Thursday, January 14, 2010

Who Had The Best Poets In The Twentieth Century?

I recently read (raced through more like) The Faber Book of 20th-Century German Poems edited by poet Michael Hofmann. He starts his Introduction with this amazing statement: Who had the best poets in the twentieth century? For their size of population, the Irish and the Poles, absolutely, without hesitation.

After that opening I felt that out of loyalty to his praise of the Irish I had to stick with the collection and read to the end. Much of interest in it of course Rilke, Gottfried Benn, Celan and Enzensberger translated by a variety of translators. I always wonder about translations, how close they are to the original, in form, in style, in ideas.

Coincidentally this month's issue of the American magazine Poetry has a letter to the editor critiicising some aspects of translations by the same Michael Hofmann of poems by Gottfried Benn in the November issue. The letter seems pretty reasonable and well argued to me. Poetry has the practice of allowing the criticised author to respond to critical letters straight away. This has the effect of the original author having the last word and hardly seems fair to me. Michael Hofmann has been allowed a long reply, much longer than the letter.

This reply has a note of irritability which is delightful as Hofmann defends his translations in some details. He says: There is no more dismal—or, frankly, stupid—way of reading a translation than to pick on single words (as though the first duty of a translation were that it should be reversible—it’s not—and as though words were tokens of unchanging value, the way money used to be, in its dreams—they’re not either). Great punctuation there.

The letter is here, response here.
Hofmann's original translations of Benn's poems are here.

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