Translator and poet Michael Hamburger has passed away. He was born in Germany to a Jewish family who emigrated to the U.K. and he became a translator of works primarily from German. The authors he translated included Paul Celan, Rainer Maria Rilke, Friedrich Hölderlin, Nelly Sachs, Charles Baudelaire, Gunter Grass, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and also Marin Sorescu, whom Mr. Hamburger worked on in a relay translation from Romanian to German to English.
As an obituary describes: the “author of more than 20 volumes of poetry and many volumes of essays, whose seminal study of the tensions in European poetry, The Truth of Poetry (1969), the critic Michael Schmidt has ranked alongside William Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis or Donald Davies’s Thomas Hardy and British Poetry, Hamburger often joked - not without rancour - about British reviewers of his poetry who would “brand” him “better known as a translator”, or a “passionate breeder of rare apples” (which he was), or “a renowned German poet”.”
In an interview, Mr. Hamburger explained how he got into translation and how it related to his work as a translator: “Translation came naturally to me because as a child I was translated from Germany to Britain. So I began to translate when I was still at school, also choosing to specialize in what was called Modern Languages and amounted to French and German. One of my earliest translations was of the prose poems of Baudelaire, and as a soldier in Italy I also taught myself Italian, so as to be able to read Dante. Though I specialized more and more in German, from time to time I continued to translate from other languages.
“Translation, to me, was an activity separate from the writing of my own poems – rather as, for musicians, composition is separate from performance or the interpretation of other people’s music. I don’t ask myself whether my translations are creative. It's enough for me if they serve a useful purpose. Some of them were important enough to me to occupy me almost throughout my long life – like Hölderlin, with successive editions from 1943 to 2005. Towards the end of my life, though, I had to give up translating, so as to be able to concentrate entirely on my own poems.”
Also in the interview, he described how he thought of his work as a translator and that as a poet: “All I can say is that as a translator I have tried to get as close as possible not only to the semantics of the work translated, but to its way of breathing – which, to me, is the most essential characteristic of any poetic text.…All a poet can do is to write the poems he or she is impelled to write – just as nearly all my translations were of work that impelled me for one reason or another, since I was never a professional translator dependent on commissions.”
Impelled to write and impelled to translate, and in both cases searching for the way a work breathes.
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