Poster poems


Down the centuries, English poetry has been infused with fresh vigour by elements from different languages. Now it’s your turn to join the import business.


Portrait of Ovid by Luca Signorelli (1475-1523).
“Poetry”, said Robert Frost, “is what gets lost in translation.” This pearl of wisdom is so often quoted, so widely accepted, so profound-sounding, that it is almost certainly untrue. In fact I’d argue that in the hands of the best practitioners, translation is just another way for poets to make poems in their own language. Equally, it is clear to me that a steady stream of translation has been vital to the continuing good health of English verse over the past 700 years or so.

Ever since Chaucer started working on his lost version of The Romaunt of the Rose, the act of translation has been one of the most important vehicles for expanding the range of technical resources (and subject matter) that is available to English poets. Although we cannot now identify with certainty any lines of Chaucer’s Romaunt, we do have some fine examples of his work in translation, not least of which is his reworking of Boccaccio’s version of the story of Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer’s poem is a fine example of his application to classical subject matter of the technique he learned from French poetry, to create a poetry that is distinctively English.

Chaucer’s contact with the new learning may have been at second hand, but it does prefigure the revival of classical Greek and Latin poetry that helped form the poetry of Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries. One of the first great fruits of this Renaissance was the Scottish poet Gavin Douglas’s rendering of Virgil’s Aeneid into a vigorous vernacular, a poem that did much to establish the rhyming couplet as a narrative verse form in English.

Just as significant, albeit on a more modest scale, were Wyatt’s translations of Petrarch’s sonnets, the precursors of a whole tradition of sonnet-making that continues down to today. You could, of course, argue that if Wyatt (and Surrey) hadn’t done it, then someone else would have. Nevertheless, it is unarguably the case that these early translations introduced into English verse what was to fairly rapidly become the short verse form of choice.

Perhaps the finest of all the Renaissance translations is Arthur Golding’s The Fifteen Books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Like Douglas, Golding used rhyming couplets for his translation. However, the later work captures much more of the art and atmosphere of its Latin original than Douglas ever tried for. Golding’s Ovid was one of the most influential books of its time, being a favourite of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and a sourcebook for plots for plays and narrative poems like Venus and Adonis.

If Ovid was the presiding spirit of the English Renaissance, then Homer played a similar role in the 18th century. Numerous translations of the Iliad and Odyssey appeared at the time, none more influential than those written by the greatest poet of the time, Alexander Pope. Pope may have set out to prove his classical credentials through these and his other forays into translation, but ultimately they helped provide him with the tools for creating mock epics in which he ridiculed the pretensions of what he came to see as a trivial, mock-Augustan age.

The poets of English high Romanticism were not much given to translation. However, it could be argued that the whole tone of late Victorian poetry was set by one great work that was made possible by that most quintessentially Romantic area of study, comparative linguistics. Edward Fitzgerald’s versions of the Persian Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam captures more completely than any original poem of the time the spirit of the Pre-Raphaelites while pointing ahead to the dissipation of the poets of the 1890s.

The American poet Ezra Pound was an admirer of the Rubaiyat, and his early poems are redolent of Pre-Raphaelite twilight. One of the most crucial steps on his, and, as it turned out, English poetry’s, journey into modernism was the work he did on bringing over Chinese poetry into English in a book of translations he called Cathay.

Given that he knew no Chinese but worked from prose cribs, Pound is an example to all of us who would like to be translators but may not possess the linguistic skills to work from originals. Of course, you’re probably all multilingual geniuses, but, thanks to Ezra, you don’t need to be to tackle this August challenge to share your own versions of foreign-language poetry. Your sources range from Norse to Klingon, Malay to the entirely-made-up-on-the-spur-of-the-moment; one way or another, all translations are welcome here.