Patrick Williamson










The benchmark is always whether the translation can “work” as a poem that engages the reader, as if it was written as an original in the target language. Translation involves transferring “what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written” to the host language[1].

Translating reflects my own background in terms of culture, knowledge and prejudices so I have to free the work from obstacles that are a function of language or cultural tradition, which is not always easy. I also have to allow my sub-conscious to work freely on the text in hand, and often put my work to one side and come back to it later with a fresh eye.

I endeavour to remain faithful to the poet’s intention but inherently apply my own sensibility and poetic style. Once I have written the first draft, I spend time checking, and selecting ‘the right word’. Each time, like answers to crossword clues, I suddenly know that one particular word has to be used. Instinctively it fits. Exact yes but not literal. However, decisions also have to be made sometimes as to which meaning of wordplay can be retained, and research carried out on the background to the author or the work. The aim, as in my own work, is to make it tight, sparse, and oral in nature. I try to bring out the music in the poet’s work, through alliteration, line lengths, ‘gaps’, rhyme even, if serves the purpose of getting the meaning across to the reader. As mentioned by Yves Bonnefoy “If a translation that is concerned with its poetic articulation is also a good, powerful rendering […] it’s sure to have its readers and its audience.”[2]

I increasingly think that the more widely a translator and an author is confronted with other languages, the more informed his or her work as a translator becomes. Cross-cutting with linguistic regions is important. Poetry is a question of meeting rather than erecting boundaries, aside from cultural differences, between peoples from around the world.

I like the variety and the challenge of translating and successfully writing a poem in English. I am particularly satisfied with my translations from Italian, albeit helped by my Italian translator Guido Cupani, notably Erri de Luca’s Mare nostro/Our Sea. The fact that I could recite the latter from memory, which is rare for me, showed that the translation ‘worked’.

Discussing with my translators, into French, Italian, etc., and my own translation has had a cross-pollination effect and enabled me to hone my skills. I have never been able to translate poetry as a profession, but I have been working as a full-time financial translator for many years now. This interaction between the “real” working world and the poetry sphere has stimulated my work as a literary translator to an extent. But the balance has to be got right. The former provides me with structure, but ultimately leaves me with less time to write. I find I am more and more selective in my literary translating work.





[2] An interview with Yves Bonnefoy from Shakespeare and the French Poet. Edited by John Naughton








Patrick Williamson, a British poet and translator, who lives in France. I also work with music and filmpoems (Afterwords, set to music by Mauro Coceano). My work is increasingly focused on Italy, where I have published two collections Beneficato(English-Italian, Samuele Editore, Pordenone, 2015), and Nel Santuario (Samuele Editore, 2013; Menzione Speciale della Giuria in the XV Concorso Guido Gozzano in 2014). Editor and translator of The Parley Tree, An Anthology of Poets from French-speaking Africa and the Arab World (Arc Publications, 2012). Recent and ongoing translations of poetry by Italian writers Guido Cupani and Erri de Luca.



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