Appreciating Foreign Poetry

I have read one or two translations of the Swedish poet, Tomas Transtromer, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. Whether or not he is a worthy winner I cannot say because I do not understand Swedish. Several people who do not read Spanish, tell me that Neruda was a great poet. Likewise non-Gaelic speakers have extolled the stature of Sorley MacLean. I wonder how they can make these judgments.

Can poetry in an unfamiliar tongue ever be fairly evaluated? I suspect not. But we can get a better idea of works in foreign or dead languages if they are translated again and again. For many years, the poet James Michie, set The Spectator weekend competition and one of his inspired ideas was to call for translations of Rimbaud’s Au Cabaret-Vert. With four or five published winners, we could get a good idea of the flavour of the poem, though the French original wouldn’t present much difficulty to people of my generation who would all have done some French at school.

Michie was no mean translator himself. I find his versions of the epigrams of Martial better than any of the others I have read. He also translated Catullus, Horace and La Fontaine. Probably, no poem has been more often translated than Horace’s ode addressing Pyrrha, Book 1 no.5, a who’s-kissing (or something more Anglo-Saxon) -her-now poem. Michie’s translation begins, ‘What slim youngster, his hair dripping with fragrant oil, / Makes love to you now, Pyrrha, ensconced in a / Snug cave curtained with roses?’ It then goes on to deal with Horace’s metaphor of shipwreck that awaits the new lover, finishing with, ‘My plaque tell of an old sailor who foundered and, / half drowned, hung up his clothes to, / Neptune lord of the element.’ This requires a note, explaining that shipwrecked sailors dedicated the clothes they were rescued in to the deity. Boris Johnson, who read Classics at Oxford, has written that Michie’s translations are so accurate that they can be used as cribs.

There is, however, another way of rendering a poem from an unfamiliar language, one that will be of no use to scholars but will bring it alive for new readers. Instead of scented oils and lavish roses, Anthony Hecht begins his version, ‘What well-heeled knuckle-head, straight from the unisex / Hairstylist and bathed in “Russian Leather,” / Dallies with you these late summer days, Pyrrha, / In your expensive sub-let?’ And after predicting the ingénu’s swamping and dismasting inserts an extra note of bitterness by changing the lady’s name in the last line to Piranha.

An excellent modern imitation of Rimbaud’s Au Cabaret-Vert by Fay Hart was published in The Spectator though not as an entry to the weekend competition. Entitled At Casa Verde, five in the afternoon, the gender of the speaker is necessarily changed and the setting is now South America. Instead of ‘Depuis huit jours,j’avais dechire mes bottines,’ we get, ‘I ripped my feet to bits walking the pilgrim trail…’ and replacing Rimbaud’s buxom barmaid whom he suggest wouldn’t be averse to an encounter, is a ‘Cuban-heeled boy, able-bodied, slicked-back, skintight jeans and a scowl’ of whom the poet says, ‘he could have me in a heartbeat that one.’
I would love to give both these re-creations here but it is one of the unintended consequences of the copyright laws that they impede proselytizing.

The Swedish laureate’s work may not be suitable for this sort of treatment and perhaps we will have to go in ignorance of his poetic achievement unless we learn Swedish.