Poet, Editor and Translator Michael Hulse
A number of years ago I ran into an acquaintance in the library (he worked there; I merely frequented the place) and he asked what I’d been reading lately. I mentioned that I had recently begun reading a lot of Polish poetry. His response was that he didn’t really respond to the work of Cseslaw Milosz. This event has stood out for me for a long time because it wasn’t Milosz I was reading at the time, nor was it Szymborska, the other Nobelist—I had stumbled across the work of Adam Zagajewski and Zbigniew Herbert.
This was before the larger selections of their work were commonly found in Australian bookshops, so the university library was my connection to their work. Nonetheless, his reply wasn’t surprising: because when it comes to writers in other languages, we really do tend to know only one or two names. Nonetheless, translators are working away on the books of many, many more authors—and many of these authors are just as deserving of attention. I wonder if sometimes we have a bit of a “one and done” attitude with non-Anglophone literatures. There is, after all, so much to read—if we know the work of Milosz, we know something of Polish literature in the second half of the twentieth century. (With the recent death of Szymborska—a sad event that at least had the happy consequence of bringing attention to her poetry again—Zagajewski will now be the prime living representative of Polish poetry for the outside world; Piotr Sommer will no doubt be next up.) Similarly, if readers know the work of Syrian poet Adonis or Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish they know something of recent Arabic-language poetry. I too am guilty of this, no matter how much I constantly try to address my own ignorance.
And it’s a lot to ask of any reader that they delve further: the world of so-called “world literature” is enormous, and often only translations of the biggest names are readily available. Only a couple of hundred books in translation are published in the United States every year, and no doubt only a fraction of these are published in Australia.
In a poem in his recent book Southern Barbarians, the poet John Mateer declares that “translators are angels.” I too subscribe to this opinion: translation is perhaps the ultimate labour of love. One translator I know translated a contemporary novel and for his efforts received only $500. Merely retyping a novel would surely cost more at any decent hourly rate; rendering the work in a different language would take much, much longer… Another friend translated Estonian poetry: among readers there doesn’t seem to be a high demand for this, and I doubt he’ll ever profit much from his efforts. But literary translators—especially of poetry—are rarely in it for the money. And though a few translators names are known—William Weaver, for instance, the translator of Italian authors Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino among others is well known—being a translator is often akin to being invisible. Yes, your name goes on the book as well, but the average reader pays little attention to it. The flipside is that many successful translators are also creators of their own work, yet it is their translations that reach a wider audience. Khaled Mattawa, an American poet of Libyan birth, and my former teacher, is now Adonis’s translator: he recently toured the United States with Adonis, and the pair gave bilingual readings. I was privileged to attend one of these readings in Michigan a year and a half ago. But Mattawa is also a poet of considerable power: I believe his recent book Tocqueville deserves serious attention. The book has received some of that attention in the United States, but coming from a small independent publisher, it remains unknown in Australia.
All this is on my mind because Michael Hulse is in town, and will be reading and talking at UTS tomorrow night. Hulse has a formidable record as a translator: best known for his translations of three of W. G. Sebald’s works (The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo) Hulse has done much, much more through his career—and has a lot of work ahead of him. He has translated authors from a range of periods, and is one of the foremost translators of German literature. Whether it’s a rendering of Goethe, Rilke or Elfriede Jelinek, you are in good hands when it comes to Hulse. And like many translators he is also a writer: he has published a number of books of poetry, the most recent being The Secret History in 2009, which followed on from Empires and Holy Lands: Poems 1976-2000. We know poetry won’t sell in the same numbers as, for instance, a Penguin Classics edition of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, but his poetry is well worth reading.
Beyond that, Hulse is an accomplished editor and anthologist. He edits The Warwick Review at present, and acted as the co-editor of Bloodaxe’s The New Poetry and, most recently, The 20th Century in Poetry. I’m looking forward to hearing him read and discuss his work tomorrow night; the event is free and open to the public, so please join us.
Michael Hulse Reading and In Conversation
UTS Building 3 (Bon Marche), Level Two, Room 221/2
Entrance on Harris Street, Ultimo
Tuesday 28 February 6:30-8pm