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Ted Hughes on translating poetry

Today I want to share an extract from an essay by Ted Hughes in the third issue of Modern Poetry in Translation (Spring 1967), a journal he set up in order to…well, the name says it all. Italics mine:

“In the present fertile period of translations, it is right that there should be plenty of theories in the air – the more opposed the better, in our opinion. Nevertheless, after our experience as editors of this paper, we feel more strongly than ever that the first idea is literalness, insofar as the original is what we are curious about. The very oddity and struggling dumbness of word for word versions is what makes our imaginations jump. A man who has something really serious to say in a language of which he knows only a few words, manages to say it far more convincingly and effectively than any interpreter, and in translated poetry it is the first-hand contact – however fumbled and broken – with that man and his seriousness which we want. The minute we gloss his words, we have more or less what he said but we have lost him. We are ringing changes – amusing though they may be – on our familiar abstractions, and are no longer reaching through to what we have not experienced before, which is alive and real.”

Hughes wrote this at a time when world poetry was indeed experiencing a kind of renaissance, kickstarted by the beatniks in the USA. An important aspect of this was the translation of poetry from languages hitherto under-represented in the English-speaking (literary) world: Czesław Miłosz and Zbigniew Herbert, both Polish; the Hungarian Janos Pilinksy; the Serbian Vasko Popa; the Israeli Yehuda Amichai…

This irruption of raw, strange, ‘outsider’ poetry – “alive and real” as Hughes puts it – in part explains his counterintuitive posture. It seems in the quotation above that he is arguing for a mode of translation which violates many of the what are traditionally considered the fundamental principles of the art: he wants a translation which doesn‘t read naturally, which preserves its strangeness, which, in short, is not intended to be an English version of a poem.

For Hughes, the point of translating poetry was not to ‘tame’ the original, but to provide a dose of strangeness, an ‘oddity…[that] makes our imaginations jump.’ In this, he is the polar opposite of the Lowell of Imitations, as well as a precursor of contemporary movements such as (so called) conceptual poetry. Hughes’ theoretical work has been sadly overlooked. PhD anyone?

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