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21st Century Canto: Translation, Pound-style

A very good place to start with Ezra Pound is the Selected Poems and Translations edited by Richard Sieburth, originally published by New Directions, the New York publishing house founded by James Laughlin when Ezra told him “You’re never going to be any good as a poet. Why don’t you take up something useful?”.

The volume is reprinted by Faber in the UK. The fact that Faber didn’t originate it probably explains why the book is bigger format than most Faber books. The tall wide pages really suit Pound’s expansive work.

It’s very good to see the translations mixed in with the work. They’re fruity and zippy and all the things one doesn’t often enough see in work that’s written in translatorese: this proper and sombre English that isn’t how anyone English would write in their own voice. The burden of doing a proper job weighs heavy, and one can be glad that it does. There are many languages that I don’t speak, and I like to know that I can trust that my translator has put the work in, weighed every line, that the facts have been got right to the letter.

But how about to the spirit? There is plenty of spirit in Pound, and there was in Robert Lowell too. Pound had kind words for Lowell, whose star was rising at the start of the 1960s as Pound’s was waning and his life too. Lowell took great liberty with his originals, famously so, and imprinted his own voice strongly on most of the poems in Imitations (1961). Lowell rode roughshod over his originals, and over many who knew him. Pound, by contrast, was praised by his friends for helping them get into print new and original poetry that was not at all the kind of work that Pound himself naturally wrote or wanted to write. Pound was a generous reader, and a helper of his friends. As a friend, that was his spirit.

Did Pound then give himself over, like a medium, to the poets he translated? Yes, and no. His translations differ one from the other more than Lowell’s do, but there is a common voice nevertheless. And not everybody liked it. They certainly recognised that Pound could be cavalier, either a blunderer or some sort of madman who seemed to be making schoolboy errors and yet implying (sometimes hitting the target) that everyone else was the phoney. If there isn’t necessarily much variation in the rather relentless and sometimes macho/scolding personality of Pound, there is variation in the kind of language-music Pound made with each translation. Consider Pound and the Latinists:

In a newspaper article from 1953 (by which time Pound had been incarcerated for eight years in a U.S. mental hospital, surrounded by very distressed patients in scenes I often imagine were like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; but it did mean he escaped the firing squad for broadcasting very possibly treasonously against the Roosevelt administration during the Second World War), Robert Graves quotes 4 lines from Latin of Propertius and Pound’s translation of them:


Multi, Roma, tuas laudes annalibus addent 

Qui finem imperil Bactra futura canent. 
Sed, quod pace legas, opus hoc de monte Sororum 

Detulit intactd pagina nostra via. 


Graves, as “Dr Syntax” in the article, translates this as:


many men, O Rome, shall add, praises of thee to the annals, 
prophesying that Bactria* shall form thine imperial frontier
but, for thee to read in time of peace, this work from the mountain of the Sisters 
has brought down, by an untrodden path, my page.


Note how Graves glosses the Bactria line as meaning “[i.e. that the Parthian empire shall be absorbed]”.

This is Pound’s version:


Annalists will continue to record Roman reputations. 
Celebrities from the Trans-Caucasus will belaud Roman celebrities 
And expound the distentions of Empire, 
But for something to read in normal circumstances? 
For a few pages brought down from the forked hill unsullied? 


Graves in the 1953 review attempts to mock Pound as self-evidently a Billy Bunter-like bluffer, and pretty much just throws insults. Graves speculates Pound was jealous of the war poets when he shows his Bunter-Pound mutter “[i.e. I alone have not joined the cavalcade of popular war poets]” when mistranslating “quod pace legas” as “something to read in normal circumstances” instead of “for thee to read in time of peace”.

Graves become famous as a war poet, who fought on the front in World War One and saw friends die. He implies that Pound is jealous, pettily, of that. He doesn’t seem to imply that Pound had anything of value to say about war, even though Pound vehemently campaigned against war, and felt it was a scam pulled off by the rich through their arms manufacturers selling weapons to both sides – these days such a commonplace, it’s a Facebook meme. Spookily enough, both Pound and Graves shared a quirky spiritual belief not at all common to other poets of their time or other times, in real life analepsis. Both Pound and Graves believed that all times still exist in any location: that if one stands in a space, say, an Roman amphitheatre or an ordinary field, long enough and in the right visionary state then one can actually SEE times from the past relive themselves: that one could, if not travel in the fourth dimension, certainly channel-surf the past.

But I digress. Let’s look at the Latin again. Graves’ version will give us a good sense of a line by line gloss of the meaning, if we need it (except that the “via” at the end refers to “my page” so that the line is actually “has brought down, an untrodden path, my page, via”).  But let’s imagine for a minute, as poets writing in English, what kind of word music we could make if we could put our words in other word-orders? If word kind we make could could word-orders other put our what we etc.

William Carlos Williams, no fascist, said about Pound that he was often wrong and silly and a fool but had “the magic ear”. This is because Pound wanted word-music. He wanted to know what music he could make with words. But he didn’t want to achieve this by randomising (which is what I have just done; by jumble or algorithm; and this is one way in which Pound continues to challenge me, to say to me I have made my point without really challenging my audience, that I am a clown. Some have called Pound a clown, but it doesn’t really stick, and is only a little, and in passing, what Williams may have sometimes meant.).

One reason we find Victorian English so odd, and poetry written in it, or written now in emulation of it, is its thee and thou, and its words not in proper word-order. We still see sentences warped out of the word-order of ordinary speech, in amateur poems, mainly to make a sentimental point or a rhyme. Yet the Victorians would have been well-aware of the word-music possibilities, of the power of Latin compared to English. They would have known that the way Propertius can end on “via” provides an enviable elasticity. Pound told us to rid our poems of what we think of as Victorianisms like “…’dim lands of peace.’ It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete”. And this is how we remember him. Not least because he used this as an easy target to seem new (throwing the baby out with the bathwater as he did so, being too hasty, too rash, too sweeping.)

But he was all in favour of trying to emulate the poetry of other languages, and that would involve some lines using their clever word-endings to allow them to mix up the word-order and still be perfectly clear. Throughout the Cantos, especially, we see Pound enjoying archaic English, and occasional odd word-order, but it isn’t random play, it’s trying to give English the word-order of other languages, the power of ending the line on a word you couldn’t end a sentence with. And giving himself a free hand to put the words in the nicest sonic order.

At the same time, Pound wanted to borrow the sound worlds (and rhythm rules) of other languages, and this inspired some of his followers, like Basil Bunting in the North-East (where I’ve lived for 15 years). It was apparently when Bunting first encountered Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius (note, Pound says “homage to” not “translation of”) that he felt encouraged to keep writing. Try to say some of those Latin lines aloud. Now say the Graves and the Pound aloud. Pound has got much closer to the bristling click and clack of the Latin. As a Southerner living in the North-East, I often hear a language music much closer to the sounds of Latin here than in any other part of the world I’ve lived in. It doesn’t surprise me that Bunting turned into a very interesting translator of the Latin poet Horace. (Although a great poet translator and fan of Bunting, the slightly more Southerly Yorkshireman, Donald Davie, revealed in private letters that he hated Bunting’s translations of Horace).

Now, one can counter that Pound has overplayed the otherness of Rome, with some sort of ideal in his mind that they all spoke much more brusquely and factually to each other. Scholars have pointed out that Pound’s hopeful belief that Chinese was a more pictorial and less abstract language is a classic moment of Othering. It doesn’t speak to how Chinese people speak Chinese, in anything more than a very broad brushstroke about one moment’s view of an aspect.

But one can enjoy too that Pound is saying to English poetry: do something more than copy Shakespeare. Make a vibrant music, one that dances and skips and maintains its dance. And one can enjoy that he’s making a version of the Propertius with an interesting personality.

Finally, one can enjoy Pound’s use of snarky improper phrasing, and especially the way he drops colloquialism into the mix. He doesn’t speak colloquially as such, but he is very interested in using colloquialism. The one that hit me with a shock (and I am no fan of any of the politics implied) is when he called Mussolini, the dictator ruling the Italy which Pound lived in from early 30s onwards, “the Boss”. It struck me forcibly because it was such flagrant hero-worship, sucking-up. Then I read later that Pound had meant this as a translation of the more infamous nickname for Mussolini, il Duce. I don’t at all find Mussolini the Boss. But it’s a good translation. It is far less glamorous as a phrase than il Duce (didn’t we call David Bowie the Thin White Duke for a while, and doesn’t it have that kind of association, almost playful?) “The Boss” is not playful, except in a threatening shock-jock way. For all that it may position Pound as the kind of shock jock we (or I) don’t like, it also, by language, shocks us out of othering Mussolini too much. This is some of what a great translator does too.

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Image: Ancient Rome, Giovanni Paolo Panini

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons