Clive Wilmer's New and Collected Poems have been recently published by
Carcanet Press in Manchester. Wilmer, a Fellow of Sidney Sussex
College, Cambridge, is a much-respected poet and one of the best
translators of Hungarian poetry into English. In the present collection
he included no less than 36 of his translations from the Hungarian,
ranging from Jenő Dsida through Radnóti and Pilinszky to Anna T. Szabó.
All these poems he translated with the help of his friend, the Hungarian
poet George Gömöri, lately resident in London.
What do you think of Ágnes Nemes Nagy’s aphorism: “All poetry is untranslatable, and Hungarian poetry even more untranslatable”?
You’d have to know a great many languages to know if she was right, but I see her point. Yes, all poetry is untranslatable—especially one’s own! I have just had a book of my poems published in Spanish, and most of the book seems to me brilliant, but the fact remains that some things which are commonplace in English simply can’t be said in Spanish. And then there is the formal beauty of a good poem, which can never be reproduced exactly. At the same time, I cannot conceive of going through life, as a poet, without knowing what Homer wrote, just because I’ve never learnt Greek. So poetry has to be translated. I don’t know if Hungarian is a special case, except in so far as it’s not an Indo-European language, which makes it quite different from other languages I am likely to translate from. If I am translating from German or Italian, I can imitate the rhythm much of the time, and the resonances of their words are often similar to those of English words. Neither of those things is true of Hungarian. The movement of the language—the way the stress falls on the first syllable of a word and the way the subsequent syllables fall away from that… that is quite impossible in English. So I have to rely on rhythms of my own, and sometimes associations of my own.
You included 36 of your translations from the Hungarian in your new volume of collected poems. Has this intimate relationship with these poets left a mark on your own poetry?
Yes, though it isn’t easy to say what that mark is. Let me say first that I included those 36 translations because not to have done so would have been to misrepresent the work that I have done in the 50 years of my life as a poet. I make no distinction between translation and ‘original’ work. Indeed, if you look through my New and Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2012), you’ll find several poems that are strictly speaking translations among the poems that clearly aren’t: for instance, my poem "Vacations", which I’m very fond of, is based on one of Horace’s Odes. But to try and answer your question, I believe very strongly that a national poetry only develops when it is in contact with the poetry of other languages. One of the great critics of our time, Donald Davie, who was also a good poet and verse translator, used to say that all languages are limited: that when you read the poetry of a foreign language with any closeness, it opens up areas of experience and of verbal possibility that you could never have discovered from your own language alone. If you take a poet like Miklós Radnóti, whom George Gömöri and I have translated—well, Radnóti, with his devotion to the pastoral traditions of European poetry, classical but coloured by Romanticism, could in many ways have been an English poet. But the experience that makes Radnóti a great poet—the unique experience he had to engage with poetically—is an experience of central Europe at a particular time. It’s quite foreign to us—with all the desire we have had to understand it. What’s more, the particular qualities of his language—a subtle sense he has of the tiny noises and movements we find in nature, the incessant modulation of things—that has taught me a great deal, though I’m not sure I’ve ever captured it as he does. I think of one word in particular, suhogni, which he uses rather frequently: we could find no English word that exactly rendered that. In the end I came up with ‘to sough, which is rather a literary word—I suppose it’s archaic really. It has the same kind of particularity as suhogni, but it isn’t as ordinary; most English readers would have to look it up in the dictionary, and that means it isn’t an exact equivalent. So precisely how Radnóti has influenced me, it’s hard to say, though I know that he has. Perhaps in the end it’s more a kind of moral influence. In some ways it has been easier to learn directly from György Petri, who is not at all like me as a poet, but through having to capture his humour, his sexual coarseness, his satirical mordancy, I found ways of doing those things in my own poetry. Sometimes there are things in a poet’s character that never get into his poetry because he’s never found a way of verbalising them poetically. Through having to render those things in Petri, I found ways of doing them in my own work. I suppose, too, that there’s something about the way personal experience interacts with the larger events of history in Hungarian poetry that appeals to me. I understand that Petri has become relevant all over again in Hungary: that there are politicians criticizing his work, just as the Communists did. Well, good! I imagine it’s something to do with his hatred of orthodoxy and authoritarianism, and it shows how this sort of poetry – personal but publically engaged—can unexpectedly renew itself. It’s not that this doesn’t happen in English—I think of Andrew Marvell’s "Horatian Ode on Cromwell’s Return from Ireland" or W.B. Yeats’s "Easter 1916"—but it seems to me more central to Hungarian poetry. When we were translating János Pilinszky recently, I was struck by how much more compelling were the poems in his third collection, Harmadnapon, than the earlier personal poems, powerful as those are. One sees the vulnerability of his own nature, which was already there in the earlier poems, responding to the horrors of war and the Holocaust, and it is that engagement that makes for greatness. You find this in all great poetry, of course, but it is especially strong in Hungarian.
You have been collaborating with George Gömöri in translating Hungarian poetry for well over a quarter of a century. How did this start, and what motivated—and motivates—you? Is this a mission, a game, an exercise?
I met George in 1970. In the late Sixties there was an explosion of translation in Anglo-American poetry. Before that time, English verse translation had been mainly from the Classical languages and from the familiar Western European languages. There had been some exceptions—outstandingly the translations from Chinese by Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound—but even those were of ancient poems, not modern ones. The big change was in the translation of contemporary poems from the languages of what we then called Eastern Europe. I think it was a kind of literary Ostpolitik, really. We were opening out to the Communist bloc, though the interest was not exclusively political. It was as much to do with a different consciousness, which I suppose in the long run had political origins. As far as I remember, it began with translations of Yevtushenko and Voznesensky from Russian, and there was a remarkable volume of Voznesensky’s verse translated by different hands—poets like W.H. Auden, who didn’t know Russian but were able to work with Russian-speaking co-translators. Next—and much more importantly—came Zbigniew Herbert, translated from Polish by Czesław Miłosz and the Canadian poet Peter Dale Scott. As with Voznesensky, the collaboration was crucial—a Polish speaker working with an English speaker who didn’t know Polish, both of them poets. That way the deadness of academic translation was avoided—both writers were concerned with the poetic qualities of the original and—which is the main point here, I think—with the quality of the translation as English poem. If it was not a good English poem it couldn’t be said to represent the virtues of the original in any way. The Herbert volume was published in a new paperback series, Penguin Modern European Poets—an amazing series—which before long included a volume of Sándor Weöres and Ferenc Juhász: strange bedfellows! In 1970 I was a graduate student at Cambridge and wrote an article about three of these poets—Herbert, Miroslav Holub and Vasko Popa—in a student magazine. George Gömöri read it and phoned me up to ask if I was interested in doing some translations myself. I jumped at the opportunity and so, before long, I was working on a version of Dezső Kosztolányi’s "Marcus Aurelius". I had written a poem on Marcus Aurelius myself and had shown it to George, who saw it as a way into my own preoccupations. He was very good at that. Before long, he suggested I try a couple of poems by Radnóti, rightly guessing that Radnóti’s temperament would appeal to me. He was also keen to correct what he thought the wrong impression given by an American translation of Radnóti that had recently been published, a book called Clouded Sky translated by Steven Polgar, Stephen Berg, and S.J. Marks, which uses very prosy free verse and a much too demotic language register, completely failing to recognise the importance of Radnóti’s classicism and his technical formality. I was very keen to see if I could achieve an equivalent to his formal qualities. It took us a few years to finish a book, though. The first edition of Forced March, our selection of Radnóti, came out in 1979. I’m a slow worker.
How do you work together—do you work alone, on raw translations by George Gömöri; or do you two discuss the poems word by word?
It usually works like this. George produces a more or less literal translation, lineated but not in verse. He usually appends a few notes, indicating metre, rhyme scheme, maybe the odd acoustic or rhetorical effect, ambiguities, verbal and cultural resonances. We read the translation together and I ask questions and make notes. He usually reads the Hungarian to me as well, though less often these days—we live in different towns now and so we have to work mainly by email. However, it’s less necessary now because I know how to pronounce the Hungarian and he sends me a copy of the original poem. Oddly—I’ve never been able to explain this—I learn more from the appearance of the poem on the page than I do from his readings. I’ve never actually learnt Hungarian, but I’ve been to Hungary several times and have picked up a lot from doing the translations. So I know some words, and I know a bit about structure and how the language works. But it’s the same with all languages. It’s a bit of a mystery. I can’t really say how it is that I come to be attracted to poems I can’t actually read in the original. Still more mysteriously, I find I am able to intuit something essential about a poem from seeing how it is arranged on the page. Anyway, with all that information I produce my version. George then tells me what he thinks I might improve and points out any misunderstandings or mistakes that I’ve made. Over the years we’ve got better at working together, so that very little reworking is now necessary.
You and George Gömöri have translated whole volumes by poets as diverse as Miklós Radnóti, György Petri and János Pilinszky. What attracted you to these particular poets?
We’ve also produced a volume of George’s own poems—it’s called Polishing October and it’s published by John Lucas’s Shoestring Press. I think we’ve translated poems by over twenty poets in all—sometimes no more than two or three by each poet. But there are several by the marvellous Anna T. Szabó, who’s translated my poems into Hungarian. (Végtelen változatok: Válogatott versek, translated into Hungarian by György Gömöri and Anna T. Szabó. Szeged: JATE Press, 2002).
You’re right, however: the main work has been with those three poets. Radnóti just seems to me a magnificent poet whom everyone ought to know about. Petri didn’t immediately attract me. George recommended him and I tried and only gradually got to admire him. I felt he was very different from me and I learnt a lot from him. He was a great satirist and he could be very funny, but he also wrote some truly noble poems, such as "To Imre Nagy"—as great a poem as any of our time, in my view. I am proud to have made it available to English readers. I think what I said before about Pilinszky—about the personal interacting with history—is what excites me about him. He shares something with Radnóti, I think—he’s not just a poet but a kind of moral exemplar; it’s a matter of sheer goodness. Pilinszky was by far the most difficult to translate. His language is so austere and severely compressed. There are no openings for paraphrase. You have to say exactly what he says and that’s it. We translated Pilinszky partly because we had both felt dissatisfied with the Ted Hughes translation. Ted Hughes was a major poet, of course—I imagine he’s well-known in Hungary—and his translation of Pilinszky, which he did with János Csokits, is often very powerful, but he ignored Pilinszky’s metre and what I call the cultural aura, particularly the Christian imagery, so I wanted to present an alternative reading. I am very often motivated by a desire to find some equivalent to a poem’s formal qualities. Even with Petri, who mostly writes in free verse, the first poem I did successfully was a sonnet: "Now Only"—not an especially important poem, but a good one.
When translating Hungarian poets, do you often have in mind poets who write in English?
It struck me when I was working on "Now Only" that Petri had been influenced by the early work of T.S. Eliot—in that poem at any rate. Those poems about the backstreets of Boston—"Preludes" and so on—come strongly to mind. That of course helped me to translate it. You have to find a language for your poet—not just English but a sort of English that is especially his or hers. Later on, when I met Petri, we talked about Eliot, whose early work—up to and including The Waste Land—he did indeed adore. He also told me in about 1990 that he was trying to translate Ezra Pound’s "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley", which is the most Eliotic of Pound’s poems and has a sardonic and satirical tone not unlike Petri’s. He later told me that it proved too difficult to translate—I’m not sure why, but I thought it a great pity. Possibly it was too dependent on specifically English and early 20th century references. As for other poets, well, my love of Thomas Hardy helped me with Radnóti. The main difficulty I had with Radnóti was metrical. The great mass of his work is in the classical hexameter, which is very hard to imitate in English. You can do it, but it quickly gets monotonous, and the standard English line is a pentameter—shorter than a hexameter. Hardy, unusually for an English poet, often succeeds in writing in a line of six feet—not a classical hexameter, but of a similar duration—and I used a line like that for Radnóti’s Eclogues and poems of that sort. It helps that Hardy sometimes deals with the challenging circumstances of modern life against a pastoral backdrop. He’s much more gloomy than Radnóti, of course, but there are things they share. I can well imagine Hardy admiring Radnóti! I don’t think Hardy’s translated into Hungarian, which is a serious oversight. Hardy at his best is magnificent.
When do you feel that a translation is successful?
It’s the same as when I feel a poem of any kind is successful. Yeats used to say that you hear the box clicking shut. Of course, success in a translated poem is to do with accuracy too, but I never know with Hungarian if I’ve got that right—I have to leave that to George. Nevertheless, there is an intuitive aspect. When I’ve done well, I know in my bones that I have—and often George will confirm that. What it has to be above all is a good English poem. Otherwise it’s not worth doing. There are people who suggest that any translation that conveys something of the meaning of a great poem is worth having, but I don’t agree with that. You don’t want to traduce a good Hungarian poem by turning it into a bad English one, and it’s a wonderful feeling when you look at a translation you’ve done and feel it’s as well written as an English one.
Are there any Hungarian poets to whom you feel particularly close?
I don’t really feel close to them till I’ve started translating them. Of those we’ve done I like István Vas, whom I was lucky enough to meet a couple of times, Jenő Dsida and Anna T. Szabó, whom I also know. All very different.
Do you translate from other languages as well?
Yes. I particularly like Italian, which I know quite well, and German too. For some reason I can’t translate from French, though I’ve known it all my life—I find it quite impossible—and then with various degrees of help I’ve translated from several languages I don’t actually speak – Bulgarian, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese…
Do you get any feedback on your translations?
Only from George. Of course, they have been praised by reviewers and friends, and criticised too. I don’t know if that counts as feedback.
How well do you know Hungary?
I’ve been to Hungary six times, I think. Mostly to Budapest, though I’ve been to Miskolc and Szeged too, and I visited Vas at his cottage in Szentendre, which was lovely. I very much want to go to Pécs—especially to see the Csontváry Museum. I think Csontváry a great artist, though he’s almost unknown in Britain. The most exciting visit—apart from the first one, at any rate—was when I went there in 1990 for the first post-Communist General Election. I stayed with a friend and went to the polls with her when she voted. I managed to go to some political meetings and I spent some time with Petri, whom I interviewed. I can find my way round Budapest quite easily now—it’s a wonderfully stimulating city—but knowing the capital, I feel, is not knowing the country. People who know London alone don’t know England, and my journeys outside Budapest have all been too brief.
Do you speak any Hungarian?
No, not really. I have read a "Teach Yourself" book and I know a few words and phrases, but to learn the language properly would take more time than I’ve got. You can’t just pick bits of it up, as you can with most Indo-European languages. Also, there is some advantage to a translator in not knowing the language. That may sound perverse and paradoxical, but it gives me creative freedom when I work on a translation. Please don’t misunderstand: I don’t want to be irresponsible and impose my own meaning on the poems I translate. When George tells me I’m wrong, I correct the mistake or, if I can’t correct it, I abandon the attempt, which I’ve often done. But the creative intuition I talked of earlier is only possible if I feel I can invent things for myself. I sort of guess what the original poem says.
Clive Wilmer: To a Poet from Eastern Europe, 1988
Strong drink –
on the bar table a neat vodka,
Innocently transparent as pure water,
Shimmers before you, with your fence of bone
(Stake shoulders, propping arms) set up around it,
As if, out there alone,
The spirit needed body to defend it.
From where I stand, though, I can count the cost
(The soured breath, sickly flush and hollow chest)
You pay, at 45, for what you savour.
It fortifies, calms the stomach, and yet still
– Alas! greybeard cadaver –
Consumes the body as pure spirit will.
Consider, as you waste, how we are stewards
Of our bodies, yes, yet strangely how you thrive
On the sick body politic your words
Bite into as you’re bitten: how your thirst
For truth keeps you alive,
Writhing in anger, choking on disgust.
Clive Wilmer, New and Collected Poems
Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2012
ISBN 978 1 8477 052 3, pb. £18.95
Tags: Clive Wilmer