Ted Walker’s The Night Bathers is more than a quarter translations — from Neruda, Verlaine, Rilke, Leconte de Lisle, Montale, Lorca, Hölderlin, and Lope de Vega. They are not the brutal jobs of reinterpretation and covert distortion that Robert Lowell goes in for, possibly on the grounds that Pound said it was allowable, probably with the self-generated sanction that one’s own intensity added to somebody else’s intensity yields moreintensity. Ted Walker’s efforts are quite the other thing: painstakingly faithful to the original’s movement and humbly committed to its author’s characteristic tone. Which makes them, as translations, excessively unexciting; until you ask yourself why he takes on the task at all.
The main reason he does so much translating is probably that his own poems are limited, as well as fuelled, by his extraordinary penetration of nature, and the seed-catalogue specificity of terminology that seems to go with the cast of mind. Take this couple of stanzas from his poem ‘Bonfire’:
All afternoon was the waft
from blue fields, the stubble-scorch,
pricking me to this. I crouch
like an ancient to my craft,
knowing this moment to lift
dry leafage to little twigs
and lean to a locked apex
the slats of a smashed apple-box.
Gripping broken ladder-legs,
the blaze skips up to long logs
of old, wasp-ruddled fruitwood.
There can’t be more than one reader in a hundred who would know whether or not ‘ruddled’ is a misprint for ‘raddled’ (‘riddled’?), but who’s objecting? One relaxes in the safe hands of somebody who really knows his way around a garden. It’s a quality of disciplined seeing that Richard Wilbur shares; the quality that Andrew Young so well embodies. And over and above the quality of seeing there is the quality of the performance.
But right over and above both the seeing and the way the things seen are put together, the conclusions come pat. The poem’s argument is all too plainly a vehicle for its particular images. As a consequence the satisfactions are many — gratifyingly many, and let there be no doubt that Mr. Walker is a good poet — but the surprises are few. Of the following two stanzas from ‘Snow asthma’, each is a satisfaction, but only the second is a surprise, the incongruous photographic vocabulary lifting the proceedings out of their naturalist rut.
Bullfinches were in bloom
On a bough of dead apple;
As though the moon made daylight,
Shadow was purple.
Seldom as bereavement
Came snow. For a brief
Morning my mother’s face
Looked underlit with grief.
From the make-up of this collection it’s permissible to assume that Mr. Walker has sensed his danger and consequently stiffened his own work with translations of poems which attempt and achieve a greater amplitude of utterance — poems which may start out from nature but which get something said without being dragged down into the concrete detail of chaffinch-husks and the precise pitch of a bloodwort’s warble.
‘The heart of Hialmar’ is a case in point. The attentive reader may track down the original in Leconte de Lisle’s Poèmes barbares and note how Mr. Walker has tried to meet the challenge of reproducing not only the movement of the quatrain (which pretty well means adding something of his own every four lines) but also the disturbingly familiar tone of Hialmar’s address to the raven.
Unfortunately one can’t successfully tutoyer in English by using the grammatically acceptable, but effectively counter-productive, thou and thy, so things go wrong: ‘Come, bold raven, eating men is thy art, Pick my breast open with thy iron beak’, is not the same as Viens par ici, Corbeau, mon brave mangeur d’hommes/Ouvre-moi la poitrine avec ton bec de fer. But at least the attempt to capture the purely human tone is there — and with all its nature-notes which may very well have attracted Mr. Walker’s attention in the first place, Le CÃ…“ur de Hialmar is nevertheless primarily a poem about a man speaking. It’s a dramatic poem, with a man up front and the scenery in the background: it exactly reverses its translator’s own usual priorities.
The same argument applies to ‘To the Fates’ (An die Parzen, a tub-thumping Hölderlin anthology piece) and pre-eminently to ‘Bring me a sunflower...’ (Montale’s Portami il girasole), which retains (and even, Lowell-style, amplifies) the spoken urgency of the original while abandoning — this time — both the movement and the detail. In fact this effort features some good rousing mistranslation in the barbaric modern mode: Montale would be amused to hear that he had written anything like ‘Bodies are consumed in floods of shade’ since at that point he was actually plugging away at his trusty theme about things being broken down into colours — si esauriscono i corpi in un fluire/di tinte — a theme he finally pinned down in Carnivale di Gerti with the hair-raising image about the wrist-watch.
Non-interrogative sentences starting with ‘which’ are usually relative clauses with delusions of grandeur: the insertion of a preliminary dash or colon can, and nearly always should, restore them to their rightful position in the preceding sentence. I would have made more of how well qualified Walker was to translate his subject poets if I had guessed how ill qualified for the same task some of the more famous poets would soon prove to be, with correspondingly deleterious effects on the less talented. Lowell, in particular, through his landmark book Imitations, gave a generation of poetasters an unrestricted hunting licence to go merrily mistranslating through languages with which they were barely familiar, and often could not read at all. Ezra Pound had long ago, in the teens of the century, claimed the same privilege with Homage to Sextus Propertius, but at least there were always classicists to point out that a howler, even if it led accidentally to a creative discovery, was still a howler. In the 1970s mistranslation flourished ungoverned along with the increasingly unquestioned concept of a poetic career: translation, filling up the off-moments, helped to cover the awkward fact that any poetic career worthy of the name consists almost entirely of off-moments. Surrounded by such an uproar of busy-work, tact like Walker’s was a valuable rarity, which I should have praised more highly. In a cosmopolitanism without erudition, one of the weirder side-effects was the ability of a new generation of British cultural journalists to (a) deride the pretensions of anyone who showed signs of wanting to read in even the standard European languages, and (b) extend reverent consideration to radical playwrights who brought forth new translations of Brecht without being able to read a word of German. The hidden — sometimes not so hidden — assumption was that English was the European language that really mattered. So preposterous a notion was made possible to British intellectuals only by the world dominance of America, a fact they declined to admit but didn’t mind taking advantage of. It should be said, in fairness to America’s then burgeoning academic industry, that some of its scholars were at that very time producing authoritative parallel texts which opened up important modem European and Russian poets to Western students — but then, the American scholars, many of whom had an immigrant background, knew what they were talking about. Our poet-translators, shamefully, hardly ever did.