Timothy Adès : Translator–Poet

Interview with Four Translators

At Torbay Poetry Festival, 2009: Chaired by Harry Guest

The Poets

  • Timothy Adès

    Timothy Adès translates mostly with rhyme and metre. His awards include one for Jean Cassou’s 33 Sonnets of the Resistance (now also translated by Harry Guest!), and one for Desnos’ Contrée. He has a second book of Cassou, and one of Victor Hugo.

  • Fred Beake

    Fred Beake has published many volumes of poetry including translation from the French and the Classical languages. He studied Classics at Bristol University. His biggest book from French is The Bees of the Horizon, Etruscan Books, 2005.

  • Harry Guest

    Harry Guest is an Honorary Research Fellow at Exeter. The Distance, The Shadows (Anvil, 1982) is his large anthology of Victor Hugo’s poems. Assorted poems are found in Versions, Odyssey 1999, and Comparisons and Conversions, Shearsman 2009. Poet and novelist, he has taught widely here and in Japan.

  • Martin Sorrell

    Martin Sorrell is Emeritus Professor of French and Literary Translation at Exeter. His Selected Verlaine and Collected Rimbaud are in O.U.P.’s ‘World Classics’ series. He has many awards. Modern French Poetry appeared from Forest in 1992. His book of recent French poetry by women is called Elles.

“The Best Event of a Good Festival”

Acumen issue no. 68

I had assembled some French poems, old and recent, in a generous leaflet. Each poem had two or even three very different versions by the four speakers alongside it, for the audience to compare, discuss, and take home. The four translator–poets recited their poems, and others, which were greatly enjoyed. The two–hour session allowed time for many fascinating questions and answers.

Later the four translator–poets answered questions sent by Acumen….

Asking the questions: editor of Acumen, and distinguished poet, William Oxley.

[Adapted from Acumen literary journal, no. 68, September 2010.]

William Oxley:

How and why did you get involved in translations in the first place?

Timothy Adès:

At school I did weekly translations from English verse into Latin (various metres) and Greek verse. I fled the classics and studied business management, with French and German. Years later, my wife wrote a thesis on the Dada artist–poet Hans/Jean Arp and with a friend’s help I translated some of his German poems. Still later, I needed a silent hobby and translated from French the 33 Sonnets of Jean Cassou: I had found one in an anthology of the war period. My poetic relationships often start with a single poem in an anthology.

Fred Beake:

I was excited by two poems by Catullus and one by Paul Valéry (Les Pas, which blew my head off, so I was never the same after). I was a Sixth Former at the time, but these were poems I discovered for myself. The excitement, which has returned many times since, is not that different to that before writing an original poem. It was similar with my version of Horace’s Cleopatra Ode, in 1968.

Harry Guest:

At school, translation from French, German and Latin were important. I relished the challenge and, later, wanted to share my delight especially in French poetry by casting poems in English. My first attempt, at the Sorbonne in 1954–5, was a sonnet by Mallarmé, which I sent to Peter Redgrove.

Martin Sorrell:

Largely through undergrad. teaching (French), which involved much translation work. Natural development. First big task was late 1970’s, for something I was publishing in an academic context.

William Oxley:

When you first embarked on the business of translation, how soon did you consider publishing the fruits of your labours?

Timothy Adès:

Kind friends got the Jean Arp translation published academically. Poetry publishers all turned down the Cassou 33 Sonnets, saying he was unknown. I entered them for what is now the Dryden prize, and was lucky! Some years later, they appeared in a book: lucky again, and forever grateful.

Fred Beake:

As a full–time writer in 1970–3, I translated a good deal of 20th–century French and Classical Latin: they set one another off nicely. A friend, Anne Corden, lent me Ronsard and Du Bellay, and I tackled them, more indirectly. As a major challenge I took on Desnos’ long surreal poem The Night of Loveless Nights, which I finished by 1973. My early attempts at Horace and Catullus appeared in my first publication Ten Songs for Spring (Outposts Publications 1970) when I was twenty–one. It wasn’t premature: the version of Horace 1.37, and also my own Oracle to Pilgrim from that collection, still figure regularly in readings.

Harry Guest:

The ‘business’ of translation was not an option until the 1960s when the BBC commissioned me to translate two German radio plays. In 1972 Nikos Stangos at Penguin commissioned an anthology of modern Japanese poetry. Then Peter Jay at Anvil suggested a selection of Victor Hugo’s poems in English: with an Arts Council grant in 1981 I took a term off from teaching and produced The Distance, The Shadows.

Martin Sorrell:

Immediately, as I had a guarantee of publication in an academic journal.

Influences

William Oxley:

Often a poet is asked about influences on his or her original work. Did you ever have any translation by someone else that you greatly admired? If so, do you think that work, or similar works, of translation influenced your own style of translating?

Timothy Adès:

No. What influences me is the text to be translated … EV Rieu’s Penguin Homer is admirable as narrative, but to get the poetry, you need to learn Greek! Of course there are many fine translators about, whom I admire.

Fred Beake:

Firstly, Arthur Waley’s versions from the Chinese. He dispenses with English metre and rhyme in favour of the most exquisite Sprung Rhythm and internal sonorities — but then Waley first studied Latin and Greek, which do not rhyme formally, and their metres are totally unlike ours. Secondly, Helen Waddell, whose versions from Medieval Latin do rhyme and are fairly literal, but she tended to select the bits she felt able to bring across into English. Both Waddell and Waley accept that they are not quite literal translators, and choose the things they can ‘do’, rather than what they (or others!) might like to be done. Ezra Pound showed me that a text can be translated creatively. I admire Pound: I’ve rarely followed him in my own work, but his influence has always stopped me from being a literalist.

Harry Guest:

I can’t stand back and see if I have been influenced by other poets — whether French poets I deeply admire such as Ronsard and Baudelaire or, in German, Rilke and Grillparzer (I translated recently his radiant tragedy Des Meeres und der Liebe Wellen, but have yet to find a publisher). Not knowing Russian or Spanish, I greatly admire Charles Johnston’s Onegin and J.M. Cohen’s Don Quixote. To be honest, most English versions of work I know in the original don’t interest me (some horrify me!) — honourable exceptions being Michael Hamburger, Timothy Adès, Anthony Rudolf, Martin Sorrell, William I. Elliott and Christopher Pilling.

Martin Sorrell:

Yes. First big influence was just one section of a Rimbaud poem translated by Samuel Beckett. Then came some others, principally Christopher Pilling’s translations of Corbière’s Les Amours Jaunes, and some Laforgue poems by one of my own brilliant students.

Keeping the Form of the Original

William Oxley:

One of a number of difficult matters that confront translators of poetry is the question of how far should a translation go in attempting to translate the form of the original work? Would you give your views on this referring, as appropriate, to one particular work that you have translated?

Timothy Adès:

I tend to work with rhyme and metre. If well done, it is the best way of translating such a poem; if badly done, easily the worst. Sonnets are generally difficult but possible: in lines 9 to 14, I tend to allow the rhymes in any order. When lyric poetry has a rhyme every eight syllables, or less, a translation is bound to diverge from the original, unless you reduce the ratio, or the rigour, somehow. My rhymes are sometimes inventive, not always rigorous. I think Peter Dale’s book on rhyme says it all.

The standard French line was the alexandrine, six iambics with a break halfway. The alexandrines of Corneille and Racine came in two by two; when the young Hugo introduced enjambment in his play Hernani, there was fighting in the stalls! Translating alexandrines into English, one may go to five iambics (our own standard line), or six, or four anapaests…. I’ve also used four iambics. Couplets may rhyme strictly, loosely, out of order, not at all…. Penguin anthologies often use ‘a plain prose translation’ — nothing wrong with that. Translations of rhymed verse into formless ‘free’ verse may win my respect, but don’t often excite me.

Fred Beake:

Trying to follow the form of the original is generally impossible! Languages differ so much in their rhythms and sound patterns! The only exceptions I can think of are in antiquity. Catullus managed it when he translated some of Sappho’s poems, but then Latin and Greek were much closer than, say, modern English and Classical Latin. So, more surprisingly, did Spenser in his versions of du Bellay and Petrarch. In general the problem is to find an English form that fits, when modern English is rather monosyllabic and also very short of full rhymes, unless word order is distorted. It is hard to imagine anything more distant from its original than Dryden’s heroic couplets from the Aeneid’s hexameters. Yet somehow it works. The Muses were kind!

I was heavily influenced early on by Waley’s Chinese versions in Sprung Verse, i.e. with a fixed number of stresses, but not syllables, to a line. I have modified this into five feet, followed by four, to translate poetry as different as Desnos’ great surreal poem and very recently Kol Gali’s medieval Islamic poem The Story of Joseph. For me at least this works extraordinarily well. I used it in my own long poems Towards The West and The Island. I recommend it to anyone who is equally weary of iambics and free verse.

Harry Guest:

The poem tells you. Sometimes I’ll try a free version and it doesn’t work. At other times the tightness of the original wants to loosen. In Hugo’s Le Chasseur Noir (8 short–lined stanzas rhyming aabab with a refrain ababab) and Après la Bataille (10 rhyming couplets) I stuck rigidly to the form. In other more complex poems I used different techniques hoping all the time to catch the ‘message’ and catch the ‘music’. It’s trying to find an equivalent, not a flat literalness.

Martin Sorrell:

I think a translator can (should?) go pretty far, towards ‘versions’, while maintaining a link with the original (see Nicholas Moore’s 31 versions of one Baudelaire poem). I’ve done that a lot, principally several versions of one poem by Villon (published), and one very free take on a well–worn Apollinaire poem.

Working with a Partner

William Oxley:

Have you had experience of co–translation? If you have, how easy or difficult have you found such a collaboration?

Timothy Adès:

Working from a language I don’t know, there would be no choice. That was effectively the case when I translated Arp’s dada puns and magical whimsies. I was helped, I was in control: it was a pleasure. But poetry is about inspiration, sometimes, and I haven’t sought or needed a partner.

Fred Beake:

Only once, with Ravil Bukharaev in my recent work on The Story of Joseph by the medieval Muslim poet Kol Gali. It mostly went very well. He gave me a rough draft, which I put into English to the best of my ability. He then made a few suggestions where he felt my grasp of things Islamic was at fault or my rendering was clumsy. I redid these bits, often following his suggestions. Considering the number of opportunities for falling out in a ten–thousand line poem that is the cherished epic of Ravil’s native Tatar Republic, it went remarkably peacefully and happily.

Harry Guest:

Only with Post–war Japanese Poetry when the poet Kajima Shôzô, my wife Lynn and I worked together. As I wrote in the Preface, “We do feel that this cooperation between a Japanese with a wide command of modern English and two foreigners who can read and write Japanese is an ideal combination and represents something of an innovation in the field of modern translation.” And recently with the poet Gôshi Masayo putting Stevie Smith into Japanese — a fascinating experience.

Martin Sorrell:

No experience.

Being the First Translator

William Oxley:

Have you ever translated a work that has never been translated before? If so, please give details.

Timothy Adès:

But of course! Worlds to conquer! All of my Cassou, plenty of Desnos, most of Hugo’s Grandfather, much of Alfonso Reyes, some Brecht….

Fred Beake:

Yes, The Night of Loveless Nights by Desnos and the Story of Joseph by Kol Gali. Some other modern French poems, by Char for example: other versions existed, but I did not know them.

Harry Guest:

As far as I know none of the poems in Post–war Japanese Poetry had been translated before. Of all the other poems I’ve translated I’ve come across a few (e.g. inaccurate versions of Hugo by someone called Monte which I had to review for Translation and Literature — he actually confused ‘poison’ with ‘poisson’!) but I don’t seek them out because I read the poems in the original. I know Beckett’s interesting version of Rimbaud’s Bateau Ivre but it’s not the way I see it — and even he makes one error: mistaking sures (sour) for sûres (firm)! I would never consider altering my own version once it’s ‘done’, once there has been that ivory ‘click’ as the last word fits into place (although one does keep praying there’s been no ‘howler’!)

Martin Sorrell:

Plenty. Too numerous to detail, but Vaché’s Lettres de Guerre, a set of poems by Claude de Burine, two plays by René de Obaldia, and many individual poems.

Do You Consult Other Versions?

William Oxley:

I would imagine that most translators have the opportunity to consult other versions of a particular work by other translators. Have you found that when doing this, you may, from time to time, alter your own version?

Timothy Adès:

What a pity if ‘most translators’ are in a rut. I rather avoid seeing other versions until I’ve finished. At that point if mine is wrong, or inferior, I might alter it (but not plagiarise) or I might throw it away. There are other situations. Brecht, a great poet as well as a great playwright, wrote some 1500 poems and only half have come out in English. I may assess whether it is worth embarking on a second version. But I may shoot first! Again, I fought shy of a very long poem, The Night of Loveless Nights by Robert Desnos, because I already knew Fred Beake’s fine version, until I saw a brave but unfortunate travesty which set me going….

Fred Beake:

I’ve rarely looked at someone else’s version. Unless something is totally intractable, I prefer to fight my way through with a dictionary. I noticed in Aristophanes’ comic verse play Peace, that if I was held up, other translators had clearly stuck and glossed over at the same point! In my initial reading of Greek or Latin I often use the parallel English texts of the Loeb editions. But for serious action, it’s over to the dictionary.

Harry Guest:

No. That sounds arrogant, but once it’s done the battle’s over!

Martin Sorrell:

Yes. But I try not to look at them until I’ve completed at least one translation of my own.

William Oxley:

Have you sufficient mastery of any second language for you to dispense with consulting other versions?

Timothy Adès:

It’s about mastery of English! I may well mistranslate, or fail to grasp nuances: then I’d consult a person, better than a version.

Fred Beake:

With French I may ask a French graduate to look at my version. Other people’s literary versions I tend to find not very helpful. They are usually coming at it from a different angle. With Greek and Latin I am usually adequate, but I do double–check by looking back at the Loeb after I have finished. Again I usually find literary translations unhelpful…. Your question does assume incidentally that there is a right or wrong meaning to a passage. This can be questionable, even when the translation is close.

Harry Guest:

I read French and German at Cambridge and, having lived and studied in both countries, taught these all my working life. We lived in Japan for six years and I gained a diploma at the Tôkyô Nihongo Gakkô but I need the dictionary by me when I translate Japanese, especially classical poetry. When I translate my Italian translator’s own poems I always consult him before publication, as he does me.

Martin Sorrell:

Yes.

Is Translation More Lucrative?

William Oxley:

If you are a poet in your own right, have you found it financially more lucrative to do translations than publish your own poetry?

Timothy Adès:

Lucrative? You’re joking! — I may write odd poems of my own, but have little to say in my own voice. I’m a translator–poet: when I translate a poem, you get a poem, I hope. I’m just another poet, but with an unusual method: a great or near–great foreign poet, probably dead, who has stood the test of time, takes care of style and content for me. Which gives me a huge advantage over most living poets.

Fred Beake:

I have never made much out of poetry, whether by my original work, or translations. However the two times I have earned a sum that was worth mentioning, it was the result of translation.

Harry Guest:

It is always a pleasant surprise to get paid for my work! I suppose over the years they’ve evened out. Not lavishly.

An Aid to Your Creativity?

William Oxley:

Have you found translation work a nourishment or bar to your own original creativity?

Timothy Adès:

It is my own original creativity.

Fred Beake:

All my work from French and Latin in the Seventies hardly influenced my own large output of the period. In contrast, learning Classical Greek (very slowly!) in the Nineties has had a great influence on my work since 1999. It changed my view of how poetry in modern English could sound. Theokritos and Homer taught me that colloquialism and lyrical movement are not incompatible. The Lyric poets taught, or reminded me, because I had learned it long ago from Zukofsky and Williams, how enjoyable sounds can be in a short piece. I do not copy them, but the influence is enormous!

Harry Guest:

As I wrote for Comparisons (Shearsman 2009) for me “the effort of translating is a vital complement to creative writing, providing not only a technical challenge but also the strange effect of inhabiting another’s consciousness for a while.”

Martin Sorrell:

A nourishment, absolutely.

Copyright

William Oxley:

When Patricia Oxley and myself assembled a volume of European translations, we encountered some copyright difficulties. Perhaps you would care to comment on this important, but often vexed, aspect of translating?

Timothy Adès:

Copyright is now (broadly) death plus seventy years. So if you want to read the great twentieth–century poets in English — the century that got us to where we are — there is a potential obstruction. Lorca is now at last freed by his untimely death (1936), so anyone can translate him (I believe); but Desnos (1945), “mort pour la France”, has been given the special honour of death plus eighty years!

Poetry books in Britain often make a loss, likewise literary translations, so our publishers tend to be small and weak. The big houses prefer those few foreign poets who are already well–known. For a big edition of a less well–known poet, we may have to look to the universities of the USA, since our own do not measure up. And even if a book comes out, we poets must nurse it like a baby for years and years.

The internet could be the perfect solution. Paulo Coelho put his unprinted novel on the internet and made his name, selling far more printed copies of that novel and many others too. But the holders of copyright are unlikely to take the risk.

I have little to complain about personally in the field of copyright. But all these factors can combine to create a check to the intellect, a barrier between nations.

Fred Beake:

Classical translation (my main field) is mercifully free of the problem of people wanting to be paid for use of their text: nobody has copyrighted Greek or Latin texts, or older French texts. It is one of my nightmares that this will eventually happen.

With modern European languages there is a real problem. Publishers (say in France) judge by their own much healthier situation and can hardly believe the impecunious state of poetry publishing in this country. They levy in effect a tax on a translation, even though it promotes their own interests. Many small publishers and magazines just ignore it, on the ground they are making no money, so why should anyone else. However it is a most unsatisfactory situation, which ought to be resolved by revision of the copyright laws. People ought only to be required to pay for the use of texts, where they are themselves clearly making money.

The purchase of rights, so–called, is fine with a novel, where serious money can be involved. However, in one case I came across twenty years ago, it prevented anyone other than the purchaser of the rights from translating an obscure poet, which is clearly most unsatisfactory. Who is to say who will make the best versions of a poet? Again this is a mess that ought to be resolved.

Harry Guest:

About foreign publishers … When Philip Kuhn of ‘itinerant press’ wonderfully offered to bring out a livre–d’artiste limited edition of Cassou’s 33 wartime sonnets I’d translated, we decided as a tribute to publish only 33 copies, to match those the poet composed in his head in his cell where he was allowed neither writing materials nor books. Gallimard both by letter and on the phone were difficult. They insisted on a fee and a written agreement never to print more than 33 copies … Whereas Insel Verlag gave Modern Poetry in Translation permission by return of post, providing we mentioned the publisher. No fee required. Es lebe dieser Verlag! Vivent les Allemands!

Martin Sorrell:

Very occasional matters with big publishers, but always resolved quickly and usually at no expense. Small presses (in France) only too pleased to get the exposure. I’d guess it depended on the individual publishers, who can be quirky. The Translators’ Association (Society of Authors) are pretty good at negotiating contracts, though I’ve never had to call on them myself.

Lastly …

William Oxley:

Have you any other comment you would particularly care to make about the business of translating?

Fred Beake:

I must stress the essentially creative nature of verse translation. It is far more important for a text to give the feeling of a major original work behind it, than to be absolutely literal. Better the Muse takes off in a slightly wayward fashion than limp like bad prose!

Harry Guest:

As fewer and fewer schoolchildren are able to learn a foreign language it seems vital to keep on providing translations; otherwise these islands will become even more parochial and narrow–minded.

Martin Sorrell:

Lots to say, no doubt. Broadly, you need a thick skin, be able to cope with disappointments, bounce back, keep going. Make yourself known, don’t expect miracles, big breaks, and don’t do it for the money. There are niches, which can make life easier for some — e.g. poetry in magazines, and lesser–known languages. Get to know the big hitters at conferences and meetings….

Timothy Adès:

Poetry festivals tend to invite translators to bring along their foreign poet, who may prove to be limited as a contributor (and quite expensive). That’s fine, but it’s not my style to meet, befriend and translate foreign poets, and I’m not unique in translating major poets of the past. The underlying assumption is that an unaccompanied translator doesn’t count as a poet. I hope I have managed to refute this.

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