OBITUARY : Gilbert Bowen

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The Independent Online
Adolescence is when the embryonic poet usually manifests him or herself. Then the gift is either totally lost, or matures and becomes established by the time the writer is in his or her twenties or early thirties. So it is a rare thing to discover the jewel within oneself as late as the seventh decade, which is when the poet and translator Gilbert Bowen first started writing and was published, having never produced a line of poetry in his life before then.

Bowen's first book of translated poems by one of the century's most important and best-loved poets, Paul Eluard Selected Poems, was submitted to John Calder and published by him in 1987 when Bowen was 73 years old. His second book of Eluard translations, Paul Eluard Unbroken Poetry II, was publish-ed by Bloodaxe earlier this year.

After leaving school, Bowen, already fluent in French, became a member of the foreign sales department of John Oakey and Sons, who made abrasives. He served with distinction as an interpreter in the Second World War in France and Germany, which is where he met his wife-to-be, Charlotte.

After the war he entered the employ of the Moscow Narodny Bank (the Russian trading bank in England) and remained there as Personnel Manager until his retirement. It was then that Bowen discovered he had the gift of poetry.

During the nine years between the publication of his two books of translations he also wrote original verse and translations of work by Jacques Prevert and writers from Francophone Africa.

The poet-translator is not simply a translator. He has to convey in words the kernel of the poet's meaning so that the result is a poem in itself. As Bowen remarked in a short lecture at a conference last June to mark the centenary of Eluard's birth and the publication of Unbroken Poetry II (which came later): "so much of the lyrical value of a poem in its original language resides in the colour and perfume of the words. Perhaps the best we can say about a well translated poem is that it is a new poem inspired by its original after appreciation and interpretation by a new personality."

Gilbert Bowen achieved this most taxing of tasks, particularly in regard to Unbroken Poetry II, a selection of Eluard's later and often quite surrealist work, to an extraordinary degree.

Bowen seldom spoke about himself and his literary achievements, and was therefore known in the West London "village" where he lived simply as a quiet and gentle man.

Carol Spero

Gilbert Bowen, translator: born London 6 January 1914; married 1946 Charlotte Rudekil (died 1989, one daughter); died London 21 April 1996.

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