Timothy Adès: How Do I Do It? – Translating & Writing Poetry
I’ve no idea how I do it – the words come from somewhere. From the Muse – that’s as good an answer as any. I start and, mostly, I go on.
I’m a translator-poet: I want to know what it says, and I want to let you know.
I’m a rhyming translator-poet: rhymes are my primes. Much of my brain is configured to look for rhymes. I like rhymes and so did my mother.
Brecht’s ‘Animal Poems’ in my words were in LPM 20. For each animal, a comical rhyme triggers a witty quip from Brecht: that is why the poem exists. Rarely does the same rhyme transfer directly from German to English: and the lines are short. The challenge is the fun. And it’s a pleasure to show that Brecht, besides being a great champion of the left, is a great and warm and many-sided poet.
By contrast, ‘Calypso’s Song’ by Sikelianós in LPM 23 has very long, lush lines. Lawrence Durrell calls the style of Sikelianós ‘declamatory, overcharged and pressing forward through crowding parentheses.’ This is less true of his ‘John Keats’ in LPM 3. To translate Greek, I need a crib in a tongue I know better. It helped that specialists Keeley and Sherrard didn’t translate these two poems (and if they had, they wouldn’t have rhymed). I was breaking new ground.
Likewise I knew no previous English version of Alfonso Reyes’ ‘Romances of Rio de Janeiro’ (LPM 8): short lines, often rhymed imprecisely, but always with rhythm, which to me is essential. Nor, probably, had anyone translated Robert Desnos’ ‘Ode to Coco’ (LPM 5) – or rewritten Shakespeare’s 154 Sonnets (LPM 16) or Eliot’s Prufrock (LPM 25) without using letter E. (And I had an untranslated poem in LPM 12, with no vowels in it except E.) The Bard kept me busy while kindly publishers fixed up my sprawling book of the thrilling Frenchman, Robert Desnos: Surrealist, Lover, Resistant, which at the time I could no longer look at.
But how all this happened, what the process is or was, I can’t possibly imagine!
(I stopped here. But our heroic editors asked for more, sent a barrage of questions. And they’ve done so much for us all! So…)
Yes, at school I studied Latin and Greek to S level, and translated no end of English verse into those long-perished formats. At Uni the penny dropped: Dead Languages! and I baled out into our own time and into Europe, ‘the mighty continent’, some parts of it, anyway: French, German, Spanish.
My wife’s art-historical work on both Surrealism and Latin America drew me respectively to Desnos and to Reyes; but what gripped me was the greatness of the poets and poems themselves. Likewise Victor Hugo, ‘l’homme-océan’, was a vast unknown continent, gradually revealed. (Mixed metaphors.) A great human being and a lovely man.
How do I choose what to translate? The Muse decides. Recently I’ve done many small German poems found on Facebook. I can instantly put my versions there, no waiting weeks for print and possible refusal. Bigger and better poems, though, are held back for an editor.
Most of my work has been done on my own initiative: but ideas and requests are welcome. The Venezuelan epic of Florentino, the rhyming, singing cattleman challenged by the Devil, was shown me and explained step by step. For Isabelle Aboulker’s witty French songs, my text had to fit the notes: the discs are out, easily found: a wonderful challenge! and now Rimbaud’s ‘Illuminations’ set by Britten are due. I just love to translate. Here comes the Muse: I just lie back and think in English…