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Daniel Weissbort obituary


Translator and poet who founded Modern Poetry in Translation and brought the work of eastern European poets to the west

Daniel Weissbort, who has died aged 78, was the founder with Ted Hughes of Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT), a unique and quietly revolutionary magazine that publishes the best of world poetry in translation. Danny edited MPT for nearly 40 years, transforming what Hughes had intended to be, in his own words, "a fairly scrappy-looking thing" into an internationally renowned journal publishing most of the English-speaking world's best and brightest translators.

Danny, who described translation as a "way of reading", had a particular interest in eastern Europe. His parents were Polish Jews who arrived in Britain in the 1930s via Belgium. In the house they spoke French together, the language of their first acquaintance, but Danny remembered answering them in English.

He was born in London and attended St Paul's school, then Queens' College, Cambridge, where he studied history. After a brief spell working in his father's clothing factory, he was encouraged by friends to follow his vocation and take up research work in poetry in post-Stalinist Russia.

When, in 1965, Hughes was looking for an editorial partner, his college friend Danny must have seemed just the man. They shared a sense that the poetry of eastern Europe was important; that it had universality and an insistence that was lacking in English poetry at the time.

The first issue of MPT, a broadsheet on very thin paper costing 2s 6d, featured poems by Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Miroslav Holub, Ivan Lalic and Vasko Popa, and carried an editorial labelling eastern Europe "the centre of cataclysm".

"It is great news you are stirring up so much electricity about the magazine," Hughes had written enthusiastically to Danny in February 1964, but it seems clear that Hughes' initial energies gradually faded, and it was Danny who kept the magazine going through the decades. It moved from publisher to publisher, changing in size, shape and design, but appeared with admirable regularity under his editorship until 2003.

Danny combined his editorial duties and research with a great deal of Russian translation. In 1972 he published his translations of the Russian dissident poet Natalya Gorbanevskaya, who had been imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital for three years.

In the same year he met Joseph Brodsky at Poetry International. The recently exiled Brodsky was a guest at the London poetry festival, and Danny was impressed and excited by the young Russian's impassioned "almost tragic" recital – "a young poet, virtually alone on the stage, alone in the world, with nothing but his poems, nothing but the Russian language," as he later recalled in an interview.

Brodsky was on his way to a teaching post in the US, and Danny followed him the next year, securing a job at the University of Iowa as a teacher and leader of a translation workshop. It was Brodsky who encouraged Danny to take on the translation of the still unknown but important Russian poet Nikolai Zabolotsky; Selected Poems was eventually published in 1999.

In From Russian with Love (2004) – the title a literal translation of a phrase Brodsky used to autograph his book – Danny examined Brodsky's life, poetry and translation through the gentle prism of their friendship. He used anecdote and whimsical humour to convey the brilliant eccentricity of the Nobel laureate, as well as the very nature of translation.

What is clear in these memoirs, and in his correspondence with Hughes and others, is how self-effacing Danny could be. He took pains to point out that Brodsky had doubts about Danny's translation skills. It must be said that Brodsky had doubts about anyone's suitability to be his translator. His poetry is complex, philosophical and witty, and in Russian it has a formal intensity and semantic density that is impossible to reproduce in English, much to Brodsky's disappointment. Brodsky eventually turned his hand to translating his own poems – with variable results.

Danny devoted much of his time to compiling and promoting a selection of Hughes' translations, published in 1996, and a second volume of unpublished translations by Hughes in 2003. In print he appears slightly in awe of these ebullient giants, and seemed to underrate his own fine contributions to translation and literature.

Danny was a great editor of anthologies, benefiting writers who needed to be better known, most recently in An Anthology of Contemporary Russian Women Poets (2005), which he edited with his second wife, the scholar Valentina Polukhina. He was also instrumental in setting up the Stephen Spender translation prize, which has given prominence to the business of poetry translation.

I met Danny through that award, which I won in its inaugural year with a translation of the Russian poet Elena Shvarts. He was warmly encouraging and we spoke at length about our common love of translating Russian poetry. I took on MPT in 2012, by which time Danny was struggling with Alzheimer's disease, and I have always regretted not being able to ask him about the early years of the magazine.

Like many translators of poetry, he was a poet himself. His poetry was characteristically low-key, full of humble truthfulness. He worked hard at poems to create a deceptively colloquial language and loose-limbed line. Here is Untranslated, from the collection Letters to Ted (2002), published by Anvil Press Poetry:

Do I preserve what I know by not transcribing you,
not finding a form of words for you –
the look of you and your way of looking?
Do I keep you in the original,

August 20, 1999

In a generous and perceptive letter to Danny on the matter of his poetry, Hughes wrote: "You manage to keep the whole thing intact, and true to yourself." Hughes went on to describe Danny's poetic enterprise as "infinitely valuable". In Letters to Ted, Danny returned the compliment with a collection of poems celebrating his friendship with Hughes.

Danny continued writing and translating until very recently, learning by heart the long Pushkin poem The Bronze Horseman and working on a new translation of this poem despite his illness.

He is survived by Valentina and his children, Rebecca, Naomi and Ben, from his marriage to Jill Anderson, which ended in divorce.

• Daniel Jack Weissbort, translator and poet, born 30 April 1935; died 18 November 2013

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