Sunday, March 04, 2018

Penguin Poets in Translation



Harry Thomas, ed. Montale in English (2005)


We were in town on Thursday for the opening of Graham Fletcher's survey exhibition at the Gus Fisher gallery (which I greatly recommend for anyone who admires his wonderful "Lounge Room Tribalism" paintings). We had a bit of time to kill, which almost always means a visit to Jason Books in O'Connell Street. There I found this beautiful anthology of English translations of Eugenio Montale.
Thomas, Harry, ed. Montale in English. 2002. Handsel Books. New York: Other Press, 2005.

One of the most interesting things about it (from my point of view, at any rate) was that - although it had been put out by an American publishers - it was clearly intended for the 'Poets in Translation' series which Penguin were publishing around the turn of the millennium. In fact, the '2002' date above denotes an earlier UK publication which appears to have left few traces on the internet, at any rate.

There are two reasons for my being so pleased with this book. The first is that I do vaguely recall my friend Marco Sonzogni in Wellington mentioning that the reason he couldn't call his own anthology of English translations of Montale (which I'm included in) "Montale in English" was that there was already a book of that title. I hadn't actually seen a copy before, however.




Corno inglese. An Anthology of Eugenio Montale's Poetry in English Translation. Edited by Marco Sonzogni. ISBN-13: 978-88-7536-203-4. (Novi Ligure: Edizioni Joker, 2009)


Marco Sonzogni, ed. Corno Inglese (2009)


The second reason is because I'm always on the lookout for stray copies of Penguin Poets in Translation. There was a final volume of "Rilke in Translation" promised (to be edited by poet / translator Michael Hofmann), but this doesn't seem to have ever appeared. Who knows, though? I don't despair of finding it someday, lurking at the back of some shadowy shelf - perhaps alongside other volumes I know nothing about.

The brilliance of the concept for this series - surveying the entire history of English translations of certain representative poets who have exercised a huge influence over our poetry - was so striking that it's hard for me to believe that they can have sold poorly. The fact that they're so difficult to obtain might imply either that all of them were snapped up the moment they appeared, or that only small numbers of each title were produced. I don't know. All I know is that I lament their passing, and (especially) that the series was not continued.

Here are the volumes I know about: mostly classical Greek and Roman poets, with one Frenchman (Baudelaire), two Italians (Dante and Petrarch), and the Hebrew Psalms to vary the pattern. Why not Ronsard, though? or Mallarmé? Rimbaud, too, could easily flesh out such a volume. And then the great Russians: Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, Pasternak and Tsvetayeva could easily have been featured, too.

Never mind. I guess not everyone is as keen on the subject of verse translation as I am. It is a hugely important part of poetic practice in English, though, and there's no better way of focussing a discussion of it than can be found in this beautiful series of books:


  1. Homer in English, ed. George Steiner & Aminadav Dykman (1996)

  2. Horace in English, ed. D. S. Carne-Ross & Kenneth Haynes (1996)

  3. Martial in English, ed. John P. Sullivan & Anthony J. Boyle (1996)

  4. The Psalms in English, ed. Donald Davie (1996)

  5. Virgil in English, ed. K. W. Gransden (1996)

  6. Baudelaire in English, ed. Carol Clark & Robert Sykes (1998)

  7. Ovid in English, ed. Christopher Martin (1998)

  8. Seneca in English, ed. Don Share (1998)

  9. Catullus in English, ed. Julia Haig Gaisser (2001)

  10. Juvenal in English, ed. Martin M. Winkler (2001)

  11. Dante in English, ed. Eric Griffiths & Matthew Reynolds (2005)

  12. Petrarch in English, ed. Thomas P. Roche (2005)


Mind you, there are plenty of other books going under the title of "Penguin Poetry in Translation" or "poets in translation." There was another excellent series years ago of poetry anthologies in the original languages with literal prose translations underneath:


  1. Woledge, Brian, ed. The Penguin Book of French Verse, 1 – To the Fifteenth Century: With Plain Prose Translations of Each Poem. 1961. The Penguin Poets. Ed. J. M. Cohen. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.

  2. Brereton, Geoffrey, ed. The Penguin Book of French Verse, 2 – Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries: With Plain Prose Translations of Each Poem. The Penguin Poets. Ed. J. M. Cohen. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958.

  3. Hartley, Anthony, ed. The Penguin Book of French Verse, 3 – The Nineteenth Century: With Plain Prose Translations of Each Poem. The Penguin Poets. Ed. J. M. Cohen. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957.

  4. Hartley, Anthony, ed. The Penguin Book of French Verse, 4 – The Twentieth Century: With Plain Prose Translations of Each Poem. 1959. The Penguin Poets. Ed. J. M. Cohen. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.

  5. Forster, Leonard, ed. The Penguin Book of German Verse, with Plain Prose Translations of Each Poem. The Penguin Poets. 1957. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959.

  6. Bridgwater, Patrick, ed. Twentieth-Century German Verse, with Plain Prose Translations of Each Poem. The Penguin Poets. 1957. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963.

  7. Trypanis, Constantine A., ed. The Penguin Book of Greek Verse: With Plain Prose Translations of Every Poem. The Penguin Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.

  8. Kay, George R., ed. The Penguin Book of Italian Verse: With Plain Prose Translations of Each Poem. 1958. The Penguin Poets. Ed. J. M. Cohen. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960.

  9. Brittain, Frederick, ed. The Penguin Book of Latin Verse: With Plain Prose translations of Each Poem. The Penguin Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962.

  10. Obolensky, Dmitri, ed. The Penguin Book of Russian Verse: With Plain Prose translations of Each Poem. 1962. Rev. ed. 1965. The Penguin Poets, D57. Ed. J. M. Cohen. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.

  11. Cohen, J. M., ed. The Penguin Book of Spanish Verse: With Plain Prose Translations of Each Poem. 1956. The Penguin Poets. Ed. J. M. Cohen. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960.

  12. Caracciolo-Trejo, Enrique, ed. The Penguin Book of Latin American Verse: With Plain Prose Translations of Each Poem. Introduction by Henry Gifford. The Penguin Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.



There were others in this series, also: Books of Chinese and Japanese Verse, and other poetry anthologies from other places, but these are the only ones I'm aware of which used this very, very useful convention of combining the original with the 'plain prose translations.' I for one have to admit to having used them extensively. The really exciting innovation was when they started putting out individual volumes for the truly great, canonical poets in each language, though:


  1. Baudelaire, Charles. Selected Poems: With Plain Prose Translations of Each Poem. Trans. Francis Scarfe. The Penguin Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961.

  2. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Selected Verse: With Plain Prose Translations of Each Poem. Ed. David Luke. The Penguin Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.

  3. Heine, Heinrich. Selected Verse: With Plain Prose Translations of Each Poem. Ed. Peter Branscombe. The Penguin Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.

  4. Hölderlin, Johann Christian Friedrich. Selected Verse: With Plain Prose Translations of Each Poem. Trans. Michael Hamburger. The Penguin Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961.

  5. Lorca, Federico García. Lorca: With Plain Prose Translations of Each Poem. Trans. J. L. Gili. 1960. The Penguin Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967.

  6. Mallarmé, Stéphane. Mallarmé: With Plain Prose Translations. Ed. Anthony Hartley. 1965. The Penguin Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

  7. Pushkin. Selected Verse: With Plain Prose translations of Each Poem. Ed. John Fennell. The Penguin Poets, D71. Ed. J. M. Cohen. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.

  8. Rimbaud, Arthur. Collected Poems: With Plain Prose Translations of Each Poem. Ed. & trans. Oliver Bernard. 1962. The Penguin Poets. Ed. J. M. Cohen. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969.



There may well have been more of these. The ones listed above are those I've come across myself. They don't use their usefulness over time, though. Other translations have a tendency to date, but these ones are purely functional, so my only complaint is that there weren't more of them!

1 comment:

Richard said...

I have some of those Penguins including the Baudelaire. I have a lot of the other poets in various translations. I was reading some Horace and Catullus the other night. I also love Baudelaire. I find it hard to read Rimbaud but Baudelaire is wonderful. Catullus is good of course, as is Martial. I have most of those poets but not necessarily in those editions. I have a complete of Holderlein trans. by Baumgartner. I struggled to read him. Apparently his work inspired John Ashbery when he was young. (Interview on YouTube). Interesting as always Jack!