01 May 2016

Australian poet Les Murray was once a technical translator

The latest issue of the Paris Review includes, in the Interviews section, an interview (by Dennis O'Driscoll) with Australian poet Les Murray. The article is entitled simply The Art of Poetry No. 89. The link is to a scanned and OCRed version (including a number of OCR typos) of an article published on 1 April 2005. Recommended reading. A fascinating article about a fascinating and extraordinarily gifted man who is also an Australian National Living Treasure.

We learn that Les as a young man, and before going on to much greater things:
Later, as a student at Sydney University, he concentrated less on prescribed reading lists than on a serendipitous exploration of the university's library stock, and was, he says, blase about the examination system. Nonetheless, his brilliance as a linguist won him a position as a scientific and technical translator at the Australian National University in Canberra.
Later, in response to the question: What aspects of your life were most crucial to your development as a poet? Les says:
I was a freak, but happily my freakishness was in language—not, say, in classifying antique crankshafts. We seem to get a word-freak once or twice a century in the Murray family. Sir James Murray of the Oxford English Dictionary was my cousin, for example. When I'd argue points in the OED with my Russian fellow-translator at the National University in Canberra, I'd tell him we Murrays owned the damn language! Being some other kind of freak has its attractions, mind you. I envy painting its impasto and sheer color-play, how it's not held in by that stubborn insuspendable lexicality that words have. I get out into nonsense as far as I can. Lord knows, though never for nihilist ends . . . There's also the wonderful advantage of music and painting and sculpture, that they don't have to be translated.
Here's a particularly perceptive comment about rural Australians:
Probably half of longer-established Australian rural families have some Aboriginal admixture; and yet most are still in denial about it, dead scared of it, even as educated town folk start gingerly to yearn after that connection. An immense common property of black and white rural folk is what we've been learning to call "country," an intense connection with one's home region as a resource not just of survival but of the spirit. That has probably saved my life, more than once.
On Ezra Pound:
I realize now that poor Pound was mainly a man like Howard Hughes, one who slid so gradually into insanity that people were slow to detect it. He was a resourceful translator of languages he half knew.
I have no real superstitions, except that if I ever start doing a lot of translating, it will signify that poetry has left me. It's a pity, because I'm not a bad translator ...
We then moved to Canberra, where I was a translator of scholarly material for the Australian National University for four years.
The Labor Party's minister of justice, Michael Tate, asked me to revamp the old Oath of Allegiance.

(Under God) from this time forward
I am part of the Australian people.
I share their democracy and freedom.
I obey their laws.
I will never despise their customs or their faith
and I expect Australia to be loyal to me.
"Under God" was optional; and by "their faith" I meant whatever tradition sustained them and underwrote their own good faith. The minister's public servants liked my text down to that line, but were scared stiff of the last line. Here was a social revolution in a paragraph; The people made themselves into citizens and immediately demanded loyalty from the nation, as if the premise of democracy were actually true and the people were sovereign. The contrast with subjecthood under a mighty crown could not be more absolute, or sudden. The first part of the pledge survived in the recasting. The citizen still makes the essential move and constitutes himself as such. But the last two lines fell away, as I expected, and every epithet was doubled to give an appearance of weight. It was turned into legalese, in fact, and the rhythm was gone along with the daring.

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Full circle

After completing a BSc in physics and maths in Australia and extended travels in Africa I found a job in Paris that left me with considerab...