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In Conversation with Philip Wilson

Posted by Arc, 19th August 2015

Philip Wilson is an experienced and widely-published translator and academic who currently lives in Norwich and teaches at the University of East Anglia, where he is an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies. Having been a teacher of Modern Languages in schools in Essex for many years, in 2007 he took an MA in Literary Translation at UEA; within 5 years he was Assistant Professor of Western Languages at nönü University, Malatya, Turkey. His published translations include works by Martin Luther, Charles Cros, Michel Deguy, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Heinrich von Morungen, and Gérard de Nerval, and have appeared in Luther's Breviary (with John Gledhill, Wartburg Press), Ambit, Ascent, Chimera, In Other Words, Modern Poetry in Translation and Other Poetry.

Q: Are there any translators whose work you particularly admire?

I think that David Constantine is a great translator, who also writes well about what he does. I edited Ian Crockett's recent Rilke volume for Arc, Pure Contradiction, and I am not surprised that it has done so well; his Viking poems are also amazing. James Thomas is doing very interesting work on Occitan poetry. I'm also enjoying reading the radical translation from the Sanskrit of Patañjali's Yoga Sutra by Shyam Ranganathan.

We should not forget that some of the great literature of the past, which is often considered to be 'original', is translation. Thus I admire the King James Bible, Thomas Wyatt's versions of Petrarch, and Friedrich Hölderlin's translations of Sophocles, amongst many others.

Q: What drew you to the journey of translating? How did it begin?

I attended an inspirational talk about poetry translation at Aldeburgh by David Constantine, who stressed that a good translator is a good reader. I went back home and immediately began to translate a poem. Then by chance I got an offer to translate an economic text for Oxford University Press, and shortly afterwards came the chance to translate Luther. By now I was hooked and decided to give up school teaching - a profession that I loved, by the way - in order to go to UEA for the MA in Literary Translation, which I found an incredibly fulfilling experience.


Q: What led you to translate these particular texts? How did you first discover them?

I first came across them as an undergraduate and kept returning to them over the years, so they have been constant companions. I translated the earlier poems for a poetry group of which I am a member, and they worked well in performance, so I decided that a book was viable that would represent both Old and Middle High German verse.

Q: Do you remember your initial impressions when you encountered poems from this period? What were your thoughts/feelings?

I think that older poetry always hits you with its otherness: in The Bright Rose we have pagan gods, Viking invasions, expressions of courtly love and so on. And yet we can empathise with the voices in the poems because they express recognisable human emotions. My teacher Ruth Harvey used to stress the similarity between Minnesang [Middle High German love song] and the lyrics of Cole Porter, even though the images used are so very different. I cannot imagine Porter writing about a falcon or a decision to go on crusade, but he expresses how love can take over your life, just like the poets of the Minnesang.

Q: Which section of the book did you enjoy working on more? Old High or Middle High German verse? Was it difficult to move between the two styles?

As I said above, I began with the Old High German verse, so I treated the two periods as two books, and it would be hard to say which I enjoyed more. Each period has its own challenges. When translation is going well, you tend to enjoy most the poem you are currently working on.
One very difficult decision was what to leave out from the Middle High German: at least five poets had to be cut from the work I translated.

Q: You mentioned in your Introduction that you took a strategic approach to the poems. Can you expand on that?

Something I learned in school teaching was to match your approach to the situation. If you go into a classroom for the first time with the intention of imposing a pattern, things may not go well. You need to be flexible and work out what opportunities there are for you with a class, and what problems. The situation is similar with poetry: there is no science of translation. George Steiner calls translation 'an exact art'. So a translator may choose to use five different strategies in translating five different poems by the same poet.

Q: The poetry is full of human drama. Did you feel responsible for conveying this expression effectively?

I think that as a translator you will always feel responsible, but you have to remind yourself (and other people) that at the end of the day this is my Walther, my Wolfram, my Hartmann and so on. Somebody else will translate differently, and that is to be welcomed. I think that Arc's policy of publishing translated poems facing the source texts is very enlightened, because it allows readers at least the chance to see what is going on in a translation.

Q: Why do you think the text will appeal to the readers of contemporary poetry?

Firstly, the poems are composed on the basis of cognitive metaphors that still ring true, such as LOVE IS WAR. Secondly, the book as a whole documents a period of German history through its verse and shows a progression from a pagan to a Christian and then courtly world-view. Thirdly, the book shows an amazing variety of themes and styles. I could go on, but I'll leave it there.

Q: Do you have favourite poets that you like to translate? What appeals most about them?

I seem to be drawn to poems from the past that I have known for a long time. Translation offers you the chance to enter into dialogue and finally to work out what you think of these texts. I am interested how many texts of the past show the human need to write poetry in extreme conditions, such as war. I also enjoy translating poems with a high degree of formalism. I am currently looking at poets from the German Baroque, like Andreas Gryphius and Angelus Silesius. The former wrote sonnets and the latter composed in rhymed couplets, so all sorts of issues arise when you start to work on them; which aspects am I going to choose to preserve?

Q: Your PhD concerned the application of the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein to translation. Did the discipline you acquired from this help you with the translations for The Bright Rose?

I think that Wittgenstein has a lot to offer any translator. For example, he introduced the notion of the 'language-game' to designate the way that language is used in any activity. (Poems, prayers and promises play different language-games.) The translator can identify the language-game (or language-games) played in a poem and can then start to write a target text that will enable these games to be played in the target language. Wittgenstein has been described by Terry Eagleton as the philosopher of poets, composers, playwrights and novelists, and I should like to see translators added to that list.

Q: Do you work with the meaning and the structure of the poem separately? How do you initially break down your approach to the material?

Wittgenstein said that meaning is a physiognomy, by which he meant that it depends upon the choices that have been made by the speaker or the writer. So really you cannot divorce meaning and structure. Following Constantine's advice, I think you begin with a really careful reading, which may involve researching the background, looking at other translations, reading up on the critical literature if there is any. Only then would I gloss the poem word for word, but bearing in mind all the other things that have gone on in my reading. Meaning is use, as Wittgenstein (once again) said.

Q: Finally, Philip, what other projects do have on the horizon?

I am currently finalising a book, Translation after Wittgenstein, which is due for publication by Routledge in December 2015. This book will sum up the results of my doctoral research. It outlines Wittgenstein's life and the approach of his later philosophy and discusses the relationship between philosophy and translation studies. Then it looks at how Wittgenstein can help us in three areas: reading the source text for translation; writing the target text; theorising the target text.

With Piers Rawling I am editing The Routledge Handbook of Translation Studies and Philosophy for publication in 2018. This is an exciting project that will bring together experts in the two disciplines and address four major topics over 33 chapters: philosophers on translation; the relation between translation studies and philosophy; the translation of philosophy; recent trends.

In terms of translation, I am working on a volume of poems from the German Baroque, as discussed above, which is a neglected area in both Germany and in the Anglophone market. This is a joint project with Romy Fursland, whose translation of Ulrich Plenzdorf's novel The New Sorrows of Young W. has just been published.

I am also hoping to finalise a book of translations of poems by Eduard Mörike and one day I must get round to finishing a translation of a long poem by the Middle High German writer Brother Philipp of Seitz.