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Modern Poetry in Translation in the Sixties and since.


This exhibition has been co-curated by Modern Poetry in Translation and Tessa Shaw, Reader Services Librarian. An event to complement the exhibiton will be taking place on 5th March, 2018 in the Shulman Auditorium at The Queen's College. Details of the event can be found here.

Opening the Frontiers. Modern Poetry in Translation in the Sixties and since.

Ted Hughes located the enthusiasm for translation, out of which MPT was born, fully in the midst of the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll of the Sixties. As Larkin – a gloomier spokesman – said: ‘Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three … Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.’ But that upsurge of revolutionary energy was itself to be understood as a Blakeian ‘contrary’ to the deathly legacy of two world wars, the genocides and the division of Europe by the Iron Curtain. To Hughes and Daniel Weissbort translation seemed – and proved itself to be – a force against frontiers, a welcoming in of the foreign, for the host and the guest a blessing.

Across Europe, revolutionary spirit could be found. The GDR authorities began building the Berlin Wall on Sunday morning 13 August 1961. The photos below, on the western side, are a defiance of sorts in their images of the children playing by the Wall and the adults writing on it. The Stalin Monument in Budapest, erected in December 1951 as a gift to Stalin from the Hungarian people on his 70th birthday, is shown below being demolished by them in the uprising 23 October 1956. Czechoslovakia, the Prague Spring, began in January and was crushed Soviet forces in August 1968. The photo below shows a Prague citizen waving the Czech flag on a Soviet tank. 

Image credits:
Berlin Wall: Zimmerstrasse, Berlin. Fortepan/Urban Tamas 1988. 
Stalin Monument:
Prague Spring: Koudelka, J. 1968. Prague. February 2018.
Centres of Cataclysm – the book. Celebrating 50 years of Modern Poetry in Translation

Published in 2016, Centres of Cataclysm celebrates fifty years of MPT. Few poetry magazines last so long. That MPT has, proves the need for it; the need understood and answered by Hughes and Weissbort at the outset. All but one of the poets published in the first issue were from Eastern Europe, the region, as the Editors said, ‘at the centre of the cataclysm’.

Selected extracts from Ted Hughes’s Preface to MPT. 1983.

In 1983, looking back on the foundation of MPT, Ted Hughes spoke of ‘the tidal wave of poetry translation in the early Sixties’ on which, he says, the magazine came into being. There was no need to search out contributors, they came flooding in of their own accord.  In Hughes’s words ‘it seemed easier to let the Magazine take off than to keep it grounded. The sheer pressure of material forced the issue.’ 

From the start the translating and publication of poetry was understood as a free exchange, benefiting both parties. MPT would be ‘something like an airport … an agency for discovering new foreign poets, and new translators’. Poets from behind the Iron Curtain would get a hearing, in English in the West, denied them in their own language at home. At the same time, Anglo-American poetry would be shocked into greater vitality by confrontation with a poetry which, as the Editors said, ‘is more universal than ours’.

18 September 1968, Daniel Weissbort to George Theiner.

Daniel Weissbort, with Ted Hughes a founder and first Editor of MPT, was from a migrant family. His parents were Polish Jews who had moved to Britain in the 1930s. Unlike Hughes, he was a linguist, a fluent speaker of Russian and a translator from it. By 1970 Hughes had entirely detached himself from the management of MPT. Weissbort soldiered on until 2003.

Weissbort’s correspondent here is George Theiner (1926-88). Born in Czechoslovakia, he came to London aged 11 to escape the Nazis, went back to Czechoslovakia in 1945 but, refusing to join the Communist party, he was sent to the Silesian coalmines in a forced-labour unit. After the Soviet invasion in 1968 he returned to England and devoted his life to translating and promoting Czech literature. See his letter of 15 September 1968. 


The first issue, 1965

For the first issue the Editors favoured a ‘scrappy’ appearance, like a ‘flimsy newspaper’, something current and functional, to be seized on quickly and disposed of when you’d got the message. They even toyed with the idea of sending it out free, broadcasting it, like bread on the waters. In the event it sold for 2s 6d, had a print-run of over a thousand and went into a reprint.

Modern Poetry in Translation in the sixties and since

MPT, first published by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort in 1965, was continued by David and Helen Constantine (2004-2012), then by Sasha Dugdale till 2017. The present Editor is Clare Pollard. The magazine has appeared in a variety of shapes and sizes, the most drastic shifts being in the earliest issues. Editors have organized and published the contributions by language or groups of languages, by country, or by focussing on particular topics or themes. Covers were designed by Richard Hollis (1966-2003), Lucy Wilkinson (2003-12) and by various artists, including Molly Crabapple and Langlands & Bell,  under Sasha Dugdale’s editorship.  MPT has also been the publisher of occasional booklets and pamphlets..


Hughes and Weissbort soon realized that a poetry magazine intended to be distributed free would scarcely get published let alone survive for fifty years. But they did want it to be self-sufficient and the first issue, which went into a reprint, suggested that there was an appetite for the printed magazine. There were many conversations between the Editors concerning  bids from various publishers to buy rights to MPT and several of them were indeed  involved in its publication  during Weissbort’s tenure.  The issue covering the Second Poetry International (an annual festival founded by Hughes and still going strong) was sponsored by Benson & Hedges, the golden cover trumpeted it and inside was an advert for the cigarettes themselves. Such supplementary aid was normal back then and is not so compromising as the covert funding of Encounter by the CIA, which came to light in 1967, causing the Editor, Stephen Spender, who had known nothing about it, to resign. For many years now MPT  has been largely dependent on public funding, which is to say on the Arts Council. Valuable support has come also from embassies and various charitable bodies.  

MPT and the Queen’s College

Since 2004 MPT’s home has been the Queen’s College, Oxford. From Queen’s MPT has had goodwill, encouragement, and much practical, and also financial, help. All those concerned with the magazine owe the College their gratitude, and express it here and now. For this exhibition, in this beautiful library, we thank particularly Tessa Shaw. Some of MPT’s archive is now housed here. There is more of it in King’s College, London – our thanks to the staff there too. And much else closely concerning the magazine will be found in the Ted Hughes Collection in the British Library.

‘Capable of living together better than we do at present’

MPT seeks a real diversity of voices: women and men equally, different centuries, countries, races, creeds, languages, cultures, ideas. The very essence of the founding principle was: Your view is not the only one. Set that against the maniacal, life-hating, life-destroying monotheism now advancing bloodily across the Middle East.

In a context of hateful fundamentalisms and the movement  of millions of peoples from their homes, we, former editors, and Sasha, the editor now, have made an anthology of fifty years of good writing first published in MPT. This volume and every new issue of the magazine are a profession of faith in the virtue of poetry and translation. Through the act and metaphor of the translation of poetry MPT will continue to show what pluralism and free exchange are like. It will be those things in practice, we might say. And so it will do what poetry always does: it will prove that human beings can still imagine a world more in accordance with them at their best. Poetry can’t bring that better condition about: but by its most characteristic workings, by its liveliness, its freedom, its natural sympathy for plurality of being, poetry, and the act of translating it, can and must keep on insisting that we are capable of living together better than we do at present.

From Introduction to Centres of Cataclysm, Helen and David Constantine, Bloodaxe Books, 2016.


Exhibition co-curated by Modern Poetry in Translation and Tessa Shaw, Reader Services Librarian.

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