PUTTING TRANSLATION INTO CONTEXT


The Road to Inver, Tom Paulin [Faber]


Tom Paulin's The Road to Inver is a pleasant surprise to find on a modern Waterstone's bookshelf. The poems in it have a whole to the sum of the parts. Usually, there is little enough in Waterstone's, from the few publishers (like Faber) put there. This is a shame for the poetry buyer, for me at least. I don't like buying books by repute, and so I browse, secondhand usually or (when I travel) in specialist poetry bookshops. I would not have spent money on The Road to Inver but still lingered browsing it long enough to want a review copy. I would not even want a review copy of most poetry I find in a modern Waterstone's.

The kind of poetry I buy is often dismissed as incomprehensible, sometimes "all surface" and "nothing going on but theory". Even the subset of it that I like - when it's jargon-free with hokey figures of speech - that has something that could be sung, or seems to have melodic figures. If we have to be dumbed down, I prefer song lyrics to poems. I find most of the poetry in Waterstone's incomprehensible by comparison. No two lines hang together, they tail off, they go for corny endings, the lines do not combine, do not commingle, so there cannot be comprehensible wholes there. I feel the prodding of the poet, of the culture, to feel what it's meant to "be about", but there's nothing (else, intimate) going on between the words. A good poem leaves a memory of its helter-skelter ride, its twists, slow loops and rushes - what it's really about - a ghost of itself and some of the words too.

I do read, unfluently and in bilingual editions, foreign poetry. Which is the main thing I browse secondhand bookshops for. I try to use the translation (or make one myself) in order to get at the ghost of it and hold onto some of the words too. This is the main way I improve my grasp of the language, its words in action (as I did, and most do, with a first language). Most poets hold onto some of the obvious jokes and strangenesses of their language. In English we make schoolkid jokes that "business" means "busyness" hence "the busyness of business", or say "are you invalid?" (hard final d, rhyming with "did") instead of "are you an invalid?" (soft final d, rhyming with "freed") and we do strings of rhymes "did you guess I was in a mess, it must be the stress? Yes!" Poets often hold onto at least that part of the child's eye view, and readers reading in a second language can get into that quickly.

Certain phrases suggest other phrases, with a feeling of rightness, or inevitability. Only the great poets move beyond that, hinting at it, making the surface feel easy, inevitable, even if it was hard to do. Sometimes they have worked up a whole verse, and allow the corny line in, it just fits. The reader in a second language can enjoy a first reading of it as if it were, almost, the language writing itself. The great tragedy of post-Victorian English poetry is its hostility to sing-song, its pretension to "having a poet's eye", "having a poet's heart". So we have free verse, good lines lost in chaos and mediocrity, and the travesty of "formal" poetry that merely has one pattern, rhyming the end word and a bumpy repetitive metre. Bad formal writing makes one feel the good reasons for the change, but it is reading foreign poetry that chastens one not to become hostile, but to negotiate, to keep sing-song in the frame.

For me, Tom Paulin's original poetry has gone the way of all the work of the living poets in Waterstone's - adrift. There may be one with a good verse, one that seems to come alive at a poetry reading (a sort of writing the shooting script of the performance that never learns what it's doing, and never tends to lead to the  performance activity, the personal growth, growing). There are few you remember the substantial ghost of, that you'd hear twice. I never was in the room with Basil Bunting reading, but I've wanted to hear his recordings more than once, and I would guess from his recordings that his readings left the kind of impression I'm talking about, of poem-form. There are moments of poem-form in The Road to Inver
, words holding together around an essence, albeit someone's else essence. I knew instinctively that what seemed good about them would have nothing to do with getting to know Tom Paulin. Indeed, I'd have to ignore most of the Paulinesque flourishes as excrescent, or at the very least vulnerably exposed as mannerisms.

Even with this proviso, I nearly stopped before I began. I did not want to read the book for itself, I just wasn't interested enough. I had just been startled to find something humdrum within a little more fizz to it than normal. But I did know some of the poets, and some of the poems, translated, and that's what hooked me in the bookshop. I had a sense of testing what I thought was, say, Baudelaire or Horace's style, against Paulin's translations where I didn't know the original. I spotted two originals I did know well. In my own poet-translator life, I have had Horace fans come up to me after I have read an uncredited Horace translation and pin down the ode exactly. On the other hand, I have had readers who don't know Horace try to pin down the effect of the style and delighted when their description tallies with a critic's view of Horace's style. I recognized in myself reading Paulin the pleasure I saw in those readers then. In the Horace poem I recognized in Paulin's book, I recognized the sudden shifts (not done well) and the kick in the tale (done ok). I resolved to dig out as many of the originals as I had, and to compare in depth.

I started with the best translation in the book, from Francis Ponge's Les Plaisirs de la Porte
. Here's the original:

LES PLAISIRS DE LA PORTE

Les rois ne touchent pas aux portes.

Ils ne connaissent pas ce bonheur: pousser devant soi avec douceur ou rudesse l'un de ces grands panneaux familiers, se retourner vers lui pour le remettre en place, - tenir dans ses bras une porte.

... Le bonheur d'empoigner au ventre par son noeud de porcelaine l'un de ces hauts obstacles d'une piéce: ce corps ć corps rapide sur lequel un instant la marche retenue, l'oeil s'ouvre et le corps tout entier s'accommode a son nouvel appartement.

D'une main amicale il la retient encore, avant de la repousser décidément et s'enclore, - ce dont le déclic du ressort puissant mais bien huilé agréablement l'assure.

Now, here is a translation, from The Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry
ed Paul Auster. This translation is by Raymond Federman:

THE PLEASURES OF THE DOOR

KIngs do not touch doors.

They do not know that happiness: to push before them with kindness or rudeness one of these great familiar panels, to turn around towards it to put it back in place - to hold it in one's arms.

...The happiness of grabbing by the porcelain knot of its belly one of these huge single obstacles; this quick grappling by which, for a moment, progress is hindered, as the eye opens and the entire body fits into its new environment.

With a friendly hand he holds it a while longer before pushing it back decidedly thus shutting himself in - of which, he, by the click of the powerful and well-oiled spring, is pleasantly assured.

Here then is Paulin's attempt:

THE PLEASURES OF THE DOOR

Kings don't touch doors.
     They never know this happiness: to push one of those grand familiar panels in front of you - push it gently or boldly - then turn round and let it snick back into place. Yes, you can hold a door in your arms.
     You feel happy as you grip in your palm - grip all in one go - the little porcelain knob or navel on the belly of one of those tall obstacles. It's a sudden hand-to-hand encounter, then that little glitch on the threshold, as the eye opens and your whole body gladly takes possession of its new apartment.
     Your friendly hand holds onto the knob, before giving it a decisive shove that shuts you in - the click of that strong, well-oiled lock is most reassuring.

This piece naturally suits the stop and start, one thing after another, style of English poem. Yet it keeps onto a topic. I cannot say that it was one that jumped out at me when I was first browsing. Had I not happened to have the original, I may not have looked at it at all. But I note how well it works in contrast with the Federman translation. It seems perfectly fair, given the way Ponge adds parentheses with every new clause, that Paulin should syncopate as he does, bringing a later clause in the French into the middle of the sentence in English. It's even ok to say "knob or navel" for the one word in the French. Derrida's translators often find themselves in that boat, having to say two words rather than find one that says two at once. It works here.

A whole effect of having to listen for snuck-in detail gives a certain sly Blairite bullying tone - forget the nuances, trust me - and there is a creepy, sinister soothing in the Paulin that just might be yourself trying to sober yourself up and cope. By contrast, the Federman is simply verbose and too nice. "Apartment" works nicely in Paulin's idiom, it gives a context for something feeling too posh and alien, as a King's court might, as an American hotel might; it also keeps some of its oddness as a word, because it is not as bandied about as "environment"; it feels "apart" and "your part". What I like most about the piece is it gathers up very closely a lot of the details of the original, in the same sort of compression, with a tone that expresses creepiness that may just be another culture's ways (American in Paulin's version, a sort of more French than the French suavity in the original); and it leaves one detail blank. What I mean is the apparently weak line is "those grand familiar panels" for "ces grands panneaux familiers".

"Ces grands panneaux familiers" is wonderfully expressive in the French. It lingers in the air as sound, it takes the right tone. I can see it in the French. I cannot see it in the English. Instead, in the English, I have to ponder (as one does reading Browning, say) what the phrase means, if it was just one of those personal lines that allowed the poem to keep going. I find the solution is not to imagine what the panels look like, but to go back to the French. Thus the poem is still a little dependent, and I salute it for that. It founders, as all translations must, but on an interesting quirky detail, not over anything essential. And it is left slightly bland like one of those cartoons or doodles one can find in a painting otherwise showing impeccable perspective sense, like a Chagall painting perhaps.

The translator only got so far in hewing a shape out of the rock, and left the rock that wouldn't hew extant. I always encourage students to get at the basics of making all the clauses relate, trying for a living tone, the way this translation does. It will founder only in places, and those moments may actually help one look at the original more clearly. It shows not that poetry is untranslateable, but can never fully translate. What is left is often some admirable felicity unique to the language. To say that the whole language is full of unique felicities is to give up at the start - and to miss out on some good translations. Unfortunately, Paulin's other translations of Ponge's prose poems falter into Federmanesque verbosities. And Paulin's translation of a Mallarme prose poem uses too many colloquialisms in the clauses, it sounds like Irvine Welsh trying to write like Ashbery. In this Ponge piece, Paulin manages to get a colloquial tone but the clauses are all quite elegant.

The poems are, on the whole, dreadful. Some of the lines are quite good, but no whole poem. The German poems are too full of swear words, which a poet like Ralph Hawkins can pull off because the rest of the words are calm and precise. But Paulin goes for edgy tones, which might have worked well for the poems. Swearing takes away the edginess and then over-eggs the effect. Paulin cannot get at Rilke's skills with enjambment and caesura. Paulin often seems to find it hard to get a flow when his poems are too bitty. In this collection, most of the lines lilt, but only as whole lines. Rilke will use a lot of plain words (in the poems Paulin translates, water, morning, night etc) and heavy pauses. Paulin's translations go for vivid visual lines, just as his Ponge didn't, which slosh around against each other. There was already too much of that going on in Paulin's poetry, and poetry in general. Translating Rilke should be an exercise in standing up to bad habits. Refusing to have a go at Rilkean form should look like hard-won choice; here it seems a result of not being up to doing it right.

There are lots of signs of Paulin having been attracted to a certain swagger, a certain swashbuckling, in the original, then becoming uneasy. This is the case when he takes on Baudelaire's ‘La Pipe’, and translates it as ‘The Briar’. Proust called ‘La Pipe’ a "chef d'oeuvre", which it is in French. Paulin's poem would not raise that compliment from a living English Proust, if there is one. Here is Baudelaire's opening verse:

     Je suis la pipe d'un auteur.
     On voit, a contempler ma mine
     D'Abyssinienne ou de Cafrine,
     Que mon maitre est un grand fumeur.

Here is Paulin's translation:

     An author owns me - I'm his pipe
     my complexion it's coalblack - collied - like that
     of a slavegirl he's rescued  but I'm glad to let
     him believe this as with one feely finger he tamps in the shag.

We see demonstrated here lack of skill with enjambment; the effect is more like stream of consciousness, with lots of rather lumpy phrasing. The adding of clauses to fill in extra details doesn't work here, the poem simply feels too crowded. Baudelaire's pipe is quite sarcastic about the author, albeit with a tone of "I may criticise him but don't you!" Paulin is trying to make the pipe politically sarcastic, but is more reflecting his own difficulty in coming up with a succinct translation. The slight double entendre is a bit reflex, something Paulin couldn't resist and Baudelaire did. I am not saying the translation should rhyme, but it should not be so cluttered. The whole effect is light and charming, and a lot better than most published poems. But it succeeds in making us feel queasy about Paulin's choice of words, and so fails to find a place from which to criticise Baudelaire for any tokenism. We find Paulin often trying to redress political questions silenced at the time of the original poem, yet note he is rather drawn to translating these sometimes dodgy originals. He seems to be heckling himself as much as the originals, and this seems to come in a thought sequence: "how interesting... how outrageous... I must speak out... but who am I to speak?" At the same time, the collection overall seems to benefit from the glamour of these poets, as if Paulin is snapped rubbing shoulders with them. The politics don't seem to come off, nor the poetry.

However, one is very grateful for the overall attention shown to sectarianism. Translation, and the reading of foreign poetry, are interwoven as subjects with the history of Anglicanism. Some great foreign works are written specifically about the effects of Protestantism in England, Schiller's Maria Stuart for one. Paulin gets off some good blasts against England, and they seem to gather fire from seeming to come from authors deep in Catholic Europe, or, in the case of some of the Germans, a country with both Protestants and Catholics. Moreover, Paulin gets at some of the (only century-old) roots of a certain kind of lyric poetry. For the reforming late Victorians, translations were dynamite. Some of the greatest acts of apparent esoteric independence, Pound's chinoiserie, Eliot's buddhism, Stein's interest in William James, were also attempts to belong to the non-Protestant other, and to wind Protestant England up. It's a very useful fateful thing that Paulin, with his political persona, should be able to litter, quite naturally, a book of translations with reference to tensions between Catholic and Protestant. It puts translation into context.

It is a shame that the marketing boys put the book as a whole into quite the wrong context. The dust jacket tells us that the book is in the tradition of, a successor, to Robert Lowell's Imitations
. First of all, there have been other attempts by poets to collect their translations, Edwin Morgan for one. Second of all, Imitations is mainly famous for being famous. It deserves socio-cultural study, being written in an age when far more readers would have been expected to check on and compare the originals than they will do with Paulin's book. It had more readers generally than Paulin will. It neatly evades, as the post-war writers did, age-old sectarian Catholic-Protestant divides. It has a certain energy of language, playing with expectations of the time, and avoidance of bland cliche, that Paulin does not. But no poem in it stlll stands as a poem, having a ghost of form, or hinting at the ghost of form in the original. By contrast, Lowell managed one or two lyric poems of his own that have stood some weathering, For the Union Dead, for example. I very much doubt Paulin will have one still standing forty years after publication.

If I am saying that Paulin's verses are rather windy, this comes into good effect in one of the poems, the translation from Horace's Ode III, 30. Paulin's other Horace translation is a failure. This one lacks accuracy, but it touches a lot of the same points, and also breaks into political growling. This time, though it is not against the poet but in his defence. I like the chopped-up prose feel of this, the way it rushes from clause to clause, and sometimes goes for gestures that are not in the original, a very poetic "O" for example. It feels as a whole to have the same sound-world, and the same ordered mind, as Horace, but to be having a breakdown, putting lots of sweaty pauses and delirium in. Somehow it feels real, and touching, in its anachronistic (diplomatically impossible at the time) belly-aching. Perhaps in this poem Paulin finds a nearer objective correlative for himself: somebody quite awestruck by beauty, broken by easily-stirred rage. Horace gives him the model to find external order for his internal order, with nervous tics of anger. Rather than someone with a politics tempered by wit. Or, indeed, a blokey chap satisfied with crafting, collaging details about themselves from the heart,  and breaking into eloquence. This is not Paulin''s heart and this is why his poems, which collage details together as if spoken from such a heart, fail. This may be who many of his originals are, and why he cannot translate them.

           © Ira Lightman 2005