Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.09.33

Matthew Reynolds, The Poetry of Translation: from Chaucer and Petrarch to Homer and Logue.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011.  Pp. x, 374.  ISBN 9780199605712.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Victoria Moul, King’s College London (


Reynolds’ wide-ranging and very readable monograph is concerned principally with literary translation in English— including translation of the Bible and from poetry in French, German and Italian as well as Latin and Greek. It is not primarily a book about translations of the classics, but extended and interlinked discussions of several major English literary versions and translations, including Dryden’s Aeneid, Pope’s Iliad, Logue’s Homer and Golding’s Metamorphoses, nevertheless make it of interest to classicists working or teaching on topics in translation and literary reception.

The book has a slightly unusual and on the whole effective structure, made up of twenty-five short chapters, some only a few pages long, the latter eighteen of which are essentially case studies. The book is further divided into five parts: an initial section of seven more theoretical chapters on translation and metaphor, while the remaining parts gather together between three and six chapters in clusters according to the guiding metaphors for translation that Reynolds has identified in the works under discussion. These include translation as ‘interpretation’, ‘paraphrase’ and ‘opening’ (various authors, but dominated by Dryden); translation as ‘friendship’, ‘desire’ and ‘passion’ (a much wider variety of authors from Wyatt to Swinburne, all treated more briefly); translation and the ‘landscape of the past’ (a section founded in Pope, but going on to consider various later poets including Tennyson, Pound, Logue and Heaney) and finally translation as ‘loss’, ‘death’, ‘resurrection’ and ‘metamorphosis’ (more focused discussions of Pound, FitzGerald and Golding).

Reynolds’ book has much to recommend it. He writes clearly, and the opening chapters offer friendly and careful negotiations of a fairly complex range of theoretical positions, accessibly introduced. Scholars familiar with translation theory will not find new insights here, but the clarity and concision of these chapters would make them useful set readings for seminar groups. As the book continues, the progressive teasing out of the varied metaphors of translation is rich and well-handled, and Reynolds is a fine close reader of English poetry. The book is concerned with translation rather than imitation or other modes of intertextuality, but his extensive knowledge of English verse and sensitive ear produce many compelling observations: he notes, for instance, traces of Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ in Muldoon’s translation of a poem by Montale, and argues persuasively that the link here to English poetic tradition responds to an echo of Dante in the Italian.

The book is at its best in the cumulative force of its discussions of those authors to which Reynolds returns several times, often under more than one metaphorical heading. The richest of these is certainly the treatment of Dryden— including his translations of Theocritus and Ovid as well as Virgil—followed by the discussion of Pope. In that sense this is a very traditional book, founded on and returning to those paradigmatic English translations of classical literature. But the work is studded with sensitive and persuasive readings of a much wider range of interactions, including several other extended considerations of classical translations, such as Pound’s versions of Propertius and Golding’s of Ovid.

The Poetry of Translation is more, however, than a series of telling, and sometimes interlinked, case studies of poetic translation. Reynolds is arguing for a critical category—what he means by ‘the poetry of translation’—which emerges as a rarer and more specific phenomenon than simply that of poetry in translation, however successful. His focus is upon those authors in which he discerns a close creative connection between the theory and the practice of poetic translation: between the author’s dominating metaphor of translation (such as ‘opening’, ‘desire’ or ‘transformation’) and the details of the translation itself. He summarises the idea on p. 304 of the book under review: ‘All translations are guided by metaphors; to grasp these metaphors is to abandon the old binaries of ‘free’, ‘literal’, etc. But only in some translations do the metaphors of translation interact with doubles in the source text in such a way that the poetry of translation flowers.’

Works of this sort, according to Reynolds, are more than translations in verse: they are poems in which the act of translation, the metaphorical terms in which it is understood and an awareness of the text’s status as a translation are all central to the peculiar power of the final work. Dryden’s sense of the ‘secrecy’ of Virgil, for instance, and the conflicting desire to ‘open’ and not to open the text with translation and interpretation becomes a central element in Dryden’s Aeneid and in his characterization of Aeneas himself. Similarly, Pound’s conception of translation as a ‘bringing to life’ gains added resonance in his translation of Propertius because of his sense of the thematic centrality of death to Propertius’ elegies. This subset of translations then—these poems of translation—are ones in which a translator’s interpretation of a text, and his understanding of what is involved in translation itself are brought together in the practice of translation.

Reynolds’ analysis of this particular relationship among source text, translating author and poetic translation is on the whole convincing, although he admits to the limitations of his project: he does not consider prose or dramatic translations, and most of the classical poetry under discussion is essentially narrative in form. Readers may be prompted to think through the implications of his interpretation for classical versions in other genres, and for translation of different kinds. Well-known and influential dramatic translations, for instance, include texts (such as Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage and Jonson’s Poetaster and Sejanus) which transform non-dramatic classical texts, both prose and verse, into English drama.

Reynolds does much to elucidate the relationship between the received wisdom about a text and the metaphors for translation that are applied to it. For instance, Virgil is hard to translate because he is ‘so very sparing of his words’ (Dryden, quoted on p. 100), and this ‘difficulty’ is tacitly endorsed by the early modern commentary practice of offering simplified Latin paraphrases of key lines—a kind of initial stage of translation. Readers concerned with the reception and translation of many classical lyric poets, such as Horace and Pindar, will be familiar with these tropes of ‘difficulty’ or ‘obscurity’. Reynolds does not discuss versions of these poets, but his suggested category of translations in which such tropes about the accessibility of the source text are integral to the poetic effect of the translation has an obvious relevance to studies of, say, Cowley and Hölderlin or indeed modernist poets such as Robert Duncan.

In short, although not intended primarily for classicists, The Poetry of Translation has much to offer those teaching or working on English literary reception of classical literature, especially of Latin poetry (Reynolds does quote from Greek as well as Latin, but less often and at much less length). The short chapters built around case studies and the accessible handling of theoretical questions in the opening section make the volume useful for extracting readings for seminar discussion. There has already been a good deal of excellent work on the translations of Dryden and Pope in recent years, but the scope and varied juxtapositions of Reynolds’ book are a boon, facilitating comparative discussions of, for instance, the translation strategies of Pope, Pound and Logue. Finally, the suggested critical category, the poetry of translation, invites further thought about the relationship between the critical and cultural role of a given text at various periods, and the sorts of translation to which it gives rise—a relationship ultimately as important to Virgil’s transformation of Homer, or Lucan’s of Virgil, as it is to Dryden and Pope.

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