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This article is taken from PN Review 263, Volume 48 Number 3, January - February 2022.

Seeing through the Words Jenny Lewis

The Imagist poet H.D. said, of her translations of Euripides, ‘I know that we need scholars to decipher the Greek but that we also need poets and mystics… to see through the words.’1 George Steiner agrees, arguing in the introduction to his book After Babel (1998) that it is ‘creative’ translations, by translators who do not necessarily speak the source language but are poets, novelists or dramatists in their own right, that can best preserve for posterity the ‘possible worlds and geographies’ that each language construes. Dryden defines this as ‘paraphrase’ but it is now generally described as ‘creative’ as opposed to ‘literal’ or ‘word-for-word’ translation. ‘Creative’ translation is increasingly encouraged, for example by the Stephen Spender Trust who offer ‘Creative Translation in the Classroom’ education programmes. It has also been validated for decades by translation theorists such as Lawrence Venuti who asserts that the source language poem is open to becoming just one of multiple equally acceptable variations. Yet ‘creative’ translation still has a substantial body of detractors. So why do so many poets risk opprobrium and strike out on their own to translate canonical texts without even the map and compass of knowing the language it is written in?

For Simon Armitage, the ‘preposterous’ conviction that he was put on earth to translate Gawain was prompted by co-incidence. In an article in the Guardian (16 December 2006) he explains how his wife’s dog-eared copy of the Tolkien and Gordon edition of the Green Knight fell open ...


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