On the whole, translations don’t last. The text itself lives on and on but the translations of it lapse and, generation by generation, have to be attempted again. The reason lies in the relative vitality of the two languages – that of the author, that of his or her translator – and when, exceptionally, a translation does last, when it enters the canon of its own native literature, that is because the translator has achieved a liveliness of language at least akin to that of the writer she or he translated.
Translators who are themselves poets will generally find that in the first capacity they achieve less finality than in the second. Most often when you look again at a finished translation you see how here or there you might have done it differently. That isn’t usually the case when you look again at your finished poem. The faith that drives you in the writing of a poem is that there is indeed an order of words – the right words in a unique tone and rhythm – that is better than any other and that, if achieved, would not bear revision.
Translation is itself then a provisional and transitional business. Passing out of one language into another it is in transit, and not into a state that can truthfully be called final. The finished thing will lapse, will need doing again. In that light, translation can be seen to be true to life. Nothing in life is fixed, everything moves and flows, there is no closure nor should closure be wished for, death itself ends only an individual consciousness and the life in that way ending continues often very vitally in the lives of those still living, on and on, perhaps for many generations.
The poem itself is not a final thing – except in the sense suggested above: as the best possible, most persuasive expression of a particular human experience and understanding. The canon – the things a generation usually reads – changes continually as new needs and understandings arise in the consciousness of the readers. Works lapse, others are brought in, for the first time or again. And that perpetual shifting is experienced many times in the consciousness of every individual reader. You can’t swim in the same river twice, and certainly you can’t read even the same book in the same way twice. If you are alive at all, you change and your reading of even the most familiar text changes accordingly. All reading is transitional.
So translation, done in that spirit, becomes a moving revelation of what life itself is actually like; full of shifting possibilities, better and worse choices, openings and losses, gladly it concedes its own endlessly provisional nature, its being on the road, en route, in transit, as any real life is. The poem itself is like that, of course. The poem joyously acknowledges that life exceeds it, all life exceeds all art, and the best writers write in accordance with that happy fact. The best translators also thrive in the gap between their own best efforts and the more-living text that will always exceed them.
We were involved in the editing of the last MPT of the Second Series, ‘Poets at Bush House’. The Editor then was Daniel Weissbort, co-founder of the magazine with Ted Hughes in 1965 and its ‘only continuer’ after Hughes moved on in the early 1970s. Daniel’s achievement was colossal. Without him there would have been no MPT for us to take over, as Editors, at the end of 2003. So the magazine, a living entity, passed to us and we have lived with it and it with us through eighteen issues, till this, which we co-edit with the new Editor, Sasha Dugdale. We never owned the magazine, we edited it, we were two members of a collective of dedicated people contributing variously to a thing all felt to be worthwhile.
In this too, in the editing and managing of this magazine, the sense of being on the move has been very strong indeed. We have had to move, change, develop – to survive. And we always wanted more, much more, than mere survival. As is well known: if you are not busy living, you are busy dying. It was our instinct and desire to be of the times we live in, to move with them, speak of them, and even, we hoped, in some small way to affect them. And MPT, the ‘modern’ in its title pertaining more to the translation than to the texts translated, has continually fetched the past into the present, has demonstrated in its practice that vital texts can be brought into the lives we live now. Many of the voices we have given a hearing to come from far afield, across many centuries, across continents and oceans. That is a great thing: a living world-wide exchange, an irreducible variety, ‘much arguing, much writing, many opinions’, across every frontier.
MPT needs editors, administrators, a board of trustees, public funding and much else of a practical kind. But it lives in its readers, all reading individually in their own communities world-wide. And among and beyond its readers, almost beyond reckoning, it lives in its contributors, the living and the dead, from Homer and Virgil and Dante, through to now, through to young poets and translators now, at home and abroad. All those interdealings, so lively, so plural, each issue an anthology of human beings at their most articulate, and all the issues together, one after the other and coexistent, an ever changing and growing symposium. We know, and Sasha soon will, what a wondrous abundance the MPT postbag and inbox is.
We were privileged to have a part in this great internationalist magazine’s continuing life. And now that phase is over. We are letting go, MPT is going into somebody else’s care. At any such point of obvious transition any editor might feel anxious. Might. We don’t. MPT will move and change, because not to do so would be the way of death. Sasha knows that as well as we did. In her charge MPT will prosper – and broach with celebrations the new half-century!
With thanks to our colleagues in MPT, to our readers, contributors, friends in the Arts Council, one and all, we wish you well.
David and Helen Constantine September 2012