Saturday, 11 June 2022

ZKV 105: 'Am I too loud?'

ZKV 105




As a teenager I was lucky enough to attend an evening given by the wonderful accompanist Gerald Moore with the title ‘Am I too loud?’ He remarked that he had often been asked why he chose to be an accompanist and not a concert pianist. ‘Weren’t you good enough?’ was the question most frequently put to him.

I rather feel like that at times as a translator of poetry. ‘Weren’t you good enough to write your own poetry?’ I have occasionally been asked. I translate poetry because I cannot help myself. And I try not to be too loud. 


The Dutch poet Gerrit Komrij, himself a seasoned translator, once remarked ‘Keep away from translating if you’re not a poet’. He is absolutely right. Translating poetry means creating poetry. And in that sense the poet and translator are equals.

It might seem at first sight as if the two processes were very different indeed. The poet starts with a blank page. The words, like chess moves, create openings and unforeseen chain reactions and, as the writing progresses, an inevitability in the end-game – with the poet going where he or she simply has to go.

The translator starts with someone else’s poem and has to decide what balance to strike between various features of it – the sound, the shape, the rhythm, the meaning. At the same time, the poem is to be uprooted and a new poem planted in a different soil, one with a different poetic, cultural and linguistic tradition. But, I sense there are also close parallels between the poet and the translator, although I suspect that no two translators work alike.


It is very difficult to describe a creative process. My job, as I see it, is to be both present and absent. If I obtrude, all my translations sound like me, no matter who I am translating. If I absent myself, the translation isn’t poetry. I tend to burrow blindly, relying almost entirely on my intuition. I try and put my mind into neutral, to reach a deeper state where everything becomes fluid. To work at a level deeper than language. And to resurface in my own. I work very fast – I am a sketcher. This means I can make some mistakes in terms of language, but there I am normally lucky in having friends to rely on. And I love to collaborate with the poet. This can help me arrive at a result I could not attain on my own.

Komrij, in a dedication to a copy of one of his collections, called me a schaduwdichter (a shadow poet). I’ll settle for that.


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