Translating poetry (Part I)


Traditionally, poetry has been the genre par excellence of the transmission of emotions. However, as it has happened in other genres, poetry has suffered great changes from its beginnings. Nowadays, it is not seen as a genre used exclusively for the feelings transmission but also meant for other purposes like, for example, protest means.

After the end of the domination of authors like James Joyce, T.S. Elliot or Virginia Woolf in the literary world in general of the first half of the twentieth century, a new era was born. Even though these authors were considered as the fathers of experimentation, younger writers went a step further creating a new kind of literature after the WWII.

The second part of the century was a period of extreme experimentation reflected in the avant-gardes­.  These movements were characterized by the innovation, applying new techniques like, for instance, changing the structure or even writing without stops. Authors endeavour to break all the rules and reinvent literature in an attempt to maintain this art alive. This was the moment when postmodernism, structuralism and poststructuralism were born thanks to critics as Julia Kristeva, Saussure, Foucault, Barthes or Derridá, to name just a few. It was also the period of the development of the Theatre of the Absurd, the nouveau roman or the so-called “literature of silence”; the latter term being developed by the Arab-American scholar Ihab Hassan. This critic includes authors like the great Franz Kafka in his work “The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature” where he exposes his theories about postmodernism. Some of the authors of the Theatre of the Absurd include Samuel Beckett, Václav Havel and Fernando Arrabal. Furthermore, we find Gérard Bessette, Marguerite Duras, Julio Cortázar and Claude Ollier, among many others, as main representative of the nouveau roman movement in the global literature.

In poetry, one of the greatest changes suffered in the twentieth century was that of the development of the modernism at the beginning of the World War I. This movement was present in most of this century thanks to authors like T.S. Eliot, Yeats and Pound, for instance. However, when their “reign” was almost over, new authors started to introduce novelties in poetry, and tendencies like the concrete poetry first appeared.

Among the most well-known poets of the second half of the twentieth century are Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and his husband Ted Hughes. The latter revolutionized poetry with his innovative style in most of his work becoming one of the greatest poets in twentieth century literature in English.

Ted Hughes, whose full name was Edward James Hughes, was a mythology enthusiast since he was very young. He was born in a rural area in Yorkshire in 1930 and served for two years in the Royal Air Force. He then commenced to study in Pembroke College of the University of Cambridge and majored in Anthropology and Archeology. In 1956, he co-founded St. Botolph’s Review, a student-made poetry journal from Cambridge University, where he published the first publication of his poetry.

Ted Hughes reinvented poetry from the inside as we can see in his poem “A Childish Prank”. This poem represents an example of a break with the traditional poetry. The most obvious point of it is the fact that it does not have a rhyme, although this is something that is becoming very common in contemporary poetry. However, Hughes goes a step further by using common language and forgetting about the customary poetic language that could be found, for instance, in Wolfe’s poetry. It uses the kind of language that novelists would utilize in their works. In fact, “A Childish Prank” caused a great shock when it was published because of the grotesque way in which the author uses language. Furthermore, Christian theology is subverted in such a way that this was probably the main reason for that controversy around this poem, together with the rest of the poems published with it.

 “A Childish Prank”, one of the two poems that have been translated in this work, is a poem included in Ted Hughes’ literary work called “Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow”, first published in 1970. The latter is a book of poems whose main character is Crow. They use symbols and ideas from mythologies, especially, from the Christian one.  In fact, the main character was not chosen randomly but it was selected intentionally; the idea of using a crow was probably taken from myths and religion, where crows tend to represent evilness and darkness.

 “A Childish Prank” can be considered a poem of a provocative nature because of its topic. As it was mentioned before, it would be contrary to the Christian ideology, destroying the myth of creation. It exposes God -not as the deity being- but as a weak entity who takes a rest after doing a great effort. Moreover, he is not the main character, but a crow. This animal takes on the leading role rebelling against the world and against its own creator. “A Childish Prank” is, in short, a reconstruction of the myth of Creation through violence and power where the topic of sex is clearly included. It is a way of reviving civilization through mythology.

However, Ted Hughes did not only write poems like the mentioned above, but he also wrote plays as, for example, The House of Aries, the Head of Gold or Orpheus, most of which were radio plays. Additionally, Hughes also created some other works in prose, especially essays.

Apart from a writer, Ted Hughes was a translator. Among his most popular translations are Amen by Yehuda Amichai, Phèdre by Jean Racine and Tales from Ovid by Ovid published in 1977, 1997 and 1999 respectively. Moreover, he translated the Spanish author Federico Lorca’s play named Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding).

Ted Hughes was, in conclusion, a controversial author and nobody could remain indifferent before his work, which is a good example of the breaking of the trend in the poetry made in the previous centuries. Ted Hughes is one of the representatives of this new literature and remained loyal to it until his death.

At the other end of the spectrum is the 18th and 19th centuries’ poetry which had to struggle against the force of the new-born genre of the 18th century: the novel. This century commenced with the Age of Enlightenment with Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos or the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as some of the better-known international authors. Outside literature, it was the time of Mozart, Sir Isaac Newton, John Locke or Immanuel Kant, among many others.

Europe gradually moved from this glorious age towards Romanticism where the British author Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter called Mary Shelley is present, as well as her husband Percy Bysshe Shelly and other compatriots as Samuel Taylor Coleridge or John Keats. Mary Shelley is the main figure of the subgenre of Romanticism called Gothic fiction with her novel Frankestein; or, The Modern Prometheus together with Edgar Allan Poe. The Romantic period was regarded as one of the greatest in literary history and their topics include Nature, as something central, or human relationships. The common features of English Romantic poetry were love for the Middle Age and the supernatural together with the mystical as well as obsession for the worship of Nature. Furthermore, poetry usually took the form of ballads, as is the case of the work Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Colleridge.

In spite of the unquestionable dominance of the novel, poetry was also quite important in the late eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century. William Wordsworth (1770-7850) became very popular in this period as a romantic poet, especially when he got his Lyrical Ballads published in 1798. Robert Burns, Charles Wolfe, Lord Byron and Thomas Moore were other well-known poets of the period. They created a kind of poetry that remained for centuries. Proof comes in the shape of recent translation from texts which were written two centuries ago. An example of this is the poem “The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna”, one of the two pieces of poetries discussed about in the present paper.

The author of the mentioned poem was Charles Wolfe (1791-1823) although he was not clearly identified as the author until his death when he was 31. Wolfe was an Irish poet and clergyman who studied in the Trinity College of Dublin and in 1817 Wolfe became a priest in the Church of Ireland. “The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna” is his better known work which was written in 1816 and first published in the “Newry Telegraph” in April of 1817 when Charles Wolfe was only 22. It is based on the Peninsular War (in the territory of nowadays Spain and Portugal) which commenced when France, under Napoleon Bonaparte, usurped the Spanish throne in favour of his brother Joseph. Spanish inhabitants started and upraise followed by Britain sending an expeditionary force to Spain. This poem focuses on a particular episode of this war, the Battle of Corunna, when British Lieutenant John Moore was fatally wounded. Wolfe wrote this funeral elegy commemorating Moore’s death and his modest burial at Corunna, Spain.

The mentioned poem was written during the Regency of the future George IV, who rose to the throne since his father was not able to reign.

Concerning literature, Jane Austen was the main figure in that period.  Her most celebrated work, Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811, only six years before Wolfe published his poem.  In 1813, Austen published her second novel Pride and Prejudice, based on a work called First Impression that she wrote when being a teenager. Another well-known female writer, Mary Shelley, published her Gothic novel in 1818. As was already mentioned, this period was a time when novels were popular around the British lands and had a faithful reading public. However, poetry was not forgotten thanks, among other, to the great British poet Lord Byron whose most active period of production was during the decade of 1810s until his death in the beginning of the 1820s. Some of his works published around Wolfe’s poem were “Prometheus”, “Manfred” or “Don Juan”, to name just a few. Lord Byron revived “The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna” after Wolfe’s death when he publicly acclaimed this poem.

Though it has been celebrated as a great poem, it was not widely known outside British borders due to the scarcity of translations into other languages.  The reasons why translators did not usually translate this poem could be several: first of all, poetry may be a complicated genre to be translated; and secondly, people commonly did not pay too much attention to this topic. Nevertheless, there was a Russian version in the 19th period that became very popular in this country. It was translated by Ivan Kozlov, a celebrated Russian romantic poet and translator. Apart from this poem, Kozlov also translated another poem from the English language called “Evening Bells” and written by Thomas Moore. This latter translation was his most popular work due to the faithfulness of it.

 “The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna” is a poem written by an Irish poet to celebrate the courage of a Scottish Lieutenant: it joins together the different sections in United Kingdom in spite of the famine that was hitting Ireland by the moment the poem was written, without forgetting that the French Wars had just finished in 1815. In other words, this poem exalts British soldiers’ valor in the battlefield, particularly Moore’s one, in spite of the bad times Europe was passing through. In short, it shows sympathy for all those heroes.

Wolfe, as a religious person, considers a proper burial as something crucial, especially when the burial is meant for such an honorable person as Sir John Moore.  Wolfe mourns through this poem Moore’s death and claims that this precarious burial is not worthy of a “hero”, as Wolfe describes the British Lieutenant. Through the lines of it, the poet transmits a feeling of grief, as it were a farewell letter to a beloved friend.

In spite of the precarious burial, this poem claims that Sir John Moore was buried with “glory”. This glory will stay with him forever, symbolizing the eternal rest for someone who has fought for his people.

In conclusion, poetry is a timeless genre which has always been very present in literature. It had orally beginnings but it established itself in the written literature becoming one of the most popular genres. Due to this fact, plenty translations are found in many languages around the world from the most popular languages like English or Spanish, until less known languages from smaller communities. In spite of being such an ancient process, poetry translation is still considered complicated for modern translation.

Translation in general – and the English one in particular – has had to keep up to date in the several changes suffered in poetry from the first translations, until modern works, including the golden ages of poetry with Shakespeare or Wordsworth.


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