Michael Hofmann — Translate what you don’t know

Look at poems in a language you don’t know, or know only imperfectly; it’s easier if you stick to our common alphabet, though in theory you could work with Sanskrit or Russian (if you don’t know those). What English words do the foreign words suggest to you? Write them out, and then take your ‘rough’ and work with it until you have made it into something you might have written (a); or, alternatively, until there is something odd or half-baked or suggestive about the words that you like (b).

Say, Ungaretti’s tiny poem, ‘m’illumino/ d’immenso’ – what does that suggest, what might those 2 words and 2 letters morph into? Mailmen and dustmen, doctors of internal medicine, I am the threshold of a great palace…

Either outcome – the smooth or the rough – will teach you something about your own boundaries, and with luck, will carry you beyond them. Besides, it never hurts to look at words to the point of hallucination and beyond. (I was going to call my first book The Alphabetical Dog.)

Translator and poet Michael Hofmann is in Wellington to give the annual lecture for the New Zealand Centre for Literary Translation on 9 August.  He will also teach a masterclass at the IIML, and appears in conversation with Bill Manhire in Writers on Mondays, 13 August.   Full WOM programme details here.

Hofmann has published four volumes of poems and won a Cholmondeley Award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for poetry. His translations of German writers from Brecht, Kafka and Roth to Patrick Süskind and Herta Müller have won many awards, including the Independent‘s Foreign Fiction Award, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the P.E.N./Book of the Month Club Translation Prize. Michael Hofmann has also been a prolific reviewer, and his widely published critical writings encompass a broad range of novels, poems, paintings, plays and movies.

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