Polyphony, Series 3 No.14

By David Constantine, Helen Constantine

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This issue, like the last, drew much good work in under its title. For ‘polyphony’, many voices, is just as suggestive of the idea and the practice of translation as is ‘transplanting’.

Voice is of the essence in poetry. We listen for and learn to love a poet’s particular voice. In all the many voices that a poet may adopt, in all the personae (masks that the voice sounds through), still we pick up a tone and rhythm, an audible and palpable signature, that is unique. So there is distinctiveness, unmistakeable peculiarity in the whole polyphonic oeuvre of a poet’s writing life. We speak of the moment of breakthrough, when the poet, having struggled among possibilities for a true identity, comes into his or her own voice. And that voice will be unique – and as various as the different poetic projects require it to be.

The translator doubles the foreign poet’s uniqueness and multiplicity. The translator must have a voice. Translation is not a colourless medium through which the foreign writing passes straight and pure. Translation, even cleaving close, refracts and colours. These impurities (by which is not meant lexical and grammatical errors and arbitrary distortions of the text) should be welcomed, not regretted. They are the translator’s own identity and tone. All translation, and especially the translation of poetry, is a struggle, a sort of contrapuntal contest, between two equally pressing demands: that of service, to the text; that of autonomy, for the making of an equivalent new poem. All the fun and anguish lies in that tension between service and self-assertion. The translator must have a voice and must assert it. Ideally, it should be as unique and multiple as that of the poet he or she translates, so serving the foreign poet in a voice recognizable as the translator’s own.

Poems come alive when a reader reads them, they come off the page into a living voice. Every reader voices a poem distinctively. Readers are like the different singers of a song: the same words, the same tune – the rendition quite distinct. And of course, at different points in your life you will read the same poem differently. MacNeice was right to call the world ‘incorrigibly plural’. Our life in it is polyphonic. We want a poetics (and a practice of translation) true to that.

When we redefined the ‘modern’ in Modern Poetry in Translation to mean any modern translation of any poetry however ancient, we greatly extended our world. We took down the frontier between us and the timeless dead. Every translator and every reader of a translation continues the lives of the dead. This issue of MPT is characteristically rich in that respect. To bring a dead writer’s or singer’s words across the Styx into the living here and now, that is an extension any human would be glad of.

David and Helen Constantine
August 2010

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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Poems come alive when a reader reads them, they come off the page into a living voice. Every reader voices a poem distinctively. Readers are like the different singers of a song: the same words, the same tune – the rendition quite distinct David and Helen Constantine

Editorial comments

Margaret Whyte

15th Feb 2011

I treat poetry on the page as a score. I adored Baraheni's Daf and have
been reciting Robert Hull's 'Engist and Co in the bath and to friends in
poetry groups (holding up the MPT prominently the while), being
also a Lancashire lass. MPT is my favourite magazine, instructive and
thought-provoking, implicit in its purpose. And great fun!


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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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