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Interview
  Jamie McKendrick
Jamie McKendrick was born in Liverpool in 1955, and works in Oxford as a writer, journalist and free-lance teacher. His most recent collections are
Ink Stone (2003) and The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poems (2004), both from Faber & Faber.

 

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What do you see is your role as a translator of poetry?

Somewhere in his Opus Posthumous, Wallace Stevens refers to translators as parasites. Parasites live off their hosts, giving no benefit and often doing harm. Maybe in relation to their host, the best translators are more like epiphytes. One negative aspiration then is to do no harm to the original, and a positive one is to make a good poem in English - better still if it holds an authentic echo of the original.

Italian culture and poetry features prominently in your work. To what extent has Italian poetry influenced your own technique? To what extent is one language able to infect another when it comes to writing poetry?

It´s hard to judge how far Italian poetry has influenced my poems, but you can always hope that the things that you respond warmly to will somehow enter your own writing. Ultimately you have to work with the rhythms and resources of your own language - your own resources - so another language stands at the periphery. I can think of a few instances, though, where an Italian phrase has offered me a maybe odd but still workable effect in English. Even metrically, the Italian hendecasyllable may have increased my use of a final unstressed syllable with the pentametre. For me, the process of learning another language is so arduous and sometimes estranging that I think some impact on my use of English is bound to have occurred.

For your translation of Valerio Magrelli's poetry, was there more of a pressure to be faithful to the original than when you were translating, say, Ovid or Dante?

The level of fidelity has more to do with individual poems than with the author: I certainly took more liberties with Ovid than with either Dante or Magrelli, though I have felt the need to be freer with some Magrelli poems than with others. It´s a question of sensing where the translation can go, what possibilities it opens up in the language. For example, Italian poetry seems to me more hospitable to abstractions than English is - for complex reasons, one of which is that the Latin roots, and the physical world embodied in them, is more palpable, closer up to Italian than they are in English equivalents. Take the verb ´to arrive´ for example: ´arrivare´ is bound to have more resonance for an Italian who has the noun ´la riva´ (the shore) to reveal the nautical metaphor behind the word. So a straight translation of an Italian word into its Latinate English equivalent usually results in a loss of power, and often a more scholastic effect. What´s important is to tilt the translation towards the strengths of your own language.

Are you ever tempted to add "improvements" to a poem you are translating?

There's a strong likelihood, particularly if you're translating "classical" poems, that what you are translating will be better than what you write yourself, so it would seem presumptious to think it possible to 'improve' them. But maybe just a little touch here or there! It might be more accurate to say change rather than improve, along the lines of what I was trying to suggest in answering the last question. Perhaps an example might help: I translated a 6 line, short-lined poem by Antonio Machado into 14 longish lines. This was a case of keeping the beginning and end and inventing the middle, changing the plot and angle too. Whether this should be called vandalism or adaption is for the reader to decide. In my defence, his poem was part of a sequence of related meditations on art, and I wanted to turn it into a single, free standing poem. So while his poem maintains an unwavering respect towards Dante, mine instead adopts a position of disrespect until the final line's reversal.

In the introduction to his translation of The Divine Comedy, C. H. Sisson speaks of the 'subjective authorisation' to translate a poet, granted spontaneously at the moment the poet's verses come to the translator in his own language. Do you find that you have to wait for this moment, this feeling of connection, before you can begin to translate a poet?

I can guess what Sisson's phrase means although he makes it sound like an internal policeman. But I do believe that what you call "this feeling of connection" has to occur in order for it to be worth the bother, in order for you to have the smallest chance of success.

How does the contemporary British poetry scene compare to the Italian?

I feel oddly reluctant to make the comparison, although in the process of editing The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poems I have had to think about this issue. With some exceptions I'd say that Italian poetry has a tendency to be more austere, less at ease with conventional form, less anecdotal. With a few exceptions, it has a little less space for humour and narrative than English poetry, but is less inclined to undersell itself to win approval. But when you come to consider the better poets of either language these distinctions make less sense.

Montale's poem 'Salt' is concerned with a kind of overlooked durability. This seems to be an ongoing concern in both Montale's and your work. In this respect, has Montale's worldview coloured your own ("sunlight somehow still abides in / faded tufts that cling to bricks and kerbstones")?

Montale's imagination, as you suggest, is often drawn to things burnt back to essence ('Portami il girasole…'), the zero point in 'The Eel', or the situation of 'The Agave on the Rock', and thence the (faint) possibility of some rebirth. I'd say this aspect of his work appeals to me, though I'm unsure whether it colours my own poems. I lived for a time on the Amalfi coast and there's a similarity to Montale's Ligurian coastline in Ossi di sepia which is geographic rather then literary. A recent reviewer said that Montale was always my mentor, though I lacked his passion. This seems to combine two misunderstandings (however flattering the comparison). Montale has rarely been a direct influence, and I certainly wouldn't look to him for passion - perhaps the reviewer just thinks Italians are all passionate people. I don't have Montale's vast culture and sophistication, nor his later slightly weary, senatorial dryness. The lines you quote are quite different in the Italian: "come si ricorda / del sole l'erba grigia / nelle corti scuriti, tra le case" which might be rendered more literally: "as the gray grass in darkened courtyards, between houses, remembers the sun", so I'd say I'd given the lines a distinctly personal twist, and whether for good or ill intensified them.

Many of your poems ('In Arcana Fidei', 'Coracle', 'Black Sounds') seek a path to a world beyond the one we inhabit. Others ('Belen', 'The Clouds', 'The Crystal Sky') depict unreal, paradoxical worlds. Is there a link between the latter and the former?

I think the reader's answer to this question may well be more interesting than mine, but to attempt it: to my mind 'The Belen', 'The Clouds' and the earlier 'The Crystal Sky' do "depict…paradoxical worlds" which, rather than being untrue, abut real things and feelings with others that are oneiric. They follow a dream (il)logic with a narrative thread. The same might be said of 'Black Sounds' which is set in Matera in Basilicata with its canyon of cave dwellings - where Pasolini set The Gospel of St. Matthew, and it seems Mel Gibson's The Passion has followed suit. I think there is a link between these poems and 'In Arcana Fidei' and 'Coracle'. There's a kind of dark daylight in these two, as oppose to (artificially?) lit-up night in the others. I'm uneasy about the use of dream material in poems - it seems a bit like cheating - but occasionally an image surfaces which I find compelling...as with 'The Belen' or 'The Clouds'. 'Coracle' more explicitly draws on dreams but in the context of the death of a friend who also worked as a psychotherapist.

Is there a particular method you use when writing? Is writing poetry a constant preoccupation?

No method, unfortunately, but the absence of method. I envy poets like Montale who write, as he claimed, with "pochi ritocchi" (few retouchings). In my case most early drafts are execrable, but if there's a halfway decent line, (and this is the same process for translation) the poem seems to have a chance. It's an intermittent thing for me - I noticed with dismay that there's a six year gap between my last two books. Only very occasionally do I try to write something without having first felt some kindled excitement, and then I quickly abandon it as useless. Better times occur when one line leads to another, and even one poem leads to another.



© Jamie McKendrick / Signals 2004