George Szirtes - a note on translation
A Note for the Poetry Book Society
"Poetry, as Robert Frost notoriously said, is what gets lost in the translation. To transfer the words, just as they are, directly across from language to language, is indeed to lose the point. Try directly translating a joke and you will appreciate the difficulties involved. “It’s the way I tell them,” as one old comedian said. All the more so with poetry. Of all the sorts of literature it is the one most deeply involved with form and the sheer power of language. In poetry we are not encouraged to rush ahead in order to find out what happens next. We hear the song of it and are aware of the dimensions of each line, each beat, each word.
"But the extraordinary is possible. Think of the parts of the King James Bible, of Golding’s or Ted Hughes’s Ovid (so different, both so convincing), of Pound’s Li Po, of translations from Rilke, Apollinaire, Popa or Holub. We know we are reading poetry when we read these. How do they relate to the original works?
"Zsuzsa (say Zhoozha) Rakovszky is one of the best living Hungarian poets. When translating her I wanted to make her sound in English as she sounds to me in Hungarian. In order to do so I had to invent something - a voice, not my voice, yet not wholly different either - while listening intently to her. It was her voice that I kept coming back to: without it there would have been no poem. That voice comprised all the things her poems did cumulatively, through pace, imagery, tone and form.
"Maybe poetry is what lies beneath this or that specific language. The buzzing in the tree that articulates itself in clear, specific leaves. The joke, the same strange joke, sounding fresh as it speaks to you in its new language."