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Ian Crockatt: On Translating

Posted by Sarah Hymas, 22nd February 2012

Ian Crockatt
Ian Crockatt

To celebrate Ian Crockatt's new translation of Rilke, Pure Contradiction, I asked him a few questions on his approach to translating.

SH: How did you come about being a literary translator?

IC:A combination of stubbornness and indignation. I read a translation of a Rilke poem by another poet - and felt it didn't do Rilke justice. Like all of us whose primary knowledge of poetry in other languages is through translation, my exposure to the poem had been through another translator's voice, one I had grown to trust; this version felt 'wrong'. I wasn't keen on the other poet's own voice anyway. I fulminated so much about it that my exasperated wife said 'if you feel so strongly about it translate the poem yourself'. I did. In fact I went on to make versions of about 200 of Rilke's poems.

SH: What was it specifically that attracted you to Rilke to want to translate his work?

IC: The combination, in his poetry, of elevated lyricism and flesh-bound realism; its formal virtuosity. The transfiguration of the real; the courage and originality of his vision, including its inconsistencies and sillinesses.

And, in the way he lived his life, the contradictions; the singleness of purpose; the freedom to suffer; the belief beyond reason; the acceptance of the self-imposed loneliness of the road he chose to travel; the congruence between his lived life, his spiritual life and his literary life.

SH: You've mentioned you have an idiosyncratic approach to translation, how do you go about the translation process?

IC: Firstly, the only modern languages I have even a passing knowledge of are French and German. I took O level German, ie studied it for two years, then failed the exam. That was 47 years ago. I also did Latin, which I passed. I therefore approach translation as a poet, one very involved with the work to be translated, and not as a linguist. First and foremost I am making a new poem.
The process is follows:

-- Total immersion in the work, its contexts, its author, its time. I was immersed in Rilke for nearly 10 years before that first translation, and never, till that moment, did I think of translating his work, or anyone else's. (But recently I have been learning another dead language - Old Norse - having become passionate about skaldic poetry, a highly intricate and vivid form developed by the Vikings between the 9th and 13th centuries. I am doing a PhD at Aberdeen University which involves the translation of skaldic poetry composed by Rognvaldr kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney between 1135 and 1158).

-- Careful reading of the work to be translated OUT LOUD to get a feel of sound values, rhythms, density of language, speed of flow, auditory transitions, shape etc.

-- Dictionary time - every word - and exploration of all possibilities of word-sense.

-- I read as many other translations of the work as possible - they are always different from each other - and explored how each arrived at their version given what I already know. Note what to avoid - the purpose of reading others is not to copy but to assimilate every possible approach and previous attempt at understanding, just as a scientist or academic familiarises himself with all previous work on the subject he is addressing.

-- I NEVER make a prose version in order to tell myself what the poem is going to say, or as a guide to my thinking. Once the previous steps have been followed the point is not to think but to do. As soon as you reach for words to help you understand what the poem is about, or will be, or how in detail it must sound, you have pre-empted the alchemy involved in the creation of a multi-layered image-based entity which is not a statement but a poem.

-- Every poet knows when the core of a poem's being exists. Once it does, the work of honing, balancing - or unbalancing - refining, listening etc goes on. How do Rilke's voice and mine meet and live in the poem? The work goes on.

SH: If you could identify the most difficult aspect of translating this work, what would it be?

IC: Finding an answer to the question above - How do Rilke's voice and mine meet and live in the poem?

SH: How do you feel the bilingual text of this publication serves your work?

IC: It highlights the reality that two voices are at work here, which is entirely in keeping with my conception of translation as a joint project.

SH: You're a poet in your own right, how does translating poets such as Rilke affect your own writing? And vice versa?

IC: Good question. Don Paterson, who has translated - or 'versioned' as he calls it - Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, remarks that such prolonged involvement with another poet can result in your own voice being lost. In my case any changes in my work resulting from what I called 'immersion' in Rilke's work happened before I translated him. A series of 42 sonnets I published in 2004, called 'the lyrical beast', is the most directly influenced by Rilke - and one of them is directly about him. I have a special regard for it, but I think that more generally Rilke's influence on my work tends to be all-pervasive at a thinking and feeling level rather than resulting in specific changes in practice.

SH: What ambitions do you have for future translations?

IC: As noted above I am working on translations from Old Norse just now, but I'm a poet first and foremost and am also producing my own work too. Translating poetry is a fascinating process and has helped develop my skills and understanding of how poems are made. The poems I have made through translating Rilke are certainly unlike any I could make on my own - I take great pride in them when they work, but my priority will always be finding the best ways to make poems myself.

SH: Thank you, Ian!