May 28, 2015

"Translation Gymnastics" at AWF15, with Anna Jackson and Daniel Mendelsohn

Thanks to Simon Comber from Readers Services for this guest post.

Tom Bishop facilitated an engaging discussion between American writer and critic Daniel Mendelsohn and New Zealand poet Anna Jackson. Together the speakers explored the different ways a writer could interact with a bygone poetic voice.

As it turned out, only Mendelsohn was an actual translator of poetry, having spent twelve years working on his acclaimed translations of the poems of C.P Cavafy (Collected poems). The first section of Jackson’s recent volume of poetry, I, Clodia and other portraits, had been named after (and written in the imagined voice of), the love interest of the famous Roman poet of antiquity Catullus. Whilst Mendelsohn was deeply familiar with Cavafy in the original Greek, Jackson was only familiar with Catullus in translation. She spoke of her initial exposure through Ben Jonson’s Renaissance era translations, and C.K Stead’s resetting of Catullus poems to Auckland’s West Coast beaches.

As the discussion made clear, there were still many similarities to be found between the two guests and their respective relationships to poetry of the past. Mendelsohn noted that when in the midst of working on translations, you were both responding to and engaging with the poetic voice. There was an aspect of being “reactive” to both the original text and previous translations. Aspects of this, and of the wonderful word Mendelsohn liked to use to describe his role, “adaptrix”, could just as easily have been applied to Jackson’s relationship to Catullus.

In the midst of their research, both writers couldn’t help but be laying a palimpsest over what other translators were gesturing towards, although, inevitably, only Mendelsohn would ever find himself making alterations between the release of the hard and softcover versions of his translations. Jackson on the other hand liked to joke that, as more of an imaginative adaptor than a translator, her “translation” would always be the most perfect. I, Clodia simultaneously spoke back to and used the voice of Catullus.

Perhaps the Homeric image Mendelsohn fondly recalled from the tales of Odysseus sums up the activity that both writers were trying to articulate during this discussion. When Odysseus ventures to the Underworld he recognises his mother and repeatedly tries to hug her, but as she is only a shade, his arms find no solid body to wrap around. Mendelsohn was implying that both his and Jackson’s work was mirrored in this scene. Both Catullus and Cavafy are gone from the world, but through the work of the “adaptrix”, their spirits, and their voices, remain.


Auckland Writers Festival

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 17:42


  1. This reminds me of something I came across today when I was reading a review by Patrick Leigh Fermor of a book about Cavafy. Discussing the many Cavafy translators, he quotes Walter Savage Landor as having said: "When it was a matter of wonder how Keats, who was ignorant of Greek, could have written his 'Hyperion', Shelley, whom envy never touched, gave as a reason 'Because he *was* a Greek'".


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