Structo talks to David Constantine

“The shock of reading a poem which is really evocative is really the shock of something foreign”

This interview first appeared in issue 10, published August 2013.

As with one of last issue’s interviewees Stella Duffy, I first saw David Constantine read at the Word Factory, a spoken word night held at The Society Club in London. In an interview with host Cathy Galvin, Constantine gave a powerful argument for the importance of translating foreign verse into English. I felt like marching on Whitehall by the time he was done. The fact that we can devote almost the entirety of the following interview to discussions of the art and craft of translating poetry, and then a couple of weeks later learn that Constantine won the 2013 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award for his collection Tea at the Midland and Other Stories, should give you an idea of the sheer quality of this man’s writing. I talked to Constantine at his home in East Oxford. — Euan

Why is it so important to bring non-native voices into English?

In some ways it’s self-evident. There’s the misapprehension that if you’ve got English that is enough. Britain – and England more than Scotland or Wales – is lamentably bad at learning foreign languages and it’s been on the slide for a long time in the state schools, which is terribly bad, because whenever they decide that it is a bad thing, it’s very difficult to recover. You lose an entire generation of language teachers, and obviously the effect of that is hard to rectify. And I think that it’s because there is a perception that we don’t really need foreign languages, which is, even on the most basic or mercenary level, just not true. If you talk to any business people they know that you are at a disadvantage, in the EU especially, if you’ve only got English. And that’s my least concern. It’s also in complete contradiction to the fact of the United Kingdom, which is multicultural and multilingual. There are three hundred-plus languages spoken at home in London, and the primary school in east Oxford where my granddaughter goes has got forty or fifty languages. Which doesn’t mean the school’s a mess; it’s terribly well run and they teach in English, but the mix of kids, their parents and grandparents and the mix of cultural activity, is completely astonishing. Last night we were at what used to be Oxford School – now Oxford Spires, it’s been forced to become an Academy – at a creative writing event there. Our daughter-in-law teaches there. The kids were all reading in English, they’d all written in English, and it was very, very good. Phillip Pullman was there too and he said it was one of the best events he’d ever been to. These are 14 or 15 year-old boys and girls, and their ethnic origins were manifestly various. Not just from the Indian subcontinent or black Africa, but also from Poland and so on. And that’s the fact of the matter. And yet that fact of the matter seems to coexist with an insularity of view which is frankly at times xenophobic, and is reflected in a whole lot of the recent success of UKIP and in the Daily Mail and anything that the Tory Party get pushed into against their better interests.

You do need something to relativise your position as an English-speaking person, particularly if you’re a writer, because English as spoken in England is now a tiny minority language [in the world]. It’s just one variety of English, and it’s massively outnumbered by the English of the Indian subcontinent, by the English of America, and these varieties of English are drifting further and further apart. There is a social and geopolitical reason to be open to foreign cultures generally and to the expression of that: the language. In particular, when Helen [Constantine, his wife – Ed.] and I took over from Danny Weissbort on Modern Poetry in Translation in 2003… Danny had been running it since it was founded with Ted Hughes in 1965 (Hughes pulled out fairly quickly, but it was his idea) – their stated aim and ambition in founding the magazine was that it should serve as a sort of airport; it was their image of traffic coming in from abroad, and it was intended as a two-way benefit. Some of it was a pragmatic need to get writers out from behind the Iron Curtain who had no access to an English-speaking journal and an English-speaking audience, but the other equally important one, stated from the start, and emphasised by Helen and me was that it’s a necessary addition and contribution to your own writing and your own language – you need to be continually confronted with the foreign. So there’s that dual thing. When we took over there was no Iron Curtain, the hallmark of the times was people on the road who didn’t want to be on the road. Millions and millions of people who were not where they wanted to be. So the fact of forced emigration, the fact of asylum seeking, the fact of exile. Any number of people who were living abroad and who needed English to have any kind of currency but who wanted to continue asserting the culture that their mother tongue comes from. It’s very broad idea really, and it seemed to us self-evident, but clearly it isn’t. [Laughs]

So specifically for literature and poetry, has it ever been the case that there was more of an appreciation for non-English language work? At the time of recording this interview there’s still a vogue for Scandinavian crime fiction.

It’s not wholly bad by any means. But if I think particularly of poetry, I am a great traditionalist, and in the Renaissance you were not even supposed to start until you had at your disposal the other languages and partly that’s the historical fact that the vernacular language was felt at a disadvantage to Latin and Greek and had to, as it were, assert itself against them. I’ve been writing about this for this Literary Agenda I mentioned that evening [at The Society Club] – there’s a whole chapter on translations, and the sonnet comes into English from Petrach though Wyatt and Surrey. The iambic pentameter is made up by Surrey as a way of translating Virgil’s Aeneid. So that line, which is the standard line of English verse by the time it reaches Shakespeare, is an import, an equivalent of the Latin hexameter. It’s unrhyming. Chaucer had used rhyming iambic pentameters, but Surrey was the first to use unrhyming iambic pentameters: blank verse. It’s his way of arriving at a line which will have the sonority and variety of the Latin hexameter. So that’s something that came in through translation, and there are countless examples. Lots of forms are imports from abroad. Major poets fetch them in, starting with Chaucer and all the way through actually. If you look at the work of very substantial German writers like Paul Celan and Rilke, a massive part of their poetic oeuvre is translation. So if you take the five volumes of [Celan’s collected works], two or three are translations from Shakespeare, from Mandelstam, from the contemporary French surrealist poets and so forth. Rilke translated the whole of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, and they were not doing this for the money, these were things that they felt would benefit their own writing and it did, quite clearly. Hölderlin, the poet I know most about – the German Romantic and Classical poet – he translated Pindar in the most extraordinarily literal fashion, syllable by syllable, to see how close he could get to Greek, in order to come at a language of his own, which is then like nobody else’s, but ghosted by Greek. And he did two thousand lines, in fair copy, of this immensely difficult poet fracturing the German language. Where the Greek broke at the line endings he broke the German, to see if he could do the same. There was a thesis that German was like Greek in that it’s a agglutinative kind of language – you add bits – and so he was trying to do it literally syllable by syllable. And it was a completely solitary exercise; he showed it to nobody. It was his way of coming into his own language. He said very famously, ‘one’s own has to be learned as much as the foreign’. Through the foreign you come into what he called der freie Gebrauch des Eigenen, or the free use of one’s own, which is a wonderful phrase really. So you come into the free use of your own via this – the image he uses is the journeyman going abroad, staying abroad, steeping himself in abroad, and then coming back, because you can’t stay abroad forever otherwise you lose your own tongue – but you come into the free use of your own by this sojourning abroad in a foreign tongue. That used to be absolutely standard, I don’t say everyone practised it, but it was understood [to be valuable]. If you look at manuals of poetics in the Renaissance they’ve all got stuff on translation. In fact German literature of the 17th century is practically made of translation because it was in such a bad state. After, or in the midst of, the Thirty Years War everything comes in. The novel comes in from Spain, from Italy, from France and from England. The sonnet comes in from Italy. Drama comes in from Seneca. The alexandrine line comes out of France through Dutch into German and stays there until Goethe’s day. These are people who realised there was nothing in their tongue, in their own literature, that was good enough, and they translate as a way of making a literature. Now that’s extreme – it was in a really bad state – and that was at the national level, but really every individual writer of that period, until some way into the late 18th century or early 19th, felt that unless you continued to go abroad in that way then you were denying yourself a huge reward.

It seems obvious when you put it like that! Just what are you missing out on? What was the strategy with MPT?

It is a magazine of translation. We did start publishing original poetry, and we were sort of warned off by the Arts Council, which was quite right, because the peculiarity of MPT is that it’s a translation magazine. So whether the translators were British or American or whatever, they had to have English really as a mother tongue. In some cases there were near bi-lingual people who could manage. We had a wonderful, extraordinary translation of Gerard Manley Hopkins by a German woman living in Finland called Dorothea Grünzweig. We counted the Modern in the title as just being the modernity of the translation, so there were lots of translations from Classical Latin and Greek and from Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, from Medieval French, Medieval German and so forth, as well as epics from the Indian subcontinent of about the same period.

Your background is, in terms of languages, German?

French and German. [The result of] an extraordinary grammar school education where I did nothing apart from French, German and English, effectively, after the age of about 13 or 14. Which was disgraceful [laughs] but it did at least give me that!

Which led you into your own translations –

Well, it led me into doing French and German and English at A-Level, and then at university doing German and French, at more or less the same level, then doing a PhD in Hölderlin. And I started translating at university myself, just to get closer to some texts.

For a deeper understanding?

Yeah, I thought of it as close reading. The closest form of close reading. I had a very close friend at Cambridge who was brought up in the English School there, in the I.A. Richards practical criticism close reading kind of stuff, where you don’t know the author and you don’t know the date, you just look at the text. Translation works rather like that.

You write a huge variety of poetry, as well as translations, and short stories. And you mentioned The Literary Agenda?

The Literary Agenda was by no means my idea. The Oxford University Press are doing a series called The Literary Agenda, and my friend and editor Phil Davis, who was professor of English at Liverpool – I can’t remember his current title – he is vastly interested in what reading does to the brain [more about this shortly – Ed.]. His wife is Jane Davis, who used to edit the magazine The Reader. Phil does now. And she set up this organisation called Getting Into Reading, which is founded on the belief that reading helps. She works with groups from battered wives’ homes and psychiatric hospitals, and gets big commissions from the nhs, because it is a proven fact that if you get people sitting around a table who have never spoken properly, never mind read aloud, it’s enormously liberating in some ways. So that’s what Phil’s interested in, and he then is the general editor of this series called The Literary Agenda and I’ve just finished – it’s coming out in November – the poetry one. It’s kind of a polemical series because of the wretched state of the humanities in British universities and in British culture. It’s a sort of fight-back to assert the value of what it is that literature offers – an entirely different way of being in the world, and thinking. And it’s getting shoved right out to the periphery and into extinction. It’s increasingly not recognised as a value. We always have this trouble with the Arts Council, they were very good to us, but you can see the way it’s gone because in all speeches about the arts, it’s all about how much money you make; what contribution you make to the economy. Obviously if you’re the Royal Ballet, then doubtless you do make a bob or two, but there’s absolutely no way that poetry all together, or Modern Poetry in Translation in particular, could ever actually want to… well, we want to survive, as you do, but…

It’s not a money-making exercise.  

They effectively stopped public funding for the humanities [in universities]. The attitude is now well if you think it’s valuable, then you fund it… It’s bad. It’s a deep philistinism actually. [The Literary Agenda] forced me to write, all in one place, things that I had been saying, and sometimes writing, all over; just trying to define and simultaneously assert the value of poetry in particular, but literature all together.

You’ve called it a ‘radical act’, doing this for little to no money.

And I do think that. It might seem far-fetched, but it becomes radical due to the circumstances, because everything you do in that line, whether you like it or not, is actually a riposte or a revolt against something which is there all the time. The risk of that is that you become merely reactive; you define literature negatively as ‘not the market’, which is not good enough. But you don’t exist in a vacuum, you do exist in a context of not total, but quite large, contempt for that way of apprehending things. One of the chapters of the book is called ‘The Office of Poetry’. It struck me very forcibly recently that even quite decent people get into politics thinking that they might help, and you see what happens: there’s this terrible narrowing by virtue of office, because the office doesn’t permit you to be a whole human being. It practically requires of you a kind of déformation professionnelle by virtue of being a politician. I don’t mean that poets by their nature are honourable people, any more than anyone else is, but the office of poetry, the poem, the act of doing it, whatever you’re like personally, it’s not a poem unless you’ve established an area of autonomy in which you’re not only free to tell the truth, but it is actually incumbent on you to try to do it. Whereas in the office of politics, almost the antithesis takes place. By virtue of office you are required to take decisions which are largely one-sided, decisions which are trimmed to particular parties. And heaven knows, when they come to the point where they have to utter these things publicly… it’s shameful really.

So it’s by nature radical, rather than by design?

It is intrinsically a radical act. If taken seriously, it’s a radical act of opposition. And that’s a negative way of doing it, because if you’re in opposition then there’s this thing there to which you’re always paying regard, more or less consciously. But it’s almost unimaginable to us, a society in which it were taken for granted that this all matters. There have been societies, there probably still are, but England isn’t one of them.

And the same is true for fiction?


You’re in a good position to comment on this as you write fiction, short stories and novels, as well as poetry. Do they come from the same wellspring?

I can’t do both at the same time, so in that sense they’re rather different, but the kind of short stories I write are the kind of short stories people would write if they mainly wrote poetry. But the same applies, that it’s through fictions that we get even near the truth nowadays. It’s very sad, but you don’t really expect [politicians] to be telling you the truth any more. And it is quite sad, because it just breeds a whole deeply sceptical, not to say cynical, electorate who are not even going to want to vote if it always ends up as just liars chopping the place up for their own advantage. There are other societies where it’s heaps worse of course, here corruption on the whole gets found out and is thought not to be tolerable, but I honestly think that the making of stories – although not the same as scientific fact – is another way of inducing people to think truthfully about the world they live in and about their place in it, through fiction.

When you have a spark of an idea, do you know what form it’s eventually going to take?

There have been three or four occasions when I’ve done both, not at the same time, but I’ve written a story or a poem first and then I’ve felt that there’s enough [for both]. They both start in the same way, that is to say that they come about as images, as very concrete situations, and for the stories, and to a certain extent the poems, as a tone of voice. If it’s quite obvious at the outset that it’s going to be something quite large, which will need speaking voices, then it [becomes a story].

Coming back to the translations for a little while: how do you begin to judge the worth of a translation when you don’t know the original language?

Well, we don’t really. Helen has got modern Greek and very good French. I’ve got French and German and some Italian, but effectively the rule-of-thumb was: is this readable with pleasure as English verse?

Oh good. Was hoping you’d say that.

Every now and then if there was a worry we’ve asked other people, but by and large you take it on trust. An awful lot of poetry in translation is a worthy thing to do and a worthy thing to read, but it doesn’t actually affect you as much as does poetry written in your own tongue, in a language you know terribly well. As everyone knows who does it, effectively when you translate a poem you have to write a poem. There’s an interesting paradox in that because in order to write an interesting poem you need that complete autonomy, and in order to do a translation you are serving a foreign text, so there is a fight between service and autonomy.

Does it help if the original poet is long dead?

[Laughter] This sounds rather awful, but I don’t really like translating, and I’ve done very little translation of, people who can answer back. But I am not of the school that thinks that it would be better if you don’t know the language, I don’t feel that in the least, and in fact it makes me a bit cross really because I spend countless years trying to get better at German or better at French, and I do think I translate better because I know the language and because, in the case of Hölderlin and Brecht, I’ve spent many years reading them.

In the case of German and French poetry, but particularly German, when you read the original and then you read translations – your own or somebody else’s – of something you know very well, do you get any sense of devaluation or is it just change?

It’s just change, and an inevitable one. I don’t believe that the translator should be invisible. I don’t believe you’re there just to be the medium through which [the foreign text] passes because, as I just said, in order to do it properly you have effectively to be writing a poem, and to do that you need to have all the resources of your own language, and the understanding of how that language is used. I hope that my translations would be distinct from anybody else’s just by virtue of the fact that I did them. It’s not a question of whether they are better or worse, people have completely different views. That’s not really a theory, that’s just a fact of practice. I know that’s how I do it, and that’s the only way I could do it.

In terms of translations, there’s everything from the syllable by syllable translation – which sounds remarkable by the way – through to very loose translation. Do you aim for anywhere on that scale, or is it completely dependent on the text?

It depends solely on the text. When Hölderlin did Pindar like that he would have had in mind, almost certainly, an extraordinary version of the Bible in German. There was quite a bit of so-called interlinear translation of holy scripture, and there it was a religious matter since this was believed to be the word of God, then logically speaking the word of God is contained within every syllable of the Hebrew or in every syllable of the New Testament Greek. So you had to do it syllable by syllable and interlinear; as it were a translation of a physical thing, a handing over from one language to the other, with nothing flowing away through the holes. Since [Hölderlin] had an almost religious veneration for the poets of Greece then it’s similar in his case, except he also had, I think, what all poet translators have at the back of their mind, which is what’s in this for me? That way is extreme, and in both of these cases – Hölderlin’s Pindar and the interlinear versions of the Bible – without the original it makes no sense really. The German makes a bit more sense than if you’d done it in English, because German is more like Greek in the way that its syntax works and the way it makes up words, than English. What I wouldn’t ever want to do is produce something which carried nothing of the foreign with it. I’m not a deliberate foreigniser. The premise is that poetry itself is like a foreign language within the vernacular. The shock of reading a poem which is really effective is really the shock of something foreign. Translation is more than a bit like that in that it’s literally foreign, and if you want to get anywhere near even something analogous to the shock [of the original] it has to ring foreign in some way, but not so foreign that it just sounds as though you didn’t know the words or couldn’t do any better. Hölderlin seems to have almost thought – you know when things refract in water – it’s almost as though he thought there was a calculable angle of poetic language from the original. That in your own practice you would try to arrive at something which parted company from whatever everyday speech is; that it would be at an angle to ordinary domestic practice. Robert Graves talked about the language of poetry as ‘otherwhereish’ and that’s quite a good image of it really because it’s using words that are at the free disposal of anybody, it is using them in a way which is odd.

Does your background as a translator affect your own original writing? There seems to be a definite ‘Englishness’ there.

Yeah, I think I’m very English, but I could quite easily indicate what I’ve learned from Hölderlin particularly, and Brecht. Well, the politics of both were sympathetic to me, at least at the start – he was born in 1770, the same as Wordsworth, and he’s full of that revolutionary hope, until it all goes to the bad. And Brecht, I’m a great admirer of his politics as well. But more than that, in this particular poetological sense, what I got from Hölderlin particularly is just how much you can ask of the reading mind. He has sentences which go on for 18 lines, and because in German subordinate clauses the verb goes towards the end, the German reading mind is used to waiting for sense to be completed. There’s an extraordinary tension. Any German speaker will do it, and it won’t feel particularly tense, but Hölderlin makes a great virtue of this deferral of sense and therefore an increasing tension. The musical equivalent would be – I’m not a musician in the least – the point of resolution in a passage of music. Well, it’s a bit like waiting for that. An almost physical relief. English doesn’t have the same possibilities, but it does have kindred possibilities. You can ask more of the reading mind.

And this thing that Phil Davis is asking is what happens to the brain. Different areas of the brain light up. If you’re expecting a verb and a verb turns up used as a noun, then for a minute nanosecond the brain is flummoxed. The brain works predictively, it’s like lip reading, so it’s always waiting for things to fall into place in a way to which it’s accustomed, because that’s how you function. Whereas poetic language continually thwarts that, and that’s very productive, because it alerts you, it keeps you agile, and it doesn’t allow the world just to drop into the shape you’re familiar with. Some kinds of syntax are more likely to disturb that predictive apprehension of the world, which is very necessary, it’s a pragmatically necessary ability of the brain, but it has to be subverted by poetry otherwise you’re just continuing… Now Brecht, a first-rate dramatist, but an even better poet, he just moves up and down the register, and that’s what I like. He was a classicist, a good Latinist, some of his German sounds very Latinate, and at the same time he was a great fan of Rudyard Kipling – not his politics, but the vernacular language of soldiers. He’s got every idiom and within a single poem moves from very complex syntax to absolutely straightforward syntax; he has a way of using lineation which means that in a lot of his verse he does not allow the unit of sense to coincide with the unit of verse, so that as you come to the end of the line very often the last word will be ‘but’. As you’re going along you think that you’ve got it, and then the last word will be ‘but’ and then the next line relativises the one [before]. Now these are a) observable, if you read closely enough, and b) more importantly they’re transferable as poetic strategies. Because if you don’t rhyme, and you don’t scan, in your poem, then the chief poetic means at your disposal is lineation, it’s where you break the line. I’ve learnt a lot from Brecht about where most advantageously to break lines. They’re quite specific things, and those are a couple: the syntax of deferral and the other, which English does very well, is move up and down the registers.

A nice example of bringing something in from doing translation.

And it’s something that is fun to do. It’s quite solitary, usually learning by doing, and that’s why I get a bit impatient when— I’ve done Arvon courses as tutor where people have candidly admitted that not only are they not translating, but they just don’t read. And I wonder just what they think they’re doing. Whether they think it all just starts with them. There’s 1,500 years of English poetry, and they just… I’m not saying that you can’t start until you’ve read it all, that would be absurd, but you can’t really do it without continually reading in some way or another. When I stopped teaching in 2000, I suddenly had a bit more time and, although I’d read most of it before, I read the whole of Chaucer. I wanted to devote some time to it. And extraordinary it was as well.

There are resources to take advantage of.

It’s a kind of axiom of mine that poetic forms don’t actually ever lapse, they go out of use for a time, but they’re there if the language once used them. Two or three years ago there were several translations of Gawain and the Green Knight – one by Bernard [O’Donoghue], who lives across the road, one by Simon Armitage and there was already one in circulation – and they were very different. The poetic forms of Gawain are transferrable. You don’t have to do the same, there are other ways of structuring it. English has shown itself capable of that.

So it’s bringing in both technical and cultural aspects through translation.

Yes. And what’s happening – it’s regrettable, but I’m not sure whether there’s anything we can do about it – is that our own past literature is becoming increasingly foreign. Already Shakespeare is quite hard for an awful lot of school kids. That’s a pity, but not enough [of a problem] that someone determined enough couldn’t make the effort. There have been translations of Chaucer for a long time. It is actually fun going back to read Chaucer, to see what you can make of it. The idea that – and this isn’t a contradiction of what we talked about earlier – as a writer, and as a poet particularly, you’re addressing anything like unitary culture any more is a nonsense. You’re just not. If you look down the poetry lists of Bloodaxe [Books] for example, it’s blown wide open. There’s every vernacular, there’s no one to say this is canonical and this is marginal, nobody thinks like that seriously now.

Bloodaxe in particular seem to be very on top of that.

Yes. For a start [Bloodaxe editor] Neil Astley’s got 50% men and 50% women, which is as it should be, but it’s taken so long to get to that equality of voice. There is a lot of overlapping experience, but there are areas in which men and women have radically different experiences, and that’s terribly valuable. MPT was on the whole ok because there are an awful lot of women translators. It used to be something that was felt to be fit for women, the service of the text, you know? And certainly in the 19th century, a lot of translators were women. You’d get a male author and a female translator. Odd.

It’s good that that is now seen as odd.

It is thought to be very odd indeed now, but is still the case that there are an awful lot of absolutely excellent women translators. If you looked at MPT from the point of view of author and then point of view of translator, then we would have been doing less well in terms of author because it went right back to Homer. [Laughter] One of the embarrassing things about this Literary Agenda was that when I went for all the instances that I grew up with, then of course they’re mostly male actually, because of the canon of people that deeply affected me, right up to Owen and Lawrence and Graves and all the rest of it. And it is largely still, within poetry particularly, it’s not the case in the novel. Now it’s being rectified, and very radically rectified. If I were now to say which poets I read with the most pleasure, there would probably be more women than men among my contemporaries.

Are you in a poetry frame of mind at the moment?

I’ve managed to do two, three poems latterly. We’ve just been to Greece. I find it increasingly difficult, displacing. Helen’s very good at saying off we go! But the actual business of being displaced is obviously very good for me, and I did write two or three poems then. I’m in the middle of a longer fiction too, which has been interrupted for one reason or another.