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In Conversation with Will Stone

Posted by Arc, 5th March 2014

To celebrate the launch of Poems by Emile Verhaeren, I spoke to the translator, Will Stone, about Verhaeren and his own translation process.

You give a wonderful insight to the significance of Verhaeren as a cultural poet, I wonder what was it that drew you to translate his work on a more personal level?

I came to Verhaeren initially through his friend and compatriot and fellow 'fransquillon', Georges Rodenbach, whose famous novel Bruges la Morte I was interested in. As I edged deeper into Belgian literature Verhaeren's name started cropping up all over the place, and I realised he was a major voice who had to be explored. On reading the early work first of the 'trilogie noire' I was drawn to his rich visionary imagery and existential turbulence in poems which seemed to echo Baudelaire.

I realised as I progressed deeper into his oeuvre that here was a genuine European poet, and by that I mean one who cared about the spiritual consciousness of Europe in literary and artistic terms. I was also drawn to Verhaeren through Stefan Zwieg and his reverence for the poet, not only for his poetry but in his example as a senior 'maitre', an older more experienced figure to follow and learn from, in the way say Rilke learned from Rodin, to learn how to be an artist in the here and now, fully in touch with the earth in his own particular epoch. Zweig of course not only championed Verhaeren but translated him into German, providing the same service in his time as I was doing into English, singlehandedly bringing Verhaeren to the attention of a German readership. I also thought Verhaeren had been grossly neglected as a poet since his death in 1916, especially in the UK, a situation so absurd and unjust I decided to do something about it. I was also drawn to him because he was virgin territory, and required a modern translation perhaps more desperately than any other figure in European poetry. Before this book appeared there was nothing available at all, a statistic so incredible given Verhaeren's stature it must count for the most shocking blind spot in European literary history.

How did you select the poems to translate?

This was an arduous process involving copious reading, as Verhaeren wrote so much, too much to be honest and not all of it of the same quality, so I had to find the best pieces, as well as the more well known poems, also get a balance of the different periods of his writing. What I came up with could only be a snapshot of the whole, which is huge, especially in the later works... I concentrated mostly on the earlier work which I personally found strongest, but also tried to include a range of other areas such as poems on the sea and landscapes etc. I think it is a strong selection but there are plenty of equally fine poems which could have also been included had there been space.

Can you talk a little more about your process of translation?

I translate in the only way I know how, which is instinctively, and with a need to do so, otherwise it is a pointless labour. I do not have any set construction methods or rules, I simply allow the poem to work on me and move me in some way and then try to find an equivalent in the English language which might transmit the tonal and textural essence of the original. I tend to do this by not enslaving myself to formal rhyme, if the original is in that form, as this almost always ends up by producing something which shows itself too brazenly as a translation. There are people who are very accomplished at this sort of thing and can pull it off with all sorts of creative élan, and I admire them, but I have always preferred to coax the poem through my own poetic consciousness and see what transpires, by taking the road less travelled if you like. Somewhere along the route the translation finds itself, one hopes, out in the ubiquitous no man's land between languages, where the imps of poetry plot their audacious designs. You will always lose something in translation, or at least appear to, but there are also unexpected gains to be had as well. One needs to be ever patient and flexible, like those cameramen who wait in the undergrowth for hours, days and nights to capture a fieldmouse carrying a grain of corn past their noses, or some other tiny being, the translator must also wait in a sometimes uncomfortable position for long hours until something moves and he is ready to capture it, to nail down the fleeting image, the one ideal equivalent which corresponds, the initial intruder that soon sits snugly and unnoticed in the worn nest of the original.

How has it varied, if at all, from your approach to the Trakl?

Although when I translated the Trakl I found German far more challenging than French, Trakl turned out to be a far less daunting prospect, and the Verhaeren poems posed far more problems and demanded a good deal more creative conjuring and long drawn out toil. The considerable time taken to translate Verhaeren was also a factor. Of course with Trakl there were existing translations, which I had obviously read, such as those of Michael Hamburger or Robert Firmage, which were already somewhere in my head and there was nothing to be done about that, so there was an unconscious bedrock of Trakl in English, before I embarked on that journey. However, I wanted to bring my own stamp to Trakl's work, to really transmit the poems as truthfully as possible and 'poetically', ie not just finding an English equivalent but trying to ensure the poem had used up all the creative possibilities open to it before its arrival in English. I feel this was to some extent achieved in my translations. None of those I had read in English seemed quite right to me and I resolved to make my own, to read only the text of Trakl, not of others superimposed onto him. Though I concede that having read English translations in the past, I was infected to some extent. This then was a clear decision to translate to fulfil a need. With Verhaeren I was a pioneer and there was an unscaled mountain of work to be approached. It was exhilarating to work with these poems but also demanding, namely because Verhaeren moved through different stages in his poetry, ranged widely and also had the habit of making changes to certain lines for new editions. So there are a number of different versions of the same poems, as you can imagine this is a nightmare for a translator to keep track of and naturally of course begs the question, which edition do you use? Trakl on the other hand is far more dependable, he ploughs a narrow but terrifically deep furrow. The poetry of Trakl is really one long poem in a sense, a repetitive palette - one cannot say this for Verhaeren. Also, the German of Trakl seems to pass more easily into English than into French. One only has to see the French translations of Trakl to realise that they will always be hampered by the organic resistance between these two languages.

And what relationship do you think the translator has to the poems he translates?

The translator to my mind is always the responsible and judicious guardian of the poems he translates. He is the guide who leads them sensitively across the frontier to the freedom of their new life in a different language. He does not own these poems any more than the poet who delivered them in the first place, and these works are free to exist and move around at will in the world. Yet it is solely his skill and knowledge that ensures the poem reaches its destination alive. But the translator owes something to the originator, the first guardian, and should not wilfully overstrain the delicate machinery of the poem with his own self. There are many people now calling themselves translators, as there are many people calling themselves poets, but how many of these really can claim to be what they suggest? Unfortunately the public cannot always see a bad translation. They are hoodwinked again and again, especially in the UK, due to our catastrophically pathetic grasp of foreign languages. People are too trustworthy with translations, imagining this is the author they long to hear speaking, but it may be another voice entirely, a watered down or broken voice coming through. They may be getting only a fraction of the author's power, like an engine that has lost a cylinder. I am veering from the point... But the relationship between the poem he translates and the translator himself has to be an intimate one otherwise there is no point. Each of the poems must be like so many children whom one has nourished to the best of one's abilities and then sent out into the world, whilst knowing that they can come back at any moment and accuse you of failing them.

Once a translation exists it is there forever, and it has your name on it, and is part of the family you have created and preside over. People will choose your translation or another, they will compare, they will criticise. They will not understand what the translation entailed and the difficult choices that had to be made. And so it goes on. And the poems which you made are still in existence and can like human beings who are also obliged to exist, be appreciated or discarded as fate decrees.

How much do you think the academic world helps or hinders poetic translation?

I have never really understood how academics, however laden with the man hours or trophies of literature studies they have undertaken, can translate poetry if they are not also a poet with a considerable empathy for the poet they wish to translate, or have some latent poetic 'awareness', some intractable personal sensibility which enables them to resist the innate petrifaction of the academic interfering with the fluid act of translation. And yet there are a number of eminent translators of poetry who are academics with probably an expert knowledge of the original language who impress editors with their titles and standing in a prominent institution, all the years they have worked teaching such and such a poet in their literature department. These academics have a burning need to finally translate their subject, having waded through all the other versions over the years, for they now imagine they are more of an expert on this poet than anyone else and they shall have the final say. But all too often their translations prove to be desiccated and stillborn, lacking any creative element, despite their brilliance in the foreign language, because in a sense their academic baggage, the weight of their encyclopaedic knowledge of the language the poet wrote in and the milieu in which he worked, the sheer ballast they drag with them ensures the ether craving balloon of artistry can never get off the ground. How they puff and blow these gentleman and ladies at anyone who dares to translate with a modicum of risk, momentum and with a light-footed natural balance. I always think of David Gascoyne in this respect and his scattering of translations of Hölderlin, which to my mind capture the essence of that poet in a way which is more authentic than more established collections by those with seemingly all the right academic credentials, Michael Hamburger being perhaps the obvious exception. But Hamburger for all his proficiency and creative diligence, cannot match the naive grace of Gascoyne in that famous Hölderlin poem 'The half of life'. Gascoyne, the maverick, who even makes mistakes with his inadequate German, somehow triumphs simply because he has spiritually connected to that something else in the poem which enables him to form a vital equitable answer in his own language, so at least in the case of that single poem he answers the original in the most tender and clear sounding voice, thereby explicitly endorsing its continuing validity.