by Florence Impens
from Dublin Review of Books, November 2013
Quoting the Portuguese writer and Nobel Prize winner José Saramago in the foreword to his latest collection, Derek Mahon writes: “To write is always to translate, even when we are using our own language ... Our words convey mere fragments of reality on which our experience fed.” Relying on a different material, the two activities are however essentially linked in this perspective: if writing is the act of translating an experience into words, translating is the act of conveying the written account of this experience in another language, culture and moment.
Derek Mahon is no stranger to either, and is known both as an accomplished poet and a translator. As a poet, he has been translating the reality of his experience into words for more than forty years, and has, since the publication of Night-Crossing in 1968, written another ten full-length collections of poetry, releasing his latest one, An Autumn Wind, in 2010. As a translator, he has also long been engaged in adaptations of all kinds, whether it be novels turned into television scripts for the BBC in the 1980s, such as Jennifer Johnston’s Shadows on Our Skin (1980), and How Many Miles to Babylon? (1982), as well as Brian Moore’s The Temptation of Eileen Hughes (1983), adaptations from ancient Greek and French drama, or translations of French poetry. To have a look at a list of Derek Mahon’s adaptations is to be reminded of the variety of his output. If much of his work has been translated from the French, a language he studied at Trinity College Dublin in the 1960s, the texts he has chosen testify to his ability in handling very different styles and periods: among others, classical drama from the seventeenth century with Molière and Racine, nineteenth- and twentieth-century poetry with respectively Gérard de Nerval, and Philippe Jacottet. In fact, reading his poetry is also indirectly reading others. Many of his collections include poems in translation, not only from the French, and his poems themselves are often full of echoes, allusions and quotations, so much so that in “Remembering the ’90s”, a poem from The Yellow Book (1997) in which he casts himself as one of the last poètes maudits, Mahon describes his work as “a forest of intertextuality”, a sanctuary where literary figures continue to live.
While his interest in the work of others has long been obvious to the readers of Mahon, the publication of Adaptations in 2006 and Raw Material in 2011 by The Gallery Press revealed the extent to which he had engaged in poetic translations, as the two volumes bring together the “adaptations materialising over the years with the idle intensity of doodles”, as he calls them in the foreword to the first collection. Gathering the translations published in magazines and within the collections of poems themselves, the two books confirmed, at the time, the reputation of Mahon as a translator, of French and many other languages. If Adaptations focuses on Europe, Raw Material expands to include versions of poems from countries as remote as Congo, China, and India.
Echo’s Grove is Derek Mahon’s third collection of translations, and along with a few new additions, it presents us with a large selection of his poetic adaptations written over the years. Following the publication of the New Collected Poems in 2011, of Selected Prose in 2012 and of Theatre earlier this year, it is the latest instalment in an effort by The Gallery Press to take stock of his impressive career as a poet, critic, playwright and translator. Many of the translations collected in the volume have indeed already been published elsewhere, and the readers of Mahon will recognise many of the poems from Adaptations and Raw Material. They will also find versions from the French of Philippe Jacottet from Words on Air (1998), and choruses from Oedipus (2005). Interspersed with previously unpublished texts, the versions are here reorganised in a new coherent whole, offering us for the first time an extensive overview of Mahon’s work as a poet-translator.
The translations are organised by author and chronologically, not by the date when they were written, as one might expect in a volume of selected work, but by the original date of the source texts. Starting with the classics, and versions from Sophocles, Lucretius, Horace, Propertius, Ovid and Juvenal, Echo’s Grove develops over two hundred pages into a rich journey through centuries of literature. With poems adapted from sixty-one authors and thirteen different languages, it quickly moves back and forth between countries, inviting us to reconsider the notion of individual national traditions. While most of the translations are from European languages, the journey also brings us further afield, as the collection confirms a trend established in Raw Material and offers excursions into the poetry of eighth-century China, and closer to us in time, into the literature of African French-speaking countries as well as of modern India, as re-imagined by Mahon with the figure of “Gopal Singh”.
The collection is more than aptly named, as Echo becomes an image for Derek Mahon rewriting the words of others from his “grove” in Kinsale. Like the nymph who cannot but repeat what the others say, and cannot express herself by any other means, Mahon, like any translator, “borrows” the words previously uttered by writers and speaks them back to the world in his own voice. The episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses is included in the collection, and Mahon brilliantly renders in English Ovid’s evocation of the nymph’s fate. Repeating Narcissus’s words, with whom she has fallen in love, Echo tragically succeeds in expressing her feelings, before being rejected by the boy and dying out of despair:
‘Anyone here?’ said he; she answered, ‘Here’.
He paused, surprised, gazing about, and cried,
‘Oh come on!’, hearing the echo cry, ‘Come on!’
He looked behind but, seeing nobody there,
darkly he asked, ‘Are you avoiding me?’
and heard his own words asking in reply.
Confused by the echo-voice he tried again:
‘Talk to me!’ – and the echo, ‘Talk to me!’
(Never would she so ardently respond
to anything.) Now, stepping from behind
a tree, she goes to throw her arms around him.
Coldly he shakes her off, brusquely he leaves
saying, ‘Keep off, I don’t want your embraces,
Don’t touch me!’ ‘Touch me!’ cries our heroine.
This is Mahon at his best, transposing the repetitions of the original Latin in his own tongue, and playing syntax against the metre of the poem to highlight the tension between Echo and Narcissus. It is also a powerful image of his understanding of his role as a translator over the years. Not that translating is a curse – and indeed Mahon stays away from the well-known “traduttore, traditore!”, according to which a translator cannot but betray his source. On the contrary, he takes a rather opposite view, reiterating at the beginning of the collection a claim for a certain degree of creative freedom in his translations which he had previously expressed in the forewords to Adaptations and Raw Material. Introducing his poems, he writes:
My own versions, looking to recreate the spirit and employing many extraneous devices, belong in another category, that of poems adapted from their originals (...). I’ve taken many liberties, in the hope that the results will read almost like original poems in English, allowing their sources to remain audible.
Mahon is conscious of his somewhat paradoxical position as a translator, on the one hand adapting foreign texts from many different cultures into what is now a hegemonic language, and on the other, articulating in his foreword an anti-global perspective, against “the erroneous impression (...) that everyone everywhere is coming round to an Anglo-American norm”. Like Echo, he reappropriates the words of others and gives them a new meaning, sometimes updating them for the modern world: the texts included in the collection are to be envisaged as his own, adapted from, or sometimes even loosely inspired by, their originals, as is the case for his Indian poems. But he is also careful to retain the identity of their own voice, and let them exist as stand-alone pieces which, in turn, can echo each other despite their differences.
This is where Echo’s Grove is particularly impressive – in the resonance that the structure of the collection creates between texts that might not have been otherwise thought of together. Seeing that most of the collection offers reprinted poems (although many have been revised, as is often the case with Mahon), some of his detractors might question the need to release a new volume, and one that is not a collected but a new selected work. To those that might believe that The Gallery Press has been making the most of their Mahon catalogue in recent years, there would be no better advice than to take a few hours of their day to read this new collection from front to back cover. If Echo is a figure for Mahon, her grove might be the collection itself, the place where the different voices intermingle and answer each other, prompting us to reread the authors translated by Mahon in a new light.
Some of the versions in Echo’s Grove read like variations on a theme, and the collection for example gives particular attention to love poetry, and human relationships. In their evocation of love-making and arguments between lovers, Propertius’s poems to Cynthia, and the sequence adapted from Ovid’s Amores, aptly entitled “Ovid in Love”, echo one of the new translations, “Bedroom”, from the fifteenth-century Italian of Petrarch, as well as Baudelaire’s “Afternoon Sex” in the nineteenth century. In “Women in Love”, women poets tell their side of the story, as Mahon translates seven short texts from twelfth-century Occitan. Other thematic groupings are possible, and at times, Echo’s Grove reads like a very personal selection, making it hard not to perceive intimate connections between the versions presented to us and the issues that have preoccupied Derek Mahon in his poetry. The image of the wanderer and of the marginal, central to so many of his poems over the years, resurfaces in translations from the French of Arthur Rimbaud and Jules Laforgue – notably in “The Hitch Hiker” (adapted from “Ma Bohème”), and “The Travel Section” (based on “Albums”).
The collection invites us to decompartmentalise the way we read literatures, and offers some surprising but successful juxtapositions. Placed directly after “The Bangor Antiphonary”, an Irish poem adapted from seventh-century Latin, the sequence of adaptations from the Chinese of Li T’ai-Po, Ch’iu Wei and Tu Fu, entitled “A River of Stars”, is delicately linked with the Christian overtones of the former in the refrain “The long road to Sichuan, so steep and so high, / is harder to climb than the road to heaven.” The last poem of the sequence, “Autumn Fields”, similarly nicely mirrors the evocation of the bleak landscape in “The Bangor Blackbird”. The literatures of Ireland and China come together under Mahon’s pen, and transitions between otherwise very different cultures are smoothed in the carefully crafted structure of the collection, where major cultural shifts are helped by subtle transitions and echoes placed by Mahon in his adaptations. It is one of the pleasures encountered in reading the collection, when the reader perceives the existence of a discrete dialogue between the poems, realising for instance that “White Night”, from the Russian of Boris Pasternak, quotes the title of Mahon’s version of Paul Valéry’s “Au Bois Dormant”, ‘The Enchanted Wood’. Examples of this abound in the collection, which thrives on those connections, underlining the cosmopolitan and transnational dimension of the work of the famous European writers evoked in these pages. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke is connected both with France, in “Jardin du Luxembourg”, and Russia in “Night Drive”, which shares with “White Night” a setting in St Petersburg. In “Ariel and Prospero”, his poetry is also linked with the world of Shakespeare, just as Philippe Jacottet is connected with England in “To Henry Purcell” and the Spanish poet Jorge Guillén with Henry James in “The Aspern Papers”. Indirectly, Echo’s Grove defends the notion of a republic of letters, where writers do not write in the isolation of their own language but on the contrary in a conversation that goes beyond temporal and geographical borders, as well as beyond cultural differences. Dillon Johnston, as early as 1985 in Irish Poetry after Joyce, identified in Mahon’s work the existence of “a poetic community that stretche[d] from Sophocles to Jacottet”. Almost thirty years later, Echo’s Grove, now expanding the community to writers from Asia and Africa, reinstates Derek Mahon’s interest in bringing foreign literatures together, and in a transnational perspective on literature.
Has Mahon succeeded in writing versions that are “readable and perhaps re-readable” as he had hoped in his foreword? Very much so. Each of the texts can be enjoyed on its own, as a poem in its own right, and for its refreshing take on the original, but it truly is in reading the collection as a whole, and in rereading it several times, that Echo’s Grove comes to life, as the poems begin to form a dialogue across centuries of literature. This is a beautiful and ambitious volume which reaffirms the importance of Derek Mahon’s voice in the dialogue between Ireland and abroad.
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About the Author
Florence Impens completed a PhD on classical reception in contemporary Irish poetry at Trinity College, Dublin in 2013. She is one of the contributors to the forthcoming Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature in four volumes, where she will discuss the Classics and Irish poetry after 1960.
Dublin Review of Books
Editors: Maurice Earls, Enda O' Doherty