Posts Tagged ‘Neil Astley’

R.I.P. Daniel Weissbort, champion of translation everywhere

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

Reading at the Ars Interpres Poetry Festival, 2006

Daniel Weissbort is dead. I heard this yesterday from Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books in the U.K., but hadn’t been able to confirm it till I found it posted here, on the website of the influential journal he founded with Ted Hughes in 1965, Modern Poetry in Translation. He continued to edit the magazine until 2003.

Perhaps the major obituaries are yet to come out, but it’s surprising how little a splash major figures in translation make in today’s world, although Weissbort was also a poet of note. I never met him face-to-face, but I know him from once remove; his wife, the Russian scholar Valentina Polukhina, is a colleague, friend and regular correspondent. He would have been 78 this year, and I know he has been ill for some years.

According to the website (which has a page for tributes here):

He was associated with MPT for nearly forty years, and he saw it through its birth as a “scrappy-looking thing – just to keep their spirits up…” (from a letter by Ted Hughes to Daniel Weissbort in 1965) to becoming a periodical of international importance and renown, which published some of the best international poets in the best translations. He was also a translator of poetry and a poet in his own right, and he made it his cause to get Russian poetry better known and better read in the English-speaking world, editing and translating Russian poetry tirelessly, and hosting and leading translation workshops. His most recent translations of the Russian poet Inna Lisnianskaya Far from Sodom were published to great acclaim by Arc Publications in 2005.

mpt3Nicholas Wroe, whose 2001 Guardian interview with Czesław Miłosz was included my volume Czesław Miłosz: Conversations, interviewed Weissbort in the same year.  It was posted on a few Facebook pages:

“Poetry happens everywhere,” writes Daniel Weissbort in the introduction to Mother Tongues, “but sometimes, often, it happens in languages that do not attract attention. We are the poorer for not experiencing it, at least to the extent it can be experienced in translation.”

Although he wasn’t conscious of it at the time, translation had been a part of this poet, editor and translator’s life from the outset. “My parents were Polish Jews who came to London from Belgium in the early 1930s,” Weissbort explains. “They spoke French at home because that was the language they met in, but I was so determined to be English that I’d always answer them in English.” …

It was Hughes’s idea to get as many literal translations of work as possible. “We didn’t want carefully worked, minute things that took forever to produce,” explains Weissbort. “It sounds a bit insensitive now, but we wanted quantity even if it was in quite rough-and-ready translation.” He says that at the moment one of the big debates in translation is between so called foreignisation and domestication. “Domestication looks like something that was first written in English,” explains Weissbort. “Post-colonial theory is very much in favour of foreignisation, seeing domestication as an imperialistic strategy that is opposed to allowing the foreignness to come into the language. I suppose we were foreignisers before it was invented.”‘

Weissbort3Weissbort is also due to publish his own, 11th collection of poems, Letters to Ted, written after Hughes’s death, as well as a memoir of Nobel prizewinner Joseph Brodsky.  (Read the rest here.)

I reviewed the latter volume, From Russian with Love, in a Kenyon Review article called “Uncle Grisha Was Right” – it’s here.  Being a Brodsky translator was a crushing, ego-deflating experience for many, and Weissbort was one of the earliest translators, before he could have taken courage from the tales of other casualties. Weissbort agonizes over the experience, analyzing and doubting himself – something the Russian Nobel laureate never did.  As I wrote: “He [Brodsky] came from a culture that had bypassed Freud and his heirs, where an enemy was an enemy and not just a projection of an inner landscape. He was not, to put it mildly, a man crippled with a sense of his own contradictions. Hence, his attacks could be unambiguous and fierce. As sycophants multiplied exponentially, it became hard, some of his friends say, to tell him the truth—for example, the truth about his abilities to write English verse and translate into it.”

Yet in the end, Weissbort seemed to be unexpectedly buoyed by the experience, and came to a startling conclusion that says as much about the master translator as it does about the poet:

Weissbort__From_Russian“At a commencement address years later, he [Brodsky] spoke of ‘those who will try to make life miserable for you,’ and added: ‘Above all, try to avoid telling stories about the unjust treatment you received at their hands; avoid it no matter how receptive your audience may be. Tales of this sort extend the existence of your antagonists. . . .’

That’s the legacy of the man. But the poetry? Weissbort seesaws and perseverates for pages and pages, and there is much repetition and confusing back-and-forth in time … Yet despite the waffling and self-deprecation, he makes a central, remarkable contention: Weissbort argues that Brodsky ‘was trying to Russianize English, not respecting the genius of the English language, … he wanted the transfer between the languages to take place without drastic changes, this being achievable only if English itself was changed.’

In short, Weissbort invites us to listen to Brodsky’s poetry on its own terms. As he tells a workshop: ‘It’s like a new kind of music. You may not like it, may find it absurd, outrageous even, but admit, if only for the sake of argument, that this may be due to its unfamiliarity. Give it a chance, listen!’”

Update on 12/3:  Guardian obituary by Sasha Dugdale is here.


Save the Wales! Gwyneth Lewis defends a language spoken by 721,700 people.

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

Taking flak (Photo: Keith Morris)

I figure pretty much every language is going to become a boutique language sooner or later.  Eventually English, Spanish, and Mandarin will become boutique, antique, or extinct, swept into the sea of time with Pali and Koro.  It’s dismaying to think that only 40 million people speak Polish, only 7 million speak Czech … and Welsh?

That brings me back to the subject of Gwyneth Lewis, the poet who came all the way down from the Cardiff countryside to hear my talk at the British Academy last month.  Somewhere in the middle of all that brouhaha, we had a Christmas season lunch at the National Café, where I was introduced to a fittingly Welsh “wild mushroom, leek, and glazed salsify stew with chestnut dumplings” as Gwyneth told me about her exploits.

All in all, it had been a good year for Gwyneth.  She won the crown at the Vale of Glamorgan National Eisteddfod. Moreover, according to Wales Online,  “The National Eisteddfod in the Vale of Glamorgan presented an intriguing counterpoint between Gwyneth Lewis’ magical translation of The Tempest for Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru’s Y Storm, and the modern day tragedy of Ma’ Bili’n Bwrw’r Bronco staged by the Wales Millennium Centre in an innovative co production with Theatr na n’Óg. Winners all.”  I can’t pronounce any of it, so I’ll simply reproduce it.

I had meant some time ago to write about Gwyneth’s coronation – but I searched, in vain, for a video clip of the awards ceremony in Welsh, and then for Gwyneth reading anything in Welsh, and finally gave up the whole damn thing.

So I was grateful when her publisher Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books alerted me to her article in The Guardian, “Welsh-language Books Deserve Their Subsidies,” in which she takes issue with a Daily Telegraph article dissing grants given to Welsh writers, under the headline Taxpayer Funds Welsh Authors to Write Books No One Wants.  She ably defends the language spoken by a mere 721,700 speakers (according to a 2011 census), principally in Britain and the Chubut province of Argentina.

Behold the queen!

“Welsh predates English in the British archipelago,” writes the inaugural National Poet of Wales. “If you want to know what cultural despair is, go to the US and see, as I did recently, the bleakness of a Native American poet trying to piece together his tradition from oral sources recorded by a white anthropologist. The rarity of a plant makes its preservation more important, not less.”

She concludes:

On an individual level, the creative economy works indirectly. It’s not a matter of putting in a pound and receiving a set piece of work from it. I’m not speaking here of commercial success (if you want that, become a banker) but of artistic quality. My first book of poems in Welsh, funded by the Welsh Book Council, paid me just over £14. I did consider framing the cheque (as my cousin did the $30 he received for expenses during each of four flights in the space shuttle), but I though it’d be useful for groceries. I publish Welsh poetry in Wales, English-language work with Bloodaxe Books and non-fiction with Harper Collins in London and America. Work in one form has an effect on what I can do in all the others. Therefore, a modest grant for a book of Welsh-language poems has a direct impact on what I can sell, say, in the U.S.

The imagination works by underground streams, proceeds by snakes and ladders. You grow new writers by doing not one thing but many different activities at the same time: promoting critical thinking, publishers whose commercial successes can subsidise fledgling talent and promotional services to expand the reach of high-quality writing like that of Owen Sheers and Rachel Trezise, Deborah Davies, Horatio Clare, Catherine Fisher, Fflur Dafydd, Belinda Bauer and many others.

What followed it was 261 comments, some of them surprisingly vitriolic (some of them had to be removed).  Who knew language could generate so much spit and fire?

And behold, we finally found a video of Gwyneth’s coronation…