Thursday, March 26, 2009

Interview with Michael Smith (translator of Ramón Cabanillas)

You both write and translate poetry. How similar are the two experiences? Is writing a form of translation, or is it the other way round?
Writing my own work and translating that of others are two quite different experiences for me. How generally true this is I can’t say. For many, Roy Campbell was a very fine translator of Spanish poetry but for me all his translations from the Spanish have a similar rhythm as if they were all written by the same poet. When I am writing my own poetry, I am drawing on my own life. When I am translating, I am drawing on the life of someone else. I am not a literalist nor am I an imitator in Lowell’s sense of that word. When I translate I put whatever language skills I have at the service of another. I see myself as the servant but not the slave of the work I am translating. A good deal of modesty and self-effacement are needed to be a good translator.

A lot of the poets you translate are classical poets. What do they have to tell us that contemporary poets can’t?
In the increasingly dehumanised world of global consumerism, they remind us of what it means to be human in the sense that Shakespeare was human, and Dante and Quevedo and so many others. Of course, contemporary poets may very well do this, poets like Geoffrey Hill and the Irish poet Thomas Kinsella, to mention just two poets whose names come to mind. But there is something deeply human for me, as I translate, in listening to the voices of the dead across the centuries. Translation can be seen as a kind of resurrection of the dead in the case of poets who have not yet been given a hearing in English. Of course, I am speaking metaphorically.

Classical poets often make use of metre and rhyme. How important is it to keep these in the translation, or do they make the translation sound artificial?
It’s my own personal view that poetry essentially dependent on the effects of metre and rhyme , such as Pushkin’s or Eliot’s Possum poems or Edward Lear’s Nonsense Verse, to give extreme examples, cannot be translated into an English that attempts to replicate the prosody of the original. That’s literary taxidermy. What a translator can do, however, is suggest the prosodic regularity of the original without resorting to paraphrase, which is not translation.

You have joined a distinguished list of translators who have worked with Rosalía. How did the Selected Poems (published by Shearsman Books in 2007) come about?
I have admired the poetry of Rosalía for years. If you don’t mind my saying so, I think you’re wrong about there being a distinguished list of translators. Most of what I’ve come across in English is of poor quality and badly dated. Edwin Morgan’s translations are an exception. He has done some faithful and lively versions. The Shearsman Selected Poems was prompted by what I saw as a need to give Rosalía a voice in English. She has been written about by feminists but my primary concern was Rosalía the poet. As I can only access Galician with the help of Spanish cribs, I was lucky to be given great help with the Galician by two Galician friends, José Manuel Estévez Saá and Margarita Estévez Saá.

Do you have plans to translate any other Galician poets (apart from Ramón Cabanillas for the anthology)?
Not at present. But now that I have discovered Galician poetry through Rosalía, I may find some other Galician poet whose work interests me enough to tempt me to try translating it.

Thank you for talking to us!

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