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The Spike Victoria University College Review 1944

Causerie On Translation

page 13

Causerie On Translation


I Have Often pondered the question of good translation and at times tried translating myself.

It is a curious activity, as it seems rather like changing something, a living phenomenon, into the complete nothingness that is one's own being. The French or Latin or Greek is a burning reality, the translation—some piece of that void—our self—and just as trivial. We started with the uncompromising desire to say just what our model had said in his own tongue and ended with a dead fragment of self.

Or is there perhaps something eternal that stuck in our translation? Has our urge and our ingenuity resulted in something that quite miraculously succeeded in reflecting the beauty perceived? How little knows the translator, when he fights the inassailable brilliance of the original, line after line with his little skill, anxious to let neither the breath nor the lovely vestment be lost.

If one studies translations of verse one watches the scene of countless adventures searching to catch and preserve something of the eternal which is their model. They use all the postures which adventurers use in real life. Some are only Pharisees, some are like Pilate, but others are like Icarus. A few even like Perseus bring the head of their Medusa safely home. I shall try to give the reader a picture.


A great poet is found by a very particular tone of his own which distinguishes him. For the first time one finds in an anthology:

Hark now everything is still
The screech-owl and the whistler shrill,

One can already know that Webster must be a great poet. For one hears in these lines that there is a Webster silence and a Webster sound. Pharisees are those translators who do not even discover the distinguishing tone of their selected genius.

Those who are searching for the absolute cannot be bothered long with Pharisees, so we will just throw one glance into the valley and then beat our wings. Baudelaire's Receuillement is translated as follows by Dorothy Martins, in her selection from the symbolists (1928):

Be wise, calm now you heart,
O My despair Evening you craved; it falls with soft caress.

What makes us reject Dorothy Martins as a true adventurer is not that she gives despair a heart— that is just bad poetry. It is that she makes evening come down on Baudelaire with the soft caress. Dorothy Martins, incidentally, is the woman who in' Les Voyelles' translates Rimbaud's vowels literally, so that' E, blanc' became' E, white' and 'U. vert' 'U, green.'

Sometimes it is only a very small thing here and there which betrays the Pharisee. With Ludwig Lewisohn, for instance, is very hard to collect the evidence that he has never left the valley. But the evidence is there. He translates Stefan George:

In my life too were angry days and evil
And music that rang dissonant and shrill
Now a kind spirit holds the balance level
And all my deeds are at an angel's will.

This is fairly competent poetry. It only escapes being moving. The way in which we discover Lewissohn had never, at any time, any understanding of what George represents is through two very small slips. In the first line Lewissohn writes' in my life too' instead of' in my life' and in the fourth line writes' an angel' instead of' the angel.' This indicates that the translator has never felt the two main passions of Stefan George's life: the passion for his own Life and the passion for the page 14 Angel. 'My deeds are at an angel's will' is of a weak unappetising romanticism, it seems the product of a mind without a sense of form. How can it express George?

This requirement, feeling as the poet has felt, is rightly considered the first axiom of translating.


But one should not too much exhibit this understanding. Baudelaire and Horace who have an almost unmistakable tone running through their work have often been translated with the Horatian phrase and the Baudelarian adjective when no literary rendering could be made adequate. An exception is Sir Edward Walsh's fine translation of the Odes (1941).

Arthur Symons and George Dillon have caught the tone of Baudelaire in their translations, but they have not been able to follow the infinitely varied and rapidly changing moods of Baudelaire. They do not see the full richness of experience he refers to. They think he is always saying the same. They overuse words like' drunken.'' sorceries.'' phantom,' languorous.' Arthur Symons wrote:

When with eyes closed as in an opium dream
I breathe the odour of thy passionate breast.

Mr. Symons here remembers that Baudelaire smoked opium and liked passionate breasts. These details have been added to make Baudelaire's poem more Baudelarian. Arthur Symons however was, let nobody forget it, a true adventurer, a man who was haunted by the diabolic as few Englishmen have been, a man who could speak the language of the Francois Villon:

I know that rich and poor and all,
Foolish and wise and priest and lay,
Mean folk and noble, great and small.
High and low, foul and fair, and they
That wore rich clothing on the way,
Being of whatever stock or stem
And are coiffed newly every day
Death shall take every one of them.

What a difference for instance with George Dillon, who is sometimes man-to-man and sometimes languorous, gives sometimes a sob and sometimes a chortle. You see him rearranging himself in his chair to say some of the cruel things of life. You feel that there is not a single artifice that this man cannot use, but in his translations of Baudelaire at least all inner coherence is lacking.

George Dillon has published his translations together with Edna St. Vincent Millay (1936). But the contributions of the poetess are completely different: dignified, passionate and quietly intelligent. One stands here before real beauty and the interesting occurrence of an American woman living through part of Baudelaire.


But how beautiful and how fortunate if a translator does not feel only a general mood, if he also follows the exploitation and the caprice which lift every good poet out of his mood, if he can see the significance of a little artifice here and a little arabesque there. In such a translater the real fire of an old poet far away may burn again, and in his generation an old elan and an old enthusiasm may find a new life. So it happened when Elizabethans translated that believer in life, that magical giver, Catullus. It is possible that the rollicking generosity of the Elizabethan age was spurred on by the complete conquest of Catullus' fire in this ayre of Thomas Campion?

My sweetest Lesbid let us live and love
And though the sager sort our deeds reprove
Let us not weigh them; heavens great lamps do dive
Into their west and straight again revive
But soon as once is set our little light
Then must we sleep one everlasting night.

page 15

If we read this qualitatively and remembering the tune, as we ought, we find back the whole of Catullus: not only the passionate acceptance of today (the general mood) but also the countless little whims and witty symbolisms which make the graceful marionette Catullus to the real Catullus we know. There is first of all Catullus' awe for celestial bodies becuse they are so large and round and burning: 'soles' (suns—the ordinary word would be astra)' soles occidere et redire possunt.' Campion shows how beautifully be grasps this little touch and puts' heaven's great lamps.' Then there is death, and that smiling pity of Catullus at people—and little sparrows tripping into eternal darkness (illuc unde negan redire quemquam).Campion renders this irony although it remains rather on the background in' Vivamus mea Lesbia' with his playful refrain one everlasting night.' To recognise this effect one has perhaps need of the tune.

I am far from saying that these little subtleties are the essence of Catullus's poem—they are only that forming grain of yeast—and equally far from considering the great merits of Thomas Campion's translation to be the simple matter of rendering them. I only point out that there is no whim how ever hidden, not a single arabesque in the Roman's fanciful mind when Campion does not intuitively catch and preserve.

In America there was a man fairly recently, who was able to see death simply as a mystery of nature, a simple dark ceremony, and who never asked for explanations; his name was Edward Robin son. This ability made it possible for him to express what Sappho meant in her epitaph on the girl Timas.

This dust is Tunas' and they say
Thai almost on her wedding day
She found her bridal home to be
The dark house of Persephone

And many maidens knowing then
That she would not come back again
Unbound their curls and all in tears
They cut them off with sharpened shears.

Why is this the only good translation of Sappho in the English language? Because Robinson has not just conveyed paganism: he has caught all the subtleties of Sappho's paganism: the pageant, the Lesbian maidens, and Death whom they cannot and do not wish to explain. Of the mystery of death the girls know only that 'she will not come back again.' More they do not want to know. And the girl who died was just as ignorant: she just' found' her home 'to be' death.

There are of course other translations in the English language just as beautiful, and some of them are written by people who are otherwise as poets not well known. The only good rendering from the Russian which I have encountered does for instance not occur in Bowra's Book of Russian Verse (1943), nor in the collection of Cornford and Salaman (1943), but in front of a translation of' The Possessed,' by Constance Garnett (1905). The poem is Pushkin's.

Strike me dead! The track has vanished.
Well, what now? We've lost the way.
Demons have bewitched our horses,
Led us in the wilds astray.

What a number! Whither drift they!
What's the mournful dirge they sing?
Do they hail a witch's marriage
Or a goblin's burying.

The translation has serious weaknesses, and very obvious ones. But nobody who reads it can doubt the greatness of Pushkin. Just as a contrast I will quote the rendering of C. M. Bowra from page 16 A Book of Russian Verse.' Instead of the layman's simplicity we observe the semi-craftsman's ineffective trickery; second verse:

Crowds of them! Where do they hurry?
Why this song in mournful pitch?
Is it Brownie that they bury?
Make they marriage for a witch?


In a recent issue of the Australian Magazine 'Angry Penguins' there was a translation from Rainer Maria Rilke, written by Ruth Speirs. It describes Eurydice, while Hermes guides her through the underworld:

her sex was closed
like a young flower towards the evening
and so much had her hands grown disaccustomed
to wedlock that the infinitely gentle
guiding touch of the light god
offended her like too great intimacy.

This is not a bad piece of work. The translator obviously understands Rilke. and she does not over-saturate her version with' Rilkean' adjectives. If she does not manage to get poetry out of her model, it must certainly be a cruel jest of the Muses who just like strip-teasers always make off at the crucial moment. Ruth Speirs has seen the light and the Muses have vanished. Here is the work. What has happened?

We first observe that almost every line has the same sweet sound with a modulation towards the end almost too tender for words, and a sigh which is graciously at the last moment changed into a honey-sweet smile. It is the Rilke sigh, the Rilke smile, repeating itself and haunting us, like a maddening refrain in our sleep. Then we observe that except for this sigh, this smile, this Rilke sweetness, nothing has been transferred into the English; it is only the infinitely precious caressing touch of the light Rilke. Except for that nothing; not a breath of life; the translator has eliminated her whole personality in translating. She flows along caressing and touching things, just like the light Rilke, and she does not stand erect as a separate entity, like Campion did, or Robinson, to understand, feel and express—as soon as Rilke began to speak, just like a bad lover, she was no longer there.

The reason why good translation is so rare is exactly this: that the translator himself needs a strong personality, and when working, he needs to preserve it.


There have been experiments of late to translate without rhyme and without measure, concentrating on the essence of the original, and it seemed as if translating could in this way by the use of modern versification be reduced to a technical exercise. Cecil Day Lewis translated Virgil's Georgics (1942) according to this maxim and Michael Hamburger (1943), as well as Frederick Prokosch (1943) translated poems of Hoelderlin. If the procedure could have been successful it would herald great possibilities for the future, for scholars with a knowledge of modern versification could then have translated world literature without difficulty into all languages required, perhaps even Esperanto.

But the Georgics without their strong metrical pattern become completely uninteresting, much more uninteresting than the back numbers of a farmers' weekly. Virgil in the formless verbosity of the thirties is not Virgil. Nor can a completely correct word-for-word rendering of Hoelderlin, with no style except whatever lingered there from the original by complete accident, be called Hoelderlin. These books are very commendable and extremely tasteful cribs.

page 17

Another modern theory by which a man with poetic taste is capable of translating anything from Germany, and was first enunciated by the great poet Stefan George. His procedure was imitating the word-music of each line of the original as closely as he could in his German. He has imitated by many poets in Germany and abroad. The catch of the matter was, that George was completely at home with the intention of his models, who were usually contemporaries. He consequently had a deep feeling for the subtleties of their word-music. But when translating Baudelaire, or Shakespeare or Dante, Stefan George did not apply his theory and gave renderings which are often extremely free.

Carol North Valhope and Ernst Morwitz, who produced the only readable translation of eGorge's poetry followed the rule of their Master, and as might have been expected, they failed. They did not fail through lack of understanding of Stefan George or through lack of versatility. They just failed because they were followers of George, and were not capable of approaching George's intentions as separate personalities. So even their clever procedure did not help them: the provision to his rule which George had taken for granted—a translator must also stand on his own feet as a poet-was their undoing. It is interesting that Ernst Morwitz has made a beautiful translation of Sappho into German—he was capable of this because his being a pupil of Stefan George did not prevent him from approaching Sappho with an independent mind.

This causerie begins to look like a catalogue. Yet I must mention one more modern experiment in translation: Leishman and Spender's rendering of Rainer Maria Rilke. This will probably stand as the most important translation of recent years, because nobody can deny it to have a definite literary value as well as a profound understanding of Rilke. Stephen Spender, as well as Leishman, has a sense of style which the other poets of the thirties lack.

There is one flaw which prevents this work horn being a really great translation: the too intellectualist approach of the translators. It is of course better to have a slightly wrong approach than none at all, like Ruth Speirs, but it remains unfortunate. Rilke touches things, his wisdom is intuitive, he never formulates. The essence of the translating gentlemen is that they always formulate, that nothing has significance to them until it is clipped of its wings and safely formulated. When Spender writes great poetry, it is because his sincerity reaches a greatness, but what was sincerity to the earth-hating Rilke? There is an interesting instance in the sonnets to Orpheus, where Rilke writes, typically:

Libeling de Winde zu spielen
Wie das Gerat das gelang.

And Spender and Leishman translated, typically:

Lost by the lightly profiling
Proudly accomplished tool.

Curiously enough the translation contains two adjectives and two adverbs belonging to them, whereas the original docs not use the formulating effect of a single adjective, a single adverb.

The translation of poetry then will never become a mass trade, conducive to the preservation of world peace. It will remain the domain of just a few adventurers, and it will contribute to all national literatures just a little.

Erik Schwimmer