David Wheatley writes about the genius of mistranslation, Finnegans Wake syndrome, and being a judge on The Popescu Prize for poetry in translation, which was awarded this year to Alice Oswald

As described in his unusual memoir, Le Schizo et les langues, the American author Louis Wolfson suffers from what we might call Finnegans Wake Syndrome. By this I mean that, where you or I conduct our daily lives in this or that language, he enjoys the dubious gift of experiencing everyday conversation through the prism of a multiplicity of languages. The man in the cafe asking, ‘Do you want milk with that?’ is in fact saying, in Bulgarian, that his uncle is an umbrella thief or, in Hungarian, that his hovercraft is full of eels. It is both a gift and a curse, since while I like Finnegans Wake as much as the next reader, there are times when your morning coffee is just your morning coffee.

When it comes to reading poetry, most of us are happily slurping our espressos without a thought for our umbrella-stealing uncle or that wobbling hovercraft. To immerse oneself in the experience of poetry in translation is to be reminded, disorientingly but exhilaratingly, of the linguistic world beyond the familiar. It is to discover the major nineteenth-century Moldovan poet of whom you have never heard until now; the work of small presses publishing poetry in translation from Galician, Albanian, or Polish in a market notoriously hostile to writing of non-Anglophone origin; or the achievements of translators, often labouring for small or entirely absent financial rewards, who produce collected editions of great foreign masters. The Popescu Prize, a biennial prize for poetry translated from another European language into English and organised by the Poetry Society, honours the work and heroic efforts of all these people.

Many readers are sceptical of writing in translation, it must be admitted. If we imagine translation as a currency market, the normal rules of exchange do not quite apply. As Walter Benjamin said in ‘The Task of the Translator’, ‘Any translation which intends to perform a transmitting function cannot transmit anything but information—hence, something inessential. This is the hallmark of bad translations.’ The rejection of exchange or transmission reminds me of Robert Frost’s perhaps over-quoted warning that poetry is what gets lost in translation. There is, in translation studies, a tension between the poles of transparency, the loss-free carrying across of meaning, and what Lawrence Venuti has termed ‘foreignisation’, which is to say translations that reject the ideal of readability as displayed by the stay-at-home text that lives in one language and one language only.

I can think of a third way, however, which provides a different template for thinking about the errors and accidents that are the daily lot of the translator. When Gilbert Adair translated Georges Perec’s mysterious novel La disparition, a book written entirely without the letter e, he wittily called his effort A Void, since he too makes do without that commonest of vowels. In doing so, however, he faces a paradox: he can only faithfully follow Perec’s rules by mistranslating every single sentence, on the level of literal ‘transmission’. Anyone can mistranslate, in the bad and lazy sense, but only a translator of something like genius can risk this level of mistranslation, in the strong sense, as Adair does with Perec.

The writers on our Popescu shortlist produced strong translations of their authors, namely, Homer, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, Hélène Dorion, Kristiina Ehin, Luljeta Llleshanaku, and Manuel Rivas, rejecting obviousness and embracing the risk that defines the passage from one tongue to another. They have made good on another injunction of Walter Benjamin’s, when he writes: ‘It is the task of the translator to release in his own language that pure language that is under the spell of another, to liberate the language imprisoned in a work in his re-creation of that work.’

The Popescu Prize 2013 celebrates the acts of transformation they have performed on the almost indivisible essence of poetry, and the liberations of the language they help us all enjoy.

About the author

David Wheatley, along with Karen Leeder, was one of the judges of the Popescu Prize 2013, a biennial prize for poetry translated from another European language into English, organised by the Poetry Society.  He is a poet and critic with particular research interests in the field of twentieth-century and contemporary poetry, Irish literature and Samuel Beckett. He has published four collections of poetry with Gallery Press: Thirst (1997; Rooney Prize for Irish Literature), Misery Hill(2000), Mocker (2006), and A Nest on the Waves (2010). He has also edited the Poems of James Clarence Mangan for Gallery Press (2003) and Samuel Beckett’s Selected Poems 1930-1989 for Faber (2009). His work features in various anthologies, including After Ovid: New Metamorphoses (Faber/FSG, 1994), The New Irish Poets (Bloodaxe,)

Additional information

Oswald Memorial CMYKThe winner of the Popescu Prize 2013 is Alice Oswald, for her book Memorial (Faber), an excavation of the Iliad. For more information about the shortlist, and to listen to recordings of extracts from the books, visit the Poetry Society website.