Arts: Lost in translation

Michael Hamburger's huge contribution to our knowledge of German literature - including a new translation of the verse of Gunter Grass - has obscured his own poetic reputation.

This is the story of a literary life, translated from the German. In 1933, the year of Hitler's accession to power, a nine-year-old German boy called Michael Hamburger, one of four children from a prosperous, upper- middle-class Jewish family, left Berlin for Edinburgh with his parents and siblings, to escape from the possibility of persecution and death. Little by little, the boy became an Englishman. He went to prep school, Westminster public school, and Oxford. He served as a humble private among working-class squaddies in the British Army - his father had received the Iron Cross for distinguished service in the German Army.

After the war, Hamburger, a dreamy, introspective, book-saturated youth, pursued a peripatetic literary life, teaching in universities, writing poems, essays, works of literary criticism. He also became the best, and best known, translator of German poetry into English of the post-war years, tackling some of the most daunting texts imaginable - the works of the 19th-century schizophrenic poet Friedrich Holderlin, for example, and the poems of Paul Celan, whose intensely private and tortured holocaust- haunted lyrics are some of the hardest peaks that any translator might ever be tempted to scale. Almost untranslatable, you might think - except by someone like Hamburger, who has devoted years of his life, on and off, to doggedly unpicking their monstrously tangled threads.

Hamburger is both proud to have served as a conduit for the great German- speaking writers he has translated, and also intensely irritated when yet another critic describes him, in print, as "best known as a translator from the German ..." In fact, he squirms in his carver as I mention the fact to him.

We are sitting, facing each other, in the study of his long, rambling patchwork of a house - part Tudor, part 17th century, part 1920s - just outside a village in East Suffolk. It is early afternoon. The light is bleached out, watery, already failing. He has just come in from the lane, having dealt with a steaming heap of horse manure. Just perfect for the grapevine, he'd said to his wife as he worked away with his shovel.

Now a cat is sleeping, idly post-prandial, on the window seat, beside a new edition of The Truth of Poetry and many others of his books, all leaning sideways as if a little weary too. Beyond the bay window is his garden and orchard, all three- and-a-half acres of it, teeming with plum, mulberry, yew, alder, and, his great pride and joy, a collection of rare species of apple tree, including two that came from Ted Hughes's garden in Devon - Devonshire Quarrenden, he tells me later, a dark red, almost purple apple. The pond, alas, has no fish in it. The heron saw to that.

"The thing is," he rasps at me - he will be 75 in March, and, though a little deaf now, manual work keeps him quick and sprightly when he moves about, bounding over tussocky grass, or zipping from room to room in search of books to prove a point or illustrate an argument - "they use all this talk about me as a translator as an excuse for not reading my own poems properly, and also as a way of disparaging them. It doesn't make any difference what I'm better known for. The fact is that I've been writing my own poems since I was 14 or 15, and for me, it's my main activity. Translating is a skill, something which I can practise the whole time, whereas I can't write poems the whole time." It's a hectoring tone of voice, a voice accustomed to fighting its corner. His fiercely disciplined hair sweeps straight back from his forehead.

A skill? Merely a skill? I query. Had it not in fact been a lifelong compulsion? (He started translating Holderlin as a schoolboy, at the age of 16, and has continued to revise his own versions over a period of 60 years ...) And, what is more, hadn't it held him back, and perhaps even frustrated him, as a poet in his own right, the fact that he had had all these other voices clamouring for attention, and for imaginative space, inside his own head?

"No, not at all," he insisted. "I have separated it entirely from my own writing. To me it is, and always has been, a kind of service. It may have been a very strong psychological need though, as you say - which is now less strong than it was when I was young. And perhaps that was to do with the fact that I myself had been translated from one culture to another ..."

Suddenly, he glances down.

"Hello, puss ..." He looks up at me again, as does the cat. "The family call her Cinnamon, but I just call her Pussy." He is careful to give that word two quite distinct syllables. "I don't give cats names." The cat, mildly disturbed - if not affronted - by this excess of attention, bolts.

This month sees the publication of Michael Hamburger's translations of the selected poems of his old friend Gunter Grass - the very last project of this kind, he tells me. When he was younger, he felt that he had a kind of continuing responsibility for German literature, to translate it and to write about it. Not any more, though. He has translated all the poets he wanted to translate. Now his mental space is entirely his own. I notice an etching by Grass hanging on the wall - are those flounders moving in profile? They are almost too elusive to identify in the dying light of this room.

What is the one thing that all these German-language writers have in common? I ask him. In what exactly does the Germanness of German writing consist? He's completely stumped by the question at first. He doesn't want to generalise. He taps at the arm of his chair with a thick, horny fingernail. Then finally he begins to hazard a guess.

"Well, they've always been found extremely strange by English readers - even when they were first discovered by the Coleridge and Wordsworth generation, and then, a little later, by Carlyle. And this strangeness has to do with their introspectiveness, I think. They were alienated from society to a much greater extent than their English counterparts. And they invented, of course, that strange thing called the Bildungsroman, which was supposed to trace the integration of an individual into society - as though society and the individual were two entirely different things, and you had to make a great effort to integrate yourself into it!" He gives a quick and harsh laugh. "Whereas everybody in England always felt themselves to be a member of society, however much they may have disliked certain aspects of it, or criticised it, or been in revolt against it."

I wonder how much this applies to Michael Hamburger himself? Is he inside now - or outside? Perhaps a little of both. Perhaps that is part of the challenge - and part of the affliction - of bilingualism, and of being translated as a child.

Then, our formal discussion over, we walk from room to room of this warren of a house, so fascinating and so strangely beautiful in its decrepitude, climbing up a narrow, dimly lit staircase so that I can inspect the ship's timbers from which the beams of one of the tudor cottages were fashioned; staring at the foot-wide floorboards of a 17th-century room. "Oak," says Michael Hamburger, tapping at it with the point of his sturdy shoe. "It's such a marvellous wood. It goes on forever." Wood as the final guarantor of cultural continuity in a disposable age.

There are books, books, heaps of envelopes, files of letters, here, there, everywhere. And, beneath the shelves of books, there are sometimes shelves of apples. Just look at all this!" he says. "Terrible! Terrible!" This can't be quite true though. This rummage of things represents a life of thought, argument, contention.

I ask him about his pattern of work. He's up at 7.30am in the winter months, earlier still in the summer. If there's a poem underway, he'll work on it. If there's not, it's a matter of dealing with his voluminous correspondence. He writes replies to letters on the day that they're delivered, getting them back into the post-box before the postman's had time to empty it.

Was TS Eliot right? I ask him before I brush past five or six stout walking sticks on my way out of the door. Is the literary life a mug's game? "I can't say," he replies. "That is actually what it's all about: you can never be sure ..."

Michael Hamburger's translation of Gunter Grass's `Selected Poems 1956 to 1993' is published on 15 February by Faber, pounds 9.99; Hamburger's `Collected Poems' was recently published in paperback by Anvil Press, pounds 12.95

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