Jane Draycott, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m a poet who’s come late to translation and I wish I’d started much much sooner. I teach on a number of different creative writing courses and if I had one thing to advise poetry-writing students it would be to try poetic translation, to discover from the inside the many possible poetries beyond the one in your own ear – soon!
When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
Corny but true: Henri Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes; and around the same time, the short stories of Edgar Alan Poe – something in both of those about the fateful and the mysterious which struck me then and has stayed with me.
Why do you translate?
So far it’s been a lot to do with advocacy, to spread the word about work that I admire but doesn’t seem that widely known or read. And also – as Heaney described it – for refreshment, between books of my own. Translation is a great teacher, the chance to climb inside someone else’s imagination and their phrasing, to try wearing the coat of their different poetics, and gain new battery power for your understanding of what poetry can/could be.
How did you kick-start your career as a translator, what was your strategy?
With my own first daughter about to leave home, I’d been thinking about the medieval elegy Pearl and had written a long-ish piece, about girls lost in a city. It floated on the lexical structure of the medieval poem, a mere 100 instead of 1000-plus lines, but it wasn’t a translation at all. Then the wonderful poet and medieval scholar Bernard O’Donoghue (who was translating Pearl’s sister poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) suggested I try a full translation. There had been several by scholars (including Tolkien) who weren’t necessarily poets in their own writing, so I had a go. I had no sense at all of a career, only a close personal connection with a poem I’d loved since the first time I got to know it.
What was the most challenging part of translating your first work?
The sense of responsibility, to the anonymous author of one of English literature’s great poetic gems, and to the sheer scale of formal skill by which he (probably he) had created this finest of elegies. You have to turn that anxiety about responsibility into a kind of love. It took a while before a possible way to relay the feeling and voice and harmonics came to me. I had to wait, just as one does with one’s own original writing I suppose, so as not to set off on the wrong foot or the wrong path.
How and why is the role of the translator important as a UK editor engages in the acquisitions process? Does funding make a difference?
The books of translation I’ve completed so far haven’t involved more than permissions fees, but funding would certainly have made a difference to the possibility of a dual language edition of Storms Under the Skin, the book of selected Henri Michaux poems in my translations published last year by Two Rivers, a small independent literary press.
Is winning a Translation Prize important and why?
Important in the sense that it suggests the new work you’ve made has an integrity of its own that can speak to readers as powerfully as you’d hoped, yes. Every translation project is a new project though, and the power of the original very obviously has a lot to do with the success of the translation – everything really.
What are you most proud of translating?
Of all the books of original poetry and translation that I’ve made, the Pearl translation is definitely the thing I’m most glad to have written. But there are several of the Henri Michaux poems that speak with a voice that’s still important now – writing about fear and social and political paralysis – that I felt were powerful poems to be translating.
What is your dream translation project (or have you already done it)?
I suspect that the Pearl poem was it – literally a dream-vision poem, a relay of dreams from St John’s Apocalypse via Dante, but also a poem that seemed to connect very directly with my own experience of bereavement, and of daughters “leaving”. It had been in my bloodstream ever since I first read it: one of the reference translations on my table was my own in my nineteen-year-old student handwriting. Reading my margin notes (“this is the last time he sees her”) felt like a moving kind of parenthood of my younger self.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m trying to create poetic versions of some of the more striking entries in the Old English Herbarium (like how to catch the swiftly-moving mandrake to make a remedy for grievous hurt at home). It’s recently been digitised, with all its glorious illuminations and illustrations now view-able on the British Library website.
Your views on book publishing and translation?
How could any of us listen in to the great conversation without translations? We’re lucky if we’re English-speakers as both writers and readers, but in smaller language groups the early publication of translations for larger international readership isn’t a luxury it’s a lifeline (I’m thinking of Dutch as an example, currently blessed with some of the finest translators into English).
Has the perception of books in translation in both the book trade and the Media changed during the time you have worked as a translator?
For so very long literary translators have been barely acknowledged, hard to find named often, though I think poetic translation may have had a different trajectory. New higher-profile prizes that award both writer and translator may be the beginning of a new era of fairer recognition, but I’m not sure the general reader or the general press reviewer has much greater sense of the role and achievement of a good translation.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) impacted books in translation and your working life as a translator?
There’s so much research involved, especially in translating an author who isn’t around to consult. I can’t imagine how much longer that would all take – and the internet was well under way when I first started – though there’s a definite danger of being too easily satisfied by early answers you hit upon, taking material on the internet as authoritative when very, very possibly it isn’t reliable at all.
How important is the relationship between author and translator; and when you’re translating work by authors who are no longer alive what needs to be addressed and how?
So far, I’ve only translated the work of writers who are no longer alive. Perhaps one consults other translations of the same writer, and other work (earlier/later) by the same writer to a greater degree, in order to build a fuller useful sense of the contexts in which it was created, and of the personality and voice in the work – I’m not sure . . .
How involved are you, in the promotion of the books you translate? Your views on social media?
Not involved enough, other than organising launch events and being delighted always to take part in readings, panels, performances etc. whenever I can. I’m not on social media except for family and don’t know if I want to find the extra minutes in the day that would take from something else. I follow others and visit several blogs regularly, the best of which are like good short-shot essays, as well as Twitter, listening in to thought-provoking conversations by lively thinkers passing briefly past the window.
Your bedside reading?
At the moment I’m reading Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under – a first novel of real originality.
Your favourite prose author?
No one favourite, but William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury still stands out from almost everything I’ve read in recent years. I’d never miss out on a new Fred Vargas novel, either.
Your heroes in real life?
Right now, Henri Michaux – so inventive, endlessly curious, never satisfied.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
A. L. Kennedy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jeanette Winterson, David Hare, Virginia Woolf.
What are your favorite literary journals?
Poetry London, Granta magazine, PN Review.
Your chief fault?
Interrupting people before they’ve finished speaking.
Your chief characteristic?
Your favourite motto?
If in doubt, leave it out.
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