Ted Hughes, Translation and Ecopoetics

by Terry Gifford

[Originally published in Modern Poetry and Translation, 3: 10, pp. 76-81.]

The co-founder, with Ted Hughes, of Modern Poetry in Translation in 1965, Daniel Weissbort, believes that the role of translation, as ‘an integral part of his own oeuvre, just as the promotion of translation was perceived by him as part of his professional duty as a writer, seems largely to have been ignored’ (2006: viii). Weissbort is currently writing a book on Hughes and translation, but has meanwhile edited Ted Hughes: Selected Translations (2006) which contains not only much unpublished material that spans his lifetime, but appendices giving samples of versions used by Hughes in his practice and the section headed ‘Hughes on translation’, that includes some early editorials from MPT.

Two features that might be thought of as mutually exclusive characterise Hughes’ translations. The first is the way his translations were unmistakably ‘Hughesian’. The second is expressed vividly by the Hungarian poet János Csokits who collaborated with Hughes on the work of Pilinszky and has written about their process in Translating Poetry: The Double Labyrinth edited by Weissbort (1989). Hughes preferred to hear the poetic idiom of the Hungarian and the poet’s personal style in Csokits’ literal renderings into English, however odd and awkward this first text might seem. But Csokits recognised a special quality to Hughes’s reworkings of his originals that he described as ‘X-ray versions’: ‘It was almost as if he could X-ray the literals and see the original poem in ghostly detail like a radiologist viewing the bones, muscles, veins and nerves of a live human body […] The effect is not that of a technical device; it has more to do with extra-sensory perception’ (11). The paradox remains that despite his desire to remain close to the literal versions and retain a sense of their ‘foreignness’, his translations remained strongly Hughesian.

An insight into why this might be is offered by Neil Roberts in his chapter on Hughes as translator in Ted Hughes: A Literary Life (2006). Roberts points out that what Hughes chose to translate, and the manner of his doing so, continued preoccupations that were at the heart of all his work. Central to his whole literary project was an exploration of the connections between human inner nature and the dynamics of the outer natural world. Nowadays this might be called ‘ecopoetry’. Roberts characterises it as ‘a struggle to articulate spiritual experience in a vacuum of religious forms’ and suggests that in his translations Hughes ‘several times enhances the religious sentiment of the text’ (188). One example from Hughes’ Tales from Ovid (1997) indicates a clearly environmentalist agenda. In the Age of Brass, Ovid states that although humans were savage they were ‘non scelerata tamen’ (translated as ‘but not yet impious’ in the Loeb edition Hughes was using as an aid). In Tales from Ovid this Latin phrase becomes six lines beginning, ‘But still/ Mankind listened deeply/ To the harmony of the whole creation’ (10).

It is the failure of our species to ‘listen deeply’ to our environment in our interaction with it that has brought us to the current point of crisis in this relationship. In the growing awareness of this crisis ‘ecopoetry’ has come to displace ‘nature poetry’, the latter being thought of as complacent, escapist, sentimental and anthropocentric. Elsewhere I have discussed the reasons for this dismissal of nature poetry and the contradictions that such over-simplifications can produce (Green Voices, 1995, second edition 2009, 2-4). Scott Bryson’s Ecopoetry: A Critical Introduction (2002) offers three characteristics of ecopoetry: ‘ecocentrism, a humble appreciation of wildness, and a scepticism toward hyperrationality’ (7). Much traditional nature poetry would celebrate these qualities. But a cultural shift in our shared awareness of the current environmental crisis has produced a need for an ecopoetics appropriate to our times. It is to this awareness that Hughes’ translation (and expansion) of Ovid speaks. A recent anthology of ‘ecopoems’, as declared by its subtitle, raises a number of questions about what an appropriate and successful ecopoetics for our times might be and what issues are raised by our evaluation of its products.

Neil Astley’s anthology Earth Shattering (2007) includes some work in translation, from Neruda, Tranströmer, Haugen and Tu Fu for example. (The latter’s ‘Dawn Landscape’ is one of the most profound and moving poems in the book.) It also includes some work by Ted Hughes, including ‘October Dawn’, written before the term ‘ecopoetry’ was in use, and ‘If’ which is about the self-destructiveness of our allowing water pollution. ‘If’ concludes, ‘Already you are your ditch, and there you drink’. This poem is one of the weakest poems Hughes ever wrote because it is simply didactic propaganda. Seamus Heaney has said that poetry’s gift for telling the truth lies in ‘telling it slant’. Hughes admitted to me that when his poetry attempted to deal directly with environmental issues it did not seem to be ‘the real thing’. Indeed, he warned against the temptation for poetry to become ‘righteously embattled’ with the enemy in what he called ‘the Environmental Wars’ (Green Voices, 174). ‘October Dawn’ can now be read as an ‘ecopoem’ in Astley’s section headed ‘Force of Nature’ because it is ‘telling it slant’ as an ironic fantasy of the first signs of a new ice-age. 

But Hughes desperately wanted us to sharpen our awareness of specific scientific evidence of our own self-destructiveness and he occasionally succumbed to the temptation to include the evidence in a poem. Also in Earth Shattering is his poem ‘1984 on “The Tarka Trail”’ in which one line of poetry reads, ‘Three hundredweight of 20-10-10 to the acre’. That’s a line of poetry. The next one is ‘a hundredweight and a half straight Nitram’. Hughes wants the reader to feel the weight and know the data of what is being introduced into the environment, and especially the rivers, by a ‘nature protector’, birdwatcher farmer fertilising his fields. Hughes is aware of his poetic vulnerability to criticism here, but addresses the issue with the reader several lines later:

Now you are as loaded with the data

That cultivates his hopes, in this brief gamble

As this river is –

                                   as he is too.

But although this poem may not be ‘the real thing’, don’t we now need to know the data in our poetry? Don’t we need to adjust our aesthetic in the urgency of our times to allow for the poetics to be informed by the data? So that, for example, ‘cultivates his hopes’ can have its full effect and so that the reader’s feeling of being ‘loaded’ with facts can be transferred first to the river and then, by a specifically poetic device, to the farmer himself? We now know that Hughes was deeply read in the science of river pollution and was an activist on issues of water quality in the Southwest of England, even making a presentation to a public enquiry as part of a long campaign in the 1980s (Gifford, Ted Hughes, Routledge, 2008). And don’t we need the explicit evidence that Hughes is both a passionate and knowledgeable ecopoet? When the Chinese ecocritic Lily Chen seeks to show her audience that Ted Hughes is an ecopoet concerned about water pollution, it is to the poem ‘1984 on “The Tarka Trail”’ to which she turns (Bestiality, Animality and Humanity, 2005, 222). But how good a poem is it?

It is clear that some influential poetry critics, especially in America, feel that the issues ecopoetry raises are not worth engagement. Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff, for example, have both not only ignored ecopoetry, but in Perloff’s case been distinctly unscholarly in their treatment of the poetry of Ted Hughes (Roberts, 91). In the UK Edna Longley has made an interesting transformation from denying that Heaney might be regarded as a green poet, still less a post-pastoral poet, to championing Edward Thomas recently as ‘a pioneering ecological poet’. But Longley’s response to the critical reception of Hughes’ Birthday Letters dared to ask the right question: ‘Is Hughes’s reputation being talked up in some way, and to hell with critical judgement, to hell with poetry?’ (Longley 1998: 30) One is tempted to ask of Astley’s anthology, ‘Is ecopoetry being talked up in some way, and to hell with critical judgement, to hell with poetry?’

The sequence of nine headings for the anthology are interesting, leading from ‘Rooted in nature’, through ‘Changing the landscape’, ‘Killing the wildlife’, ‘Unbalance of nature’, ‘Loss and persistence’,  and ‘The great web’ to ‘Exploitation’, ‘Force of nature’ to finally ‘Natural Disasters’ which include nuclear ones. ‘Earth Shattering ends with planetary catastrophe and Eco-Armageddon’, says Astley unapologetically. The anthology intends, he says, ‘to alert and alarm’. This is an interventionist anthology: ‘anyone whose resolve is stirred will strengthen the collective call for change.’ Earth Shattering includes critical extracts from debates about ecopoetry and therefore provides the site for a crucial debate about what ecopoetics could and should be.

So this anthology has raised for me the following questions to which some answers will be found within this edition of MPT:

  1. Do we need a new kind of poetry for our times?
  2. Is interventionist poetry a contradiction in terms?
  3. Should ecopoetry be positioned as ecopolitics?
  4. Should ecopoetry be focussing on an ‘alert and alarm’, or on sustainable ecotopias, or ways of getting there – the portentous, or the possible, or the practical?
  5. What makes good ecopoetry?
  6. In what exemplars do we recognise it?
  7. What are the weaknesses we are wary of anyway?
  8. Does artistic quality of writing have to be compromised to accommodate urgently needed data such as scientific content?
  9. For example, can percentages ever be used in poetry successfully?
  10. Do we need a new aesthetics, as our criteria for the judging quality of ecopoetry is changed by the urgency of our current needs?
Related Publication
Ted Hughes: Selected Translations (Cover)

Selected Translations, Faber & Faber 2006, was selected and edited by Ted Hughes's Cambridge friend Daniel Weissbort. It opens a door into a part of Hughes's oeuvre that readers and researchers rarely look into ... [more].

Related Publication
Terry Gifford: Ted Hughes

Terry Gifford: Ted Hughes, Routledge, 2009 [more].

About the Author
Terry Gifford

Terry Gifford is co-author (with Neil Roberts) of Ted Hughes. A Critical Study (1981), and author of Ted Hughes (2009). He is a regular contributor to this site, including several essays.