out, as a small child, about the persecution of the Jews in Germany was that I wanted to undo it. I am sure many people feel that. You can’t undo it but you can make sure people who wanted to speak get a chance to speak, and to be heard in other languages. It’s in the nature of poetry to be translatable. That’s what Walter Benjamin said and it’s obviously true. People who go on about how translating poetry inevitably means loss don’t know what poetry is. Poetry is something that gains by being carefully re-told, in another language, with different words, if it’s done well. The least we can do for victims of the Holocaust who wrote poetry is tell their story, in other words, to new audiences, and to do that well.
As for whether it’s depressing, the Holocaust is of course deeply depressing, and more than depressing. I have spent several years now reading witness accounts, historical background, analysis, records from hospitals, statistics, accounts by the many non-Jewish victims, and so on. And you never become immune: the more you read, the worse it gets. But the poetry is not depressing. I don’t hold with what Theodor Adorno said about lyric poetry being an unsuitable (barbaric, he said) response to the Holocaust. When people feel pain, sorrow, anger, despair, they need to shout and poetry is often the way they express themselves. What poetry does, that historical accounts and reports can’t do, is to make you feel, to make you have an emotional response. There’s nothing depressing about that; it’s how you know you’re alive. But you’re alive and so many died. Better to know that and to act – even if what you do is only to translate poetry – than to give in to depression. Anyway, what right do I have to give in to depression about the Holocaust: I wasn’t in it. Translating the poet is a small – a tiny – act of reparation.
But I do think that I sometimes make other people depressed at readings by reading Holocaust poetry. That’s maybe necessary sometimes but you don’t want to get the reputation that you always make everyone miserable, however worthy the cause. So I’m trying to translate more love poetry and nature poetry, as a counter-balance.
Interlitq: You have spent many years teaching literary translation. What are the most important tips you’d pass on to the aspiring poetry translator?
JBB: Don’t ever limit yourself to just one or two languages. Of course, you won’t be able to translate from or into more than one or two. But to be a translator you have to be interested in translation from and into any and every language. If you mainly translate German poetry into English as I do, you have to know what the problems are of translating Japanese poetry into English, or English poetry into Russian, because knowing these things is to get closer to the heart of poetry. Translating poetry (or translating anything) is about language much more than it is about specific languages.
When you read a new poem, think about how you would translate it as you are reading it. Get used to wondering what words do as they cross a language boundary, what syntax and rhythm do. You’ll see the potential for translation that’s already in the poem as it unfolds. If you read it first and have a finished view of what it’s saying before you start your translation, you lose that immediacy.
When you’ve got a draft translation, in your head or on paper (or the equivalent), go back to the style of the original. What does it do that’s unusual or striking? Which bits are ambiguous? What are the patterns in the poem? These patterns are very important. That is, the relationships in the poem, and in the translated poem, are at least as important as the relationships between the two poems. Many of the less successful translations I see, as editor, fail to work not because they are not good poems in English or because the translator has misunderstood the original in a narrow semantic sense but because he or she has misunderstood the structures of repetition in the original, the gaps and invitations to the reader to think. By the way, when I have supervised students writing original poetry it’s the same: it’s often not choice of words or lack of poetic technique that is at fault, it’s the lack of uncertainties in the finished poem, the lack of ambiguities and open-endedness for the reader to get involved with.
These will be there in the original and they need to be there in the translation.
Never translate poetry that seems to have only one possible or obvious translation. It can’t be a good poem.
Don’t expect to make money from translating poetry. Make your money in some other way so you don’t have to compromise. Compromise elsewhere, but not with the poetry. A rule I make for myself: if you don’t like the poetry, don’t translate it.
Help yourself and other translators by insisting the translator needs to be visible. Make sure you do public readings. Festival organisers – if they invite you at all – will treat you as though you are a sort of puppet who comes along with the original poet. Make it clear that the audience is listening to your work and your words. If you come across people saying a translated poem is always just a pale copy of the original, make them change their minds.