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? …