Never will a writer be read more closely than by his or her translator. The best translators seem to have an extra ear - indeed have to have an extra ear - for the literary dimensions and possibilities of their own language. The response to poetry is in us all but it takes an extra talent to turn response to invention, to hear and speak echo in a fresh voice. It certainly helps to have a proper poet's ear for what is telling, but translation can draw the poet out of someone who may not have realised the poet in themselves.
Questions of fidelity to the original are supposedly at the core of the matter. The difficulty is deciding what it is one should be faithful to. A poem is a complex whole made up of many elements, not one of which has an exact equivalent in another language. It is language at maximum capacity within the language. There are, it is true, poems, that can activate elements of a rudimentary code involving object and action rather than circumstance, that lie beyond this or that specific language; poems that link, or at least hope to link, to primal experience of some sort. The poems of Vasko Popa may be a case in point. But such poems are rare. In the normal run of poems, from the greatest to the most minor, the elements at play are so harmonised, so interdependent, that translating them is a very tall order. We hope for recognition, for some ideal combination of surface and depth fidelities. We make do with those.
But reading translations of poems is not very different from simply reading poems. Reading a translation from a poet we don't know is like reading an entirely new poem, and we are or are not captivated by it. If it isn't a poem we seem to be reading, the chances are the translator has missed something. The poem in the receiving language has to make itself a poetic space so that, while undoubtedly not of it, it is nevertheless in it.
Living translations exist not as single true interpretations, but as echoes. The voice is elsewhere but the echo enters our ears, a whole series of echoes; echo on echo on echo. We hear echo as voice: it has become a set of live reverberations, an echo-voice.
Sometimes these reverberations become part of the receiving language and turn, through various modifications and modulations, into independent native voice: so there are poems by Catullus that have become parts of English poems and lines from Baudelaire that have entered - and could enter again, at any time - the tonal balance of a poem in German or English or Spanish. The best, most intriguing, poems invite retranslation several times over, so they become as familiar to us as some of our own poems, like voices off-stage singing with the choir.
Echoes and choirs are metaphors of a fairly universal kind, but the truth about poems is seldom other than metaphorical. We must imagine translators of poetry straining their ears to hear the metaphor inside the metaphor while carefully watching the words and running their hands over the form and texture of the original. Catching the metaphor inside the metaphor is, to change metaphors again - because metaphors are protean - like trying to catch electricity. You feel the charge. A voice has been brought into being. It does not move like Frankenstein's monster. It seems to move naturally, is properly fleshed, and even seems to have a heart. And it is born out of transformations like this.
George Szirtes's New and Collected Poems (2008) was poetry book of the year in the Independent. The Burning of the Books and Other Poems (2009) was short-listed for the T S Eliot Prize, which he had won earlier with Reel (2004). He has been a judge of the Stephen Spender Translation Prize for the last two years.