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The Spike Victoria University College Review 1944



A great poet is found by a very particular tone of his own which distinguishes him. For the first time one finds in an anthology:

Hark now everything is still
The screech-owl and the whistler shrill,

One can already know that Webster must be a great poet. For one hears in these lines that there is a Webster silence and a Webster sound. Pharisees are those translators who do not even discover the distinguishing tone of their selected genius.

Those who are searching for the absolute cannot be bothered long with Pharisees, so we will just throw one glance into the valley and then beat our wings. Baudelaire's Receuillement is translated as follows by Dorothy Martins, in her selection from the symbolists (1928):

Be wise, calm now you heart,
O My despair Evening you craved; it falls with soft caress.

What makes us reject Dorothy Martins as a true adventurer is not that she gives despair a heart— that is just bad poetry. It is that she makes evening come down on Baudelaire with the soft caress. Dorothy Martins, incidentally, is the woman who in' Les Voyelles' translates Rimbaud's vowels literally, so that' E, blanc' became' E, white' and 'U. vert' 'U, green.'

Sometimes it is only a very small thing here and there which betrays the Pharisee. With Ludwig Lewisohn, for instance, is very hard to collect the evidence that he has never left the valley. But the evidence is there. He translates Stefan George:

In my life too were angry days and evil
And music that rang dissonant and shrill
Now a kind spirit holds the balance level
And all my deeds are at an angel's will.

This is fairly competent poetry. It only escapes being moving. The way in which we discover Lewissohn had never, at any time, any understanding of what George represents is through two very small slips. In the first line Lewissohn writes' in my life too' instead of' in my life' and in the fourth line writes' an angel' instead of' the angel.' This indicates that the translator has never felt the two main passions of Stefan George's life: the passion for his own Life and the passion for the page 14 Angel. 'My deeds are at an angel's will' is of a weak unappetising romanticism, it seems the product of a mind without a sense of form. How can it express George?

This requirement, feeling as the poet has felt, is rightly considered the first axiom of translating.