An insight into poetry and/in translation and into the PBS translation Choice selection process.
What does it mean to be a poet and a translator? How does one become a poet and/or a translator? And how do these aspects of one’s life and career intertwine? This week, award-winning poet and translator George Szirtes answers our questions and tells us more about his professional journey(s) and his current role as PBS translation selector.
Photo credit: Joanna Millington
What was your journey to becoming a poet and a translator? And to becoming the PBS Translated Poetry Selector?
“Those were three quite different journeys. I resolved to be a poet at the age of seventeen or eighteen while still at school and supposedly pursuing another career. That is a long story and I have told it quite often. The resolution was made on the spot and was final. Translating came later, in 1984, after my first proper return to Hungary as a writer. There I was greeted by writers and immediately asked to translate, which I was glad to do despite not having spoken Hungarian for some twenty-eight years. At first I had help from Hungarian scholars but slowly I recovered the language and could work on my own. I started with poetry then added verse drama, fiction, and other things. Translating entailed dropping my parallel work as a visual artist but I had a family, was working full time and writing, so painting had to go. I assume the third part of the journey came about as a result of the second in that I won a number of prizes, some major, so might have seemed a likely candidate to be asked.”
How have you evolved as a poet and as a translator in the years?
“As I say above I was a poet for some seventeen years before I started translation. I am a productive writer and work at high energy, so people tell me, and I suspect it's true. I have also loved exploring other ways of writing, particularly since 2008, but even before then and that has resulted in a range of publications and performances. Hard to say how I have evolved as a translator because so much depends on the material to be translated. Translating formal verse and translating complex prose (in recent years Márai, Szabó, and Krasznahorkai) certainly push you to the limit and train your ear and mind, so I hope I am capable of more tasks as a result.”
What is the importance of poetry and of the translation of poetry today?
“The importance of poetry today is exactly the same as its importance at any other time though there are periods in which one or other form of it flourishes or does not flourish. Poetry - not necessarily in the form of words but as a sense of the world - is of core value any time, anywhere. Poetry has been with us from the start and will remain with us long after we are dead and all the major publishing houses have closed down. There is a poetics of movement, of light, of birdsong, of making a meal, of throwing a ball, of just about anything we do. Poetry, in the sense of what we write, read, say and publish or perform, is one branch of the poetics of being, but since it is based in language it stands close to our most precise and delicate communication instincts. As for translation it is fresh air in a sometimes stuffy house. We don't open the window very wide in the UK, or indeed in the USA, but it can give us something new in a world where we know more about each other than we ever did before.”
Can you explain how the PBS Translation Selection process works? How do you choose the best poetry in translation every quarter? Do you follow any specific criteria?
“I am sent the available poetry books in translation via a website (I no longer get the actual books) and am asked to choose one. There are no specific criteria although I am aware of various criteria being available. It is, for example, very hard to choose between a single volume by a living poet and a large selection or collection of another's life-work. Some of the translations are of ancient works or historical works, some of more recent poets. Some of the translations are first translations of poets who are already important in their own language but unknown to us. Some are new translations - and therefore new understandings - of poets known from earlier translations. No one translation can provide the single authoritative work and poets of major interest to us may well generate several translations in the way that figures such as Ovid, Dante and Rilke have done. To describe these categories is not to subject them to particular criteria, but a reminder that, in terms of selection, they compete with each other and I cannot help but act knowing that and looking to balance my choices over a period. I also have to remember that, in most cases, I cannot read the original language so am reading the books as a specific kind of English text.”
Is there any poetry book in translation you’d like to recommend to our readers?
“Loads. Two translations that have not come my way via the PBS - possibly because the were not submitted - are those of Robert Desnos and Pierre Reverdy by Martin Bell published by Art Translated. More recently, from my time as Selector there was Luljeta Lleshanaku's Negative Space (Bloodaxe) though I have chosen that already.
About George Szirtes: born in Hungary in 1948, his first book of poems, The Slant Door (Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd, 1979) won the Faber Prize. Has published many since then, Reel (Bloodaxe, 2004) winning the T S Eliot Prize, for which he has been twice shortlisted since. His latest book of poetry is Mapping the Delta (Bloodaxe, 2016). His memoir of his mother, The Photographer at Sixteen, was published by MacLehose in February 2019.
We kindly thank George Szirtes for his contribution to this blog.
Check out our selector’s latest PBS Translation pick for the summer quarter: The Following Scan Will Last Five Minutes by Dutch poet Lieke Marsman (Pavilion Poetry, Liverpool University Press, 2019), a critical reflection on life, health and society drawing upon the author’s personal experiences, translated by poet and translator Sophie Collins. Sophie is author of Who is Mary Sue? (Faber, 2018), PBS Choice in Spring 2018, a work exploring themes of identity, shame, gender, trauma, writing and reading, culture.
Get 30% discount on the poetry books in translation mentioned in this post by using the code TRANSLATIONTHURSDAY at checkout!
Why not consider becoming a Poetry Book Society translation member to receive George Szirtes’ recommendations on poetry in translation and bilingual editions every quarter, alongside a full commentary in our PBS Bulletin. It’s the perfect way to keep up to date with all the latest poetry from around the world.