Michael Hofmann, in Poetry Magazine:
A handful of lucky or gifted poets fill their lives with poetry. I'm thinking of the likes of Ashbery, Brodsky, Ted Hughes, Les Murray. They write, respectively wrote poems, it seems to me, practically every day, the way prose writers write their novels. The date at the bottom of Mandelstam poems. Plath poems. It's a question of the force of the gift, the poundspersquareinch of the Muse. Heaney, too, comes close. The rest of us strike compromises, do something else "as well," mostly teach, in a handful of cases, do other, unrelated work, have "a job" in the "real world." The job is the enemy of the poetry, its successful, favored rival (the job is everything, the poem nothing; who wants the poem, and who doesn't want the job?), but may also be the dirt from which the poetry grows. Such, anyway, is my hope, translating.
Meetings with remarkable translators. To coin a phrase. The first was Ralph Manheim (translator of Grass and Handke, then as now the two most prominent living German authors, but also of Brecht and Céline and Danilo Kiš and any number of others —Mein Kampf, anyone?), who invited me to drinks at his flat in Paris. A native of Chicago, if I remember, and one of the great generation of American translators that was produced by the war. 1980, 1982, something like that. Six o'clock. Yardarm time. I turn up, meet him and his charming wife, who has suffered a stroke and whom he is looking after. I feel a bond with him: the unusual, "thin" spellings of our names, he has only one n in his, I have only one f in the same place, plus he is exactly fifty years older than me, born in 1907. We talk about the vexatious Handke, who is also living in Paris, and with whom he says, in a gallant adaptation of the German idiom (which exists in the negative form), "ist gut Kirschen essen," you can share a bowl of cherries, i.e., a companionable and generous and uncomplicated sort. I demur, but he says it, and he may after all be right. (Years later, I am with friends in Paris. Very late, long after supper, there is a knock on the door, it is Peter Handke, who only ever walks everywhere, unannounced, with his hat full of mushrooms he has picked. They are straightaway cooked and eaten, and I am surprised by Handke, who is tanned and strong and kind, and has a firm handshake, and I think about the cherries, and the Manheims.) I drink a beer, they both have whiskey. Ralph has come from his office in another building. The sense,
then, of it being a job, that he keeps regular hours, locks it up and comes home. Doesn't allow it to sprawl greedily or disfiguringly over his life. I think, if I think at all, of my father who writes at home, giving dictation—furthermore—to my mother, in what passes for our living room. His writing is everywhere, fills the airwaves, fills our family space, governs our lives like national economy.
Then Joseph Brodsky, some time later in the eighties, in the Tufnell Park flat of a friend of his. Espresso and Vecchio Romano in a somewhat redundant, spotless kitchen. (He wrote about Auden's "real library of a kitchen" in Kirchstetten, but I guess that for him and in his life, most of the action will have been in, so to speak, the real kitchen of this or that library. As he said, "freedom is a library"; it isn't a kitchen.) "Circumcised" cigarettes. The practiced fingers pull out the sponge, pull out the fluff, discard the fluff, return the sponge. Only then is it safe to smoke. He is translating Cavafy, whom he loves. The classicism, the history, the anonymity. Into Russian. He has brought with him from New York a Russian portable typewriter he is using. Greek into Cyrillic. In bourgeois north London. A bizarre, Conradian phenomenon. The translator as bacillus. Maybe one more. A rare (for me) gathering of translators in New York City, perhaps some awards ceremony, I don't remember. We fill the front stalls of a theater somewhere, feeling unusually effervescent, like a gathering of missionaries, or spies on day release. Optimistic. Righteous. Both full of ourselves and among ourselves, unter uns. Ourselves alone—Sinn Féin. The charabanc effect. To make things better/worse, Paul Auster is brought on to address us. Then someone announces that Gregory Rabassa is of the company, somewhere right and front of us. A slight, stooped figure rises, bows. From the stage, a beam tries to pick him out, to try and somehow give him some plasticity. I don't think I would recognize him on the street. The first translator I was aware of, I read his Marquez when I was twenty, and doorstepped his London publishers. (Remember Marquez's praise for him as "the best Latin American writer in the English language"?) A little pencil mustache, maybe? I doubt myself, and think probably I'm making it up, extrapolating, literarizing. We applaud frantically. Such are the heroes of a secret business, a guilty business, even.
I translate to try to amount to something. When I first held my first book of poems in my hands (the least extent acceptable to the British Library, fortyeight pages including prelims), I thought it would fly away. To repair a deficit of literature in my life. My illadvised version of Cartesianism: traduco, ergo sum. Illadvised because the translator has no being, should neither be seen nor heard, should be (yawn) faithful, should be (double yawn) a plate of glass. Well, Kerrang!!!