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This report is taken from PN Review 192, Volume 36 Number 4, March - April 2010.

Catchwords (5) Iain Bamforth

A dualist in the Cenozoic. Even as I read it, James Beattie’s phrase ‘when the senses have nothing to employ them, the mind is left (if I may so speak) a prey to its own thoughts’ enacts its own figuration, springs out of the parenthetical birdcage, and becomes a predator on mine.

In her epistolatory ménage à trois with Boris Pasternak and Rainer Maria Rilke, Marina Tsvetaeva made a radical claim for the universality of the poet. ‘To write a poem is already to translate - from one’s mother tongue into another, and it matters little whether the other is French or German. For the poet, there is no such thing as a mother tongue. To write poetry is to translate.’

Responding to a questionnaire sent him by the Flinker bookshop, Paris, in 1961, Paul Celan (whose own brilliant translations into the German range from Emily Dickinson to Tsvetaeva herself) denied that poets could be bi- or multilingual. Certainly there was ‘double-talk’ aplenty: ordinary life is full of it. Poetry, on the other hand, ‘is by necessity a unique instance of language’. Celan’s task as a poet was to excavate the tongue favoured by his dead mother while making sure nobody would ever mistake him for a German poet.

The translator is not necessarily a traitor, and the act of translation may be the very contrary of an act of betrayal. Unexpected things are often found in translation. The crucial issue is whether ...

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