Getting it Across, Series 3 No.8

By David Constantine, Helen Constantine

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Michael Hamburger’s association with MPT goes back more than forty years, almost to our very beginning. He is named among the advisory editors in the second issue, Summer 1966; and to the third, Spring 1967, he contributed translations of Ingeborg Bachmann’s ‘Leaving England’ and Helmut Heissenbüttel’s ‘the future of socialism’. In May of this year he sent us four of his own poems and ten days later the translations of Robert Walser, which we publish here. My letter thanking him for Walser arrived at Marsh Acres the morning he died. We were away in France when he sent it; had we been home, I should have written sooner, emulating him, the promptest of correspondents. How can we thank the dead? 

When we asked Michael for work or gratefully accepted what he offered, we never fitted him into any of our particular themes; but, as it happens, he is peculiarly in place in this issue called ‘Getting it Across’. Poet, translator, literary critic, tirelessly going to and fro between the languages, could anyone have done more? I wrote about him almost twenty years ago: an introduction to a Bibliography of the Publications of Michael Hamburger. I have a horror of bibilographies, but his was curiously moving. There you saw it: proof of the love and labour, the going between, the getting it across. I called my essay ‘Man of Letters’. For me he embodied that title, it seemed a high office, a profession you would be honoured to serve in. So Hölderlin styled himself in Lyons in January 1802 in revolutionary France when the police asked him what he did: ‘Homme de lettres’, and so they entered him in their records.

Michael died on the same day as Hölderlin, 7 June, having spent much of his life preoccupied with him. At the age of 16, after only seven years in England, only seven years speaking English, he was looking for a publisher for his Hölderlin translations.They came out three years later, in 1943; by which time Michael, the German Jew, was in British army uniform. The Poetry Society invited him to come and talk on Hölderlin, and read from his translations. He declined. His Company Commander ordered him to accept, for the honour of the regiment. But his nerve failed him, he hid in the audience and got two friends to read and talk for him. That invitation and the occasion, like the translation and the publication themselves, were an absurd and beautiful act, against hatred and evil. Michael commented: ‘If I had asked myself at the time why that war was worth fighting, I should have said, because such absurdities are possible in Britain, and there was nothing I wouldn’t do to keep them possible.’

Poems are bread on the waters, messages in bottles, they may land anywhere. I found a copy of Poems of Hölderlin in Llangollen, only last year, published by Nicholson & Watson: nearly 100 pages of introduction, then 140 of poems, the German facing Michael’s English, page by page. Quite something, in the middle of a war against the native land of poet and translator! German soldiers were sent to the front with a special edition of Hölderlin, the so-called Feldauswahl,  in their packs. Like Michael’s volume, it came out in 1943. A friend found me a copy in Oxford in 1968. The Nazis hijacked Hölderlin for a while.You might say that Michael helped him shake them off. They rot in ignominy and his verse sails on.  

I first met and corresponded with Michael because of Hölderlin. I asked him would he read my versions, and he did. I remember his kindness. He and I translated very differently, as we both acknowledged. It moves me to think of that now: very differently, and the beloved text in common between us.

Michael was famously lugubrious. Everyone who knew him has a story. Ours is this. Visiting us once, he cast his eye over our small son’s cactus collection. ‘Ah yes,’ he said, in tones of glum satisfaction, like a preacher lighting on yet another proof of original sin, ‘I see they’ve got the mealy bug.’ Most things have, either the mealy bug or some equivalent, and Michael always spotted it. I liked him for that, for the exact tone of voice in which he said, ‘I see they’ve got the mealy bug.’ He reminded me of my mother, my grandmother, two or three of my aunts, with their heroically doleful Mona Lott catchphrase, ‘It’s being so cheerful as keeps me going.’ 

Michael kept going, against melancholy, against the usual ills. And against fashion, trend, the many spreading duplicities. It was easy to think he would go on for ever and would always be rooting out something else for us from the Aladdin’s Cave at Marsh Acres. 

The German word ‘übersetzen’ has a more literal or a more figurative sense according to whether that prefix ‘über’ is separable or inseparable. Separable, the word means to carry over or across, from one side to the other, it might be an object or a person. Inseparable, it means to translate. Celan, whom Michael translated and who was himself (like Hölderlin) a great translator, and a poet who strove desperately to get himself across, plays on that dual sense in more than one poem.  He has the image of a ferry, that bears things – often terrible things – across . Saint Jerome is the usual patron of translators, but Christopher might be too, or Julian the Hospitaller, the one carrying you over on his shoulders, the other ferrying you across in his boat. And since translators and good literary critics enable the poets into further and further life, we might nominate Charon also, a sort of Counter-Charon, shipping the vital soul of the achievements of the dead back across the river, for us, the living, to embody and continue the best we can.

David Constantine
August 2007

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 are bread on the waters, messages in bottles, they may land anywhere. David and Helen Constantine

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