The first issue, ‘Modern Poetry in Translation No. 1’, was published in 1965, at the height of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall was built at the beginning of the sixties and the Cuban Missile crisis took place only three years before the magazine was founded. Three years after the publication of the first issue the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia returned Europe to an unnerving state of stand-off. The geopolitical context was particular and needs to be mentioned because it shaped the magazine from the start: in the very first editorial, co-editors Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort admitted that the poems which they had felt compelled to publish came from the ‘centre of cataclysm’, from those areas most touched by repressive Soviet policy and regional conflict and instability: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Israel and Yugoslavia. The magazine included some of the poets who would go on to the superstars of international poetry: Holub, Popa, Herbert, Amichai, all poets who wrote unequivocally about contemporary and historical politics. It’s modest broadsheet format and functional typescript, the delicate airmail paper, belied the gravity of some of the work being brought to a new readership.
The design of those early issues of MPT was not incidental. Despite its apparent functionality MPT had and has a great sense of typographical design. The designer of MPT was Richard Hollis, whose work also includes Berger’s Ways of Seeing, and he remembered the early issues as painstaking labours of love with paste-ups and printing machines. The broadsheet format emphasised the ‘newsworthy-ness’ and popular nature of the poetry and it was Hughes’s particular stipulation that the magazine be printed on airmail paper. He had a wonderful lunatic idea that the magazine would be posted out to all the poets in all the countries of the world. The unabashed grandness of his scheme gives some sense of the importance Hughes placed on the availability of translated poetry. MPT wasn’t a vanity project or an aesthetic endeavour, but an answer to something vital. He felt that the poetry published in MPT had huge importance for English-language poetry because it dealt better with political realities that had something to teach us. In the editorial to Issue 5, published just after the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia, he and Weissbort wrote: ‘Much of the poetry from Eastern and Central Europe displays a quality which it is perhaps impossible for English and American poetry to possess – that of political knowledge become direct poetic knowledge, not as in the case of our own politically inclined poets, the angry or angered voice, which is not primarily the voice of the writer’s own poetic vision but a relatively superficial expression of his enthusiasms or disgusts.’
Whether or not we agree with the editors’ analysis (and Seamus Heaney says something very similar in his essay ‘The Impact of Translation’ in which he talks about the ‘locus of greatness’ shifting, in effect, further East), we can feel the urgency: practising poets here wanted to know this work and be stimulated by it, they felt it to be persuasive in a way English-language poetry was not. In the first instance this was Hughes himself. Although monolingual, he began engaging with poetry in translation at the beginning of the sixties, and worked on a number of translations with the help of native speakers. Poet and academic Tara Bergin has written on how that practice shaped his own poetics. One particularly good example of the moment of ‘ignition’ is the Hughes version of Ferenc Juhász’s poem ‘The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets’, which dates from the sixties, although it was published only posthumously (and can be read in the Centres of Cataclysm MPT anthology published by Bloodaxe). Hughes, according to Weissbort, read the Kenneth McRobbie translation of this long and majestic Hungarian poem and then simply went off and did his own virtuosic version. As Weissbort writes, this version has intimations of his later involvement with Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It is the perfect example of translation lighting the fuse of poetic creativity.
Hughes later said of the first issue of the magazine that ‘…it seemed easier to let the magazine take off than to keep it grounded. The sheer pressure of material forced the issue.’ It was not just Hughes who found work in translation essential for its vitamin-giving properties. Important work from many languages, notably from Hebrew, Russian, Hungarian, Czech, Polish and German was being translated for the first time by poets and by translators of poetry in America and Britain. Although it was a period of conflict, it was also a period of hope, of protest and opposition, and an end to ‘the isolationism of the fifties’ as Ted Hughes put it. In his emphatic and enthusiastic way he describes the period as a ‘decade that became in many ways a poetic image simply for youth’. And youth came with vigour and renewed possibilities for international relationships, and translation was the conduit and the life-spirit of all this.
It was in some ways a period very like our own: those growing up in the sixties knew unpredictable world leaders and worrying geopolitics, a pervasive sense of uncertainty and helplessness, and the small fires of proxy wars springing up across the globe. The recent world war and huge migrations of peoples across Europe cast a long shadow over the decade.
Now once again translation and reading poetry from other places feels like a small political act in America and Western Europe. The prevailing atmosphere of anti-liberal, xenophobic suspicion makes a sizeable number of us want to read in solidarity, read to oppose, read to forget the narrow-mindedness of national aspiration. Once again Modern Poetry in Translation feels urgent and necessary to our sense of poetry and what it can achieve.
Centres of Cataclysm: Celebrating 50 Years of Modern Poetry in Translation is available now from Bloodaxe Books.
Sasha Dugdale is a poet, translator and editor. She has published three collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Red House (Carcanet, 2011). Her long poem ‘Joy’ won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2016. She translates poetry and plays from Russian and has worked with theatres across the UK and US on new productions of contemporary Russian plays. She is currently working on translations of Maria Stepanova’s poems for publication in the UK. Sasha is editor of Modern Poetry in Translation and co-editor of the international anthology Centres of Cataclysm (Bloodaxe, 2016).