Title:          Ted Hughes: Selected Translations
Author:         Daniel Weissbort (Ed.)
Publisher:      Faber & Faber.(Nov. 2006)
ISBN:           978 0 571 22140 0 
Price:         £20.00  (hardback)    232 pages
Reviewed by Ann Skea

Ted Hughes(1930-98), Poet Laureate from 1984, was among the most important translators in the English tradition”.

So writes Daniel Weissbort in his introduction to this book. Weissbort whose own expertise in translation is widely acknowledged and who was co-founder of the magazine, Modern Poetry in Translation in 1965, is ideally placed to assess Hughes’s translations. He writes that “Hughes’s approach to the translation of poetry suggests a belief in the intrinsic ability of poetry to cross language frontiers, provided the translator does not impose himself overmuch. The act of translation required not only intense listening but also a high degree of self-discipline”. He is surely right, too, when he says that Hughes’s involvement in translation was related to his own needs as a writer and that, since Hughes undertook translation projects throughout his life, these provide valuable clues to his development and are, in fact, “an integral part of his oeuvre”.

Hughes may not have taken any part in the academic debates about the different approaches to translation (described by Weissbort as “‘foreignisation’ as against ‘domestication’ or naturalising translation”) but, as a poet, he had very definite views about his own approach. He favoured translations which were “literal though not literal in a strict or pedantic sense”, and he valued “the very oddity and struggling dumbness of word for word version [which is] what makes our imagination jump”. He was also acutely sensitive to the ‘voice’ of the poets whose work he chose to translate. As with Yehuda Amichi, on whose poems he worked with Assia Guttman, he strove to “preserve above all [… ] the tone and cadence” of the poet’s voice speaking in English.

With translations such as that of the fifteenth century poem ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Hughes relied on his own attunement to the language of the poet which, as he said, he immediately recognized as akin to his own Yorkshire dialect. So, in this particular case, his translation has a vibrancy which Hughes believed had largely been lost in the earliest translations due to the adoption in England of metrical forms “based on French and Italian models”. In later translations of Classical and Neo-Classical work are certainly not literal translations but Weissbort sees them as being a development of Hughes’s literalistic approach and, since the works in this book are arranged in chronological order, it is possible to see this development and to see all these translations as they fit into Hughes’s work as a whole.

The number, variety and quality of translations in this selection is remarkable, ranging from the invented language of Orghast, through Classical Greek, Middle English, Renaissance, Tibetan and Hebrew texts, to the wide range of modern European works. Weissbort provides a brief introduction to each section and quotes from relevant correspondence between Hughes and poets, theatre directors and other translators. He also includes extracts from several editorials which Hughes wrote for Modern Poetry in Translation, and one long, previously unpublished, essay on translation. In this essay, Hughes expressed many of his views on poetry in translation, referred to work which influenced his own approach, and described the translation boom which took place in England in the sixties and early seventies due, to a large extent, to his own work with Modern Poetry in Translation and in setting up the first Poetry International Festival in 1967.

In Appendices, too, Weissbort provides brief examples of alternative translations to Hughes’s versions and of works which Hughes used as cribs, such as Evans-Wentz’s translation of the Bardo Thodol, Amichai’s own English translation of his own work, and word for word translations provided by others at Hughes’s request.

There is much in Ted Hughes Selected Translations which is unpublished elsewhere, or has been published only in part. It is not a complete selection but a substantial and enjoyable one none-the-less, and there are surprises and delights here which any poetry lover will appreciate. Altogether, it is an important and valuable book for anyone interested in Ted Hughes’s work and/or the art and craft of poetry translation in general.

Chapter Titles:

Bardo Tholdol (The Tibetan Book of the Dead)[1960]
Homer [1961]
Mario de Sa Carneiro [1962/3]
Heder Macedo [1962/3]
Ferenc Juhasz [1965/6]
Yves Bonnefoy [1967]
Paul Eluard [1960s?]
Yehuda Amichai [from 1968]
Seneca [1967/8]
Orghast [1971]
Georges Schehade [1974]
Janos Pilinszky [175-7]
Marin Sorescu [1987]
Camillo Pennati [1990?]
LOrenzo de’Medici [1992/3]
Ovid [1994]
Frank Wedekind [1995]
Aeschylus [1995]
Federico Garcia Lorka [1996]
Anonymous (The Pearl Poet) [1997]
Abdulah Sidran [1998]
Jean Racine [1998]
Euripides [1998]
Alexander Pushkin [1999]

© Ann Skea 2007. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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