Transplants, Series 3 No. 13

By David Constantine, Helen Constantine

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We had more submissions for this issue than for any before. It must be that transplanting is a good image of much that is essential in the whole idea and practice of translation.

In the early days of botany and horticulture plants were very often removed from abroad to a home country and set in private and public gardens for their usefulness and beauty. First from the Mediterranean, Greece and Turkey, later from the Americas, the Far East, the South Seas, the Antipodes, plants were brought back and so naturalized in English gardens that, like thousands of words in our native speech, only experts know they were foreign once. So many flowers and words have roots elsewhere.

In Renaissance poetics translation was thought necessary to a poet’s education and development. Poets, like journeymen, should sojourn abroad and return with their native language enriched through the foreign. Hughes and Weissbort continued that tradition when they founded MPT: poetry in English would benefit by going abroad and fetching home the foreign. And there would be benefits for the foreign poetry too, in being brought, by translation, into the wider circulation of English. Altogether a benign and advantageous transplanting.

The stuff of poetry – love and grief – travels well. In native or translated language, it crosses frontiers of time and space. Sappho writes, ‘The moon has set. So have the Pleiades./ Midnight. The hours pass. I sleep alone’, and we know what she means. She says what it feels like. And as Alex Cigale remarks, ‘The Russians love their children too’ – and not just Russians, all humans of whatever nationality do, which poetry knows and witnesses, but which much foreign policy and all fanaticisms do not know or they forget or never take it to heart. Translators in this issue have ‘sought fit words’ in their own language to get across, transplant into our hearts, what foreigners have enjoyed and suffered recently or long ago.

The forms of poetry, how well do they travel, how are they to be transplanted? How easily, how most effectively, can you pass from a French line of verse, scanned by number of syllables, or a Latin, scanned by the quantity of the vowels, into an English line scanned by accent? Can you transplant the Asclepiad, the Sapphic, the Alcaic ode? Should rhymes be migrated? Always? Exactly? What about the traditional levels of poetry, the high, the middle, the low, the subjects, diction, gestures appropriate to each? How closely can you judge the tone of voice of your foreign and perhaps very ancient poet? Will you do her justice or make him a laughing stock if you strike a similar tone in the here and now? How much apostrophe, exclamation, rhetoric will your native language take? Will irony flourish in your tongue as you think it did in the foreign? Can you transplant a joke? None of these are idle questions; rather they are the justification for the old view that poets learn the handling of their own language, what can be done in it, through dealings with the foreign. Translation is a school of poetry – not the only one, but a rigorous and rewarding one. This issue of MPT is a lively anthology of such questions. There is epic poetry here – from five languages; tanka, elegy, ballad, sonnet, ghazal; there are prose poems, rhyming and unrhyming poems; all manner of crossings-over. Imagine a symposium of all the poets and translators gathered here, the living and the dead, from China, Alaska, Albania, Vietnam, Brazil, India, Ancient Greece and Rome, Israel, Estonia, to-ing and fro-ing from the eighth century BC to 2010. What conversations you could have, and not just in pairs with your ‘own’ poet or translator. For there are more questions and possible answers here than anyone could encompass in his or her sole self. You would be free to circulate, you would be foolish not to.

An anthology in its root sense is a collection of flowers. An early MPT flyer, designed by Lucy Wilkinson, showed a flower over an open book, the seeds of it being released and setting forth. That is an image of willing diaspora, of seeding elsewhere, over the borders, an endless transmission and welcoming in. ‘Transplants’ continues in that hopeful vein.

But our imagined symposium, if its participants moved in their talk, as they surely would, from the forms to the stuff of poetry, would have to confront transplanting in a harsher sense: as violent deracination, as expulsion, forced marches and transportation, the spirit of it murderous, no wish at all in it that the life being thus uprooted and dispatched should take and thrive elsewhere, rather that it should die. Banishment, exile, enforced homelessness, the loss of a native language, indeed the deliberate starving to death and extirpation of a tongue, all this has been very often the stuff of the poetry we have published in MPT, and is so here again. The diaspora we ‘anthologized’ in MPT 3/2 was chiefly the unhappy deed and condition of banishment and homelessness, from Ovid’s day to ours. Still the word means ‘a scattering of seed’, and seeds are notably resourceful in their will to live. Poems survived the camps by being committed to memory and whispered abroad.

Much of the very little we have of Sappho has been dug up by archaeologists in Egypt on scraps of papyri the dry sands had preserved. Miklós Radnóti, force-marched from a prison camp in the autumn of 1944, was shot and buried in a mass grave. He had his last poems on him in a notebook. Those poems were exhumed with his body eighteen months later and in Hungarian and many foreign languages have circulated since.

David and Helen Constantine
March 201

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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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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Editorial comments


22nd May 2011

Kudos to you! I hadn't thought of that!


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... a triumphant demonstration of what taste, discrimination and sheer commitment can achieve, with the right support ...John Pilling, PN Review

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