Translating Rilke, Montale and Tang Dynasty poets

Shoestring Press poets Matthew Barton, Roy Marshall and Martin Stannard gave us a marvellous evening of poetry in translation at Five Leaves Bookshop last week. Their approaches to translating from Italian, German and Chinese were very different, reflecting their own distinct poetic voices.

Matthew Barton’s reading of themed extracts from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies underlined the painstaking nature of a translation task he has completed over some ten years. In the first Elegy the narrator tellingly observes: ‘The scope of this song is beyond me , but I will begin it/ again and again.’ In his introduction, Barton explores challenges faced in translating ‘a whole organism of sounds, meanings and inferences combined, every element in interplay with all the others’. He sees the translator as ‘a kind of Janus, both hearkening back to the source and forward to its new linguistic vessel’ and points to the dangers of what might be lost in between, leaving a translation as a pale imitation of an original. Barton speaks of his realisation that the key to a successful translation would be capturing the rhythms of Rilke’s utterance. His decision to let the poems stand for themselves (i.e. without the German originals) is a brave one which allows the poems to breathe freely. They are also accompanied by very few explanatory notes because these can overwhelm the reader. I’ve struggled with, and resisted, English translations of Rilke’s poetry for many years, often finding them cumbersome and ungainly but Barton’s elegant translations have a playfulness, a lightness of touch which has finally drawn me in to this extraordinary work.

Roy Marshall’s After Montale begins with an apt citation from Jo Cox, reminding us of the ties that bind us and introducing a previously unforseen connection between Marshall’s Italian grandfather and the poet Eugenio Montale. In making his selection of poems from five of Montale’s collections, Marshall felt that sometimes ‘the poems were choosing [him]’. There are certainly strong parallels to be found here between the two poets’ tones and preoccupations. These are best captured in the opening of ‘Lemon Trees’: ‘I hear some poet laureates/wander only in landscaped gardens/with borders of Ligustrum,/acanthus and box. I prefer roads/that lead to muddy ditches/where a boy probing with a stick/might lift out a skinny eel’. Marshall’s versions are spare, strong and permeated, not unsurprisingly, by a sadness about the current disjointed state of Europe. They will undoubtedly reward many re-readings.

Martin Stannard’s approach to composing The Moon is about 238,855 miles away. Versions after the Chinese began with direct translations which were then reworked, slimmed down to remove problematic references, reordered, supplemented with new lines, all with the intention of creating poems which ‘are able to stand alone, rendered in the English I use in everyday life and in my poetry, but which stays faithful as I know how to the meaning, tone and mood of the original’. In discussing the poems at the Five Leaves event, he spoke of the difficulty of introducing works which he had not written himself and yet the more he read them to us, the more I could understand why he had chosen to translate these beautiful, poignant works. Stannard worked in China for eleven years and states he is ‘no Sinologist’ but he has reinvigorated these poems for a contemporary audience. New readers may not know the old Chinese stories which informed the writing of the originals but they will recognise the ache of longing which Stannard exquisitely captures afresh in versions such as ‘The Letter’ (after Li Bai) and the collection’s title poem (after Zhang Jiuling) which ends with: ‘You are far away, I long to share this light/ I go to bed but can’t sleep/ I am full of you, the moon and great distances’.

Well done to John Lucas and Shoestring Press for publishing these three outstanding translations. We need more books like these.

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