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Ted Hughes, Selected Translations, edited by Daniel Weissbort

Ted Hughes, Selected Translations, edited by Daniel Weissbort

By Ted Hughes

Faber and Faber, 232 pp, £20.00, ISBN 0-571-22140-8
Series 3 No.9 - Palestine

The Weissbort/Hughes collaboration reflected a desire for ‘global unity’; as Hughes explains in his programme note to Poetry International ’67, poetry was the means whereby various nations could ‘make a working synthesis of their ferocious contradictions’.

Review by Belinda Cooke

With MPT now in its third series, it seems fitting to review a text by its two co-founders. Daniel Weissbort provides both an insider’s knowledge of Hughes’ working practices and a retrospective on why they started MPT in the first place—a decision triggered by Hughes’ encounter with various East European poets in the fifties and linked to his role in establishing the annual Poetry International festival n London. The result is a substantial, academic text that includes an introduction to Hughes’ translation theory; separate introductions to each poet; previously unpublished translations; appendices of letters, collaborators’ prose cribs and editors’ commentaries from the first edition of MPT—a vast array of ‘behind the scenes’ material and insights which make this an essential text for poetry translators, students of translation theory and Hughes specialists.

Hughes’ interest in translation was driven partly by idealism, and partly by his own needs as a poet, not to mention the fact that he was in great demand as translator for the theatre. The Weissbort/Hughes collaboration reflected a desire for ‘global unity’; as Hughes explains in his programme note to Poetry International ’67, poetry was the means whereby various nations could ‘make a working synthesis of their ferocious contradictions’. One can sense his passionate engagement with poets such as the Hungarian János Pilinszy and the Israeli Yehudai Amichai, who only came to people’s attention in the West by being showcased in MPT. This idealism triggered his interest in the possibilities of a universal language that culminated in his collaboration with Peter Brook to perform Orghast, a short dramatic piece consisting entirely of made-up words. Indeed, passion is the driving force of all Hughes’ translations, produced almost always from poems that resonate with his own—that can ‘be of use’ to him. Take for example ‘The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets’ by the Hungarian Ferenc Juhasz, which chimes with Hughes’ interest in the violence inherent in nature:

The mother called after her son
from the far distance
she went out in front of the house, calling
and she loosened her hair’s thick knot
which the dusk wove to a dense, stirring veil,
a valuable robe sweeping the earth,
wove to a stiff and heavily flaring mantle,
a banner for the wind with ten black tassels,
a shroud, the fire-slashed blood-heavy twilight.

Of course, given his interest in myth, Hughes was most likely to find rich pickings in classical texts: Homer, Seneca, Ovid, Aeschylus and Euripides. Reading the extracts both from the above writers, as well as from Lorca’s Blood Wedding and Racine’s Phèdre, all conveying the natural, clear and economic language that sounds so powerful on stage, one can understand why Hughes would have received so many theatre commissions.

When working with contemporary poets he relied on personal communication and literal cribs. In the case of classical texts he often drew on previous editions (usefully cited by Weissbort), but the literal crib was his preferred option, enabling him to get close to the original. This focus on the ‘literal’ was another passion for Hughes and Weissbort:

We feel that as soon as devices extraneous to the original are employed for the purpose of recreating its ‘spirit’, the value of the whole enterprise is called into question.  (MPT No. 1, 1965)

We can be grateful for Hughes’ belief in the literal since it means he steers clear of formal metres and rhyme, so often the downfall of many translators of pre-twentieth texts in particular. Yet it also suggests either a surprising obliviousness to the complexities of language or an underplaying of his own talents. For there can never be a single ‘literal’ translation; translators have always to make numerous choices with regard to diction, structure, syntax etc. With Hughes it seems to be a case of ‘do as I do rather than do as I say’ and one can learn a lot by looking at what he actually does in his ‘literal’ translations. He avoids formal metre and rhyme and omits as much as possible, streamlining the translation. He uses strong diction that sounds like his own voice, allowing monosyllabic words to dominate, and gives the language cohesion through repetition, alliteration and a whole range of other patternings. In places he also uses unrhymed trimeter, creating a fairly regular beat though with some variation. Yet like all good craft the end result gives the illusion of being easy.

What he produces is poetry attuned to the modern ear. Thus with the dramatic verse we have characters who sound like real people. The self-loathing of Phèdre here is totally convincing:

Oh God, what am I doing? What am I saying?
I think I’m losing my senses.
Me jealous? Me beg Theseus
To avenge my jealousy? Implore my husband
To remove my rival
From my monstrous passion for his son?

A good example of this complex approach in his supposed ‘literal’ versions is in this rendering of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

…Pierced by the mortal beauty of Adonis
She has forgotten Cythera’s flowery island,

Forgotten the bright beaches of Paphos,
Forgotten Cnidos, delicate as its fish,
Amathus, veined with costly metals. Neglected

Even Olympus. She abstains form heaven
Besotted by the body of Adonis.
Wherever he goes, clinging to him she goes.

Various techniques are used to give the verse cohesion: alliteration (of the kind Hughes admires in middle English) such as ‘besotted by the body’, along with the repetitions of ‘forgotten’ or ‘goes’. He also uses the list of settings – ‘Cythera’, ‘Pathos’, ‘Cnidos’ – to build to a climax with ‘Olympus’.

It is particularly pleasing to see Hughes providing us with evidence that Pushkin, so rarely translated well (because of some establishment rule that his musical metres must be retained in translation), can be successfully rendered via the Hughesian ideology. Here we have Pushkin’s ‘The Prophet’, powerfully rendered with not a rhyme in sight, just strong use of the simple past followed by a shift to the imperative and a not too obvious unrhymed trimeter:

He split my chest with a blade,
Wrenched my heart from its hiding,
And into the open wound
Dropped a flaming coal.
I lay on stones like a corpse.
There God’s voice came to me:
‘Stand, Prophet, you are my will.
Be my witness. Go
Through all seas and lands. With the Word
Burn the hearts of the people.’

The single flaw in this otherwise excellent book lies in its lay-out. Weissbort, in a keenness to present Hughes’s translations chronologically, does not differentiate between drafts and finished works. The presentation of the translations themselves might have been better served by keeping archive versions that are clearly not polished poems as part of another appendix. This aside, Weissbort has provided a real tour de force for all who admire Hughes.

Belinda Cooke

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