Introductions, Series 3 No. 1

By Helen Constantine, David Constantine

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In the first issue of Modern Poetry in Translation, edited by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort in 1966, there were excellent translations of poetry that mattered. Among the poets were Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Ivan Lalić and Miroslav Holub. The editors noted: ‘While we had material coming from many areas of the world, it was that which came from Eastern Europe which was somehow the most insistent.’ It was so because that region had been "at the centre of cataclysm". The poets had the measure of the times and circumstances they lived in. Theirs was a poetry remarkable for its sense of purpose, sure of its social as well as private value, and confident of being heard. Hughes and Weissbort let it be heard more widely, through good translation.

Those first editors had another ambition: to benefit poets in Britain and America by showing them what was being done abroad.

We wish to continue in the tradition of that first issue of MPT. The need is, if anything, more urgent still. The centre of cataclysm is no longer behind an Iron Curtain, and the ingredients of it have changed; but the huge opportunities, dangers, gains and losses since 1989 are everywhere apparent. The hallmark of our age seems to be instability and ferment, the voluntary and enforced movement of large numbers of people, over Europe and worldwide. People moving with their languages. In that context translation must matter more and more. We shall look for the poets who are capable of telling us what life is like now with so much in flux and underway for good or ill. We shall try to give access to voices that need it and merit it. Poetry and translation will be in alliance, to that end. And we believe, like Hughes and Weissbort in the 1960s, that the shock of the foreign is vitally necessary to poets whose mother tongue is English. In Britain we risk becoming parochial and, indeed, xenophobic, step by step with the march of English towards supremacy among the languages of the world. In America also, mixed and multilingual though that country is, there is much insularity and ignorance of other, foreign, lives. The notion that everybody speaks English, or ought to, damages the native speakers of English even more than it insults everyone else.

We want MPT to be an active agent in those two chief responsibilities: through translation giving a voice to the real conditions people live in now; and furthering poetry in English by confronting it with what is new, unsettling and inspiring from abroad.

We helped put together the last issue of MPT (Second Series. No. 22), but this is the first under our sole editorship. To mark the change, it is designated: Third Series. No. 1.

The issue is called ‘Introductions’. First, because it introduces us, the new editors, and makes a statement of what we intend and hope for the magazine. Secondly, because it consists, to a large extent, of selections from certain poets’ works prefaced in each case by a short essay to locate him or her in a context. This may turn out to be a preferred strategy for future issues. We think it less likely that we shall give over entire issues to the translated poetry of any one country or continent. We have here also a substantial contribution from two poets who perhaps need no introduction: Philippe Jaccottet and Mahmoud Darwish. We  print Sarah Maguire’s translation of Darwish’s A State of Siege entire, the first time it has appeared so in English. The essay by Charlie Louth on Michael Hamburger is one tribute among many being paid him this year to celebrate his eightieth birthday. Nobody in Britain has done more good ‘between the languages’ than Michael Hamburger. This magazine itself owes him a great deal, many of its readers and contributors think of him as an ally and a trusted friend in the ever more necessary struggle to uphold humane relations between the countries of the world.

Mahmoud Darwish’s poem is an indication of what we have in mind for the future of MPT. We want first-class poetry that addresses things the way they really are. Our next issue, entitled Diaspora, will deal chiefly with emigration and exile. Connecting with the excellent ‘Mother Tongues’ issue of MPT, we want to give a voice to people on the move and away from home. And to make that voice as various as possible, we want not just translations but also original poems in any language (always with a translation if that language is not English) that treat in one way or another the large fact and idea of dispersal, exile, the search for asylum or a better life. And short essays also, anecdotes and reviews.

Our third issue (summer 2005) will be called Metamorphoses. Altogether, it is our intention to widen and vary the idea of translation. We are on the look-out for work – original poems, translations and essays – that treat in whatever interesting and exciting fashion such ‘possibilities’ of translation as the creative re-writing of classical texts; the transformation of texts through different languages; and, indeed, the whole idea of metamorphosis. Pascale Petit’s creative re-writing of Ted Hughes’s  translation of Ferenc Juhász’s ‘At the Gate of Secrets’, which we secured for MPT 22, will give a sense of the metamorphoses we should like to encourage. In general we wish to reconnect to a longer tradition of translation, so that the modernity of, say, classical Greek or Latin texts, may be continually recognized. We can no more live without knowing the past than we can without knowing our foreign neighbours. So the "modern" in the name of this magazine should not be understood at all restrictively. Texts survive abroad down the ages by virtue of their translations in the present now. Vital themselves, they want a vital new language if they are to continue to serve the living in our day and age. 

We seek to continue in the best tradition of MPT, and gladly and gratefully acknowledge our predecessors. What we are aiming at now is a lively and various agenda, a wide understanding of what translation is and might be, and a constant attention to the political and social facts of our day and age. There will be more reviews, more essays, more original poetry. We shall keep faith with the magazine’s central concerns, but we shall demonstrate how wide, various, current, necessary and capable of development those concerns are. Translation is a topical and urgent matter, and the magazine under our editorship will demonstrate that. We envisage greater variety in every issue: fewer translated poems perhaps, but more various and often with an introduction and a context, so that the reader can make contact more readily. And though the next two issues will take the titles Diaspora and Metamorphoses, we shall not, of course, be done with those subjects then. In a large sense, whether stated or not, they will be the mainstream of much of our interest and endeavour.

David and Helen Constantine, July 2004

Helen Constantine

Helen Constantine

Helen Constantine read French and Latin at Oxford. She was Head of Languages at Bartholomew School, Eynsham, until 2000, when...

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David Constantine

David Constantine

David Constantine was born in Salford in 1944. For thirty years he taught German at the Universities of Durham and Oxford. He...

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We wish to continue in the tradition of that first issue of MPT. The need is, if anything, more urgent still. The centre of cataclysm is no longer behind an Iron Curtain, and the ingredients of it have changed; but the huge opportunities, dangers, gains and losses since 1989 are everywhere apparent. David Constantine

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Essential reading, MPT, with its sustained intelligence about how poetries work across cultures, has transformed the British landscape since its inception in 1966.Fiona Sampson

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