Sunday, April 09, 2006

Lost in translations

There's nothing quite like the Old Masters, is there?

Among the chief pleasures of my lazy Saturday was the April issue of Poetry, which is dedicated to translations, and features original poems by such stalwarts as Rilke, Borges, Szymborska, Seferis, Brecht and Ghalib (in a lovely little translation by R. Parthasarthy [1]) , as well as poets I probably should have heard of given the poems included here - the 8th century Japanese poet Yakamochi and the Swahili poet Sayyid Abdalla Bin Ali Bin Nasir ("Or think of dust that tumbles in the light / At the moment daybreak fills the window; / Who approaches it and tries to seize it / Finds nothing in his fist").

Nor are the translators of these poems any less illustrious. W.S. Merwin puts in an appearance, translating Hadrian, and Heaney weighs in with an exquisite translation of Pangur Ban. The indefatigable pair of Pevear and Volokhonsky, are around as well, trying their hand at poetry for a change. And W.D. Snodgrass crows about 'translating' a lovely poem from Romanian - a language he doesn't speak ("When I'm asked how can anyone translate a poem from a language they don't know, I tell them not to learn the language. You can't, really. Get to know the people. You really can."). But for sheer name-dropping pleasure the pick of the lot is this poem - Richard Wilbur's version of a sonnet written for Edgar Allen Poe's tombstone by the virtually untranslatable Mallarme:

Changed by eternity to Himself at last,
The Poet, with the bare blade of his mind,
Thrusts at a century which had not divined
Death's victory in his voice, and is aghast.

Aroused like some vile hydra of the past
When an angel proffered pure words to mankind,
Men swore that drunken squalor lay behind
His magic potions and the spells he cast.

The wars of earth and heaven - O, endless grief!
If we cannot sculpt from them a bas-relief
To ornament the dazzling tomb of Poe,

Calm block here fallen from some far disaster,
Then let this boundary stone at least say no
To the dark flights of Blasphemy hereafter.

- Richard Wilbur

Not that all the poems in the issue are by the strictly venerable. The issue also provides an intriguing introduction to relatively more recent poets whose work sounds well worth exploring, including Bangladeshi poet Ruby Rahman and Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinovic. And finally, to select just one more poem from a wonderful selection, here's Yiddish poet and Holocaust survivor Abraham Sutzkever:

Written on a slat of a railway car:

If some time someone should find pearls
threaded on a blood-red string of silk
which, near the throat, runs all the thinner
like life's own path until it's gone
somewhere in a fog and can't be seen -

if someone should find these pearls
let him know how - cool, aloof - they lit up
the eighteen-year old, impatient heart
of the Paris dancing girl, Marie.

Now, dragged through unknown Poland -
I'm throwing my pearls through the grate.

If they're found by a young man -
let these pearls adorn his girlfriend.
If they're found by a girl -
let her wear them; they belong to her.
And if they're found by an old man -
let him, for these pearls, recite a prayer.

- Abraham Sutzkever (trans. by Jacqueline Osherow)

Plus, of course, while we are talking about the old masters, here's Charles Simic on the new collection of unpublished work by Elizabeth Bishop in the New York Review of Books. I personally have had my reservations about the correctness of publishing these archives - I mean, it's not as though Bishop didn't have the opportunity to publish them herself; if she chose to leave them out, if she decided they weren't good enough and she didn't want her name associated with them, then is it really fair to invade her privacy and second-guess her wishes? Simic, however, makes a good case for the book - quoting extensively from selections that would be incredible by any reasonable standard (which is to say, by any standard except Bishop's own). I've already done my little faux-rant about these poems of Bishop's. Suffice to say that just reading the "It is marvellous to wake up together" poem and being told that Bishop didn't consider it good enough (while I would give almost anything to write something that good) only provided further evidence of the meaningless of my existence. Sigh.


And speaking of Old Masters, do also read Arthur Schlesinger's piece on History in the NYRB. It's not freely available on the Net, unfortunately, but Schlesigner essentially starts by arguing that the pursuit of History is a losing battle - the definitive history of Mankind can never be told and every generation reimagines its own history, bringing to it "the preconceptions of our personality and the preoccupations of our age". Some reflections on the changing views on the Civil War as well as a brief discussion of the legacy of Andrew Jackson later, Schlesinger concludes by speaking of the role of History in contemporary public (political) debate. He writes:

"History is the best antidote to illusions of omnipotence and omniscience. It should forever remind us of the limitations of our passing perspectives. It should strengthen us to resist the pressure to convert momentary interests into moral absolutes. It should lead us to a profound and chastening sense of our frailty as human beings— to a recognition of the fact, so often and so sadly demonstrated, that the future will outwit all our certitudes and that the possibilities of history are far richer and more various than the human intellect is likely to conceive.

A nation informed by a vivid understanding of the ironies of history is, I believe, best equipped to live with the temptations and tragedy of power. Since we are condemned as a nation to be a superpower, let a growing sense of history temper and civilize our use of that power.

Sometimes, when I am particularly depressed, I ascribe our behavior to stupidity—the stupidity of our leadership, the stupidity of our culture. Thirty years ago we suffered military defeat—fighting an unwinnable war against a country about which we knew nothing and in which we had no vital interests at stake. Vietnam was bad enough, but to repeat the same experiment thirty years later in Iraq is a strong argument for a case of national stupidity."

Good stuff.


Oh, and one final quote from this weekend's catching up on periodicals (I can't resist). This from George Saunders hilarious Shouts and Murmurs piece in the current New Yorker:

"I used to love music, back when it had melody and chords and lyrics. But now it has no melody and no chords, just thwack-thwacking, and they even seem to be cutting back on the thwack-thwacking, so now it’s sometimes just thwa, and, as far as lyrics, do you consider these lyrics?

Hump my hump,
My stumpy lumpy hump!
Hump my dump, you lumpy slumpy dump!
I’ll dump your hump, and then just hump your dump,
You lumpy frumply clump.

I’m sorry. To me? Those are not lyrics. In my day, lyrics were used to express real emotion, like the emotion of being totally stoned and trying to talk this totally stoned chick into sleeping with you in the name of love, which lasted forever, if only you held on to your dreams."


[1] Parthasarthy also contributes this Sanskrit Gem

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Cheshire Cat said...

Treasure trove; thank you. Wealth of concordances. A Merwin out of his time sunk in his Hawaiian pleasure garden, and a Roman emperor who wrote a poem about the soul. (Apocryphal, I suspect - all the more delightful). Poet much concerned with the play of the mind, at play with the mind of a poet much concerned with the play of the mind. (Poet, missing conclusive character). Heaney, being Irish and acute. (Pangur - my worthy ancestor!).

It would have been even better if you'd included the Snodgrass. I don't speak Romanian either, so I am especially competent to judge the accuracy of the translation...

And the commentaries... I find Heaney's prose more fascinating than his poetry. Studded with unusual words and phrases with an "exact and intimate grip" on language, if not on what he is trying to say.

As for the new Bishop, he was only to be expected, wasn't he? Trotting on the heels of "Inventions of the March Hare" and " "Trouble at Willow Gables" and Other Fiction"... Eliot, Larkin, Bishop - see a pattern here? Nothing like reticent genius to inspire curiosity.

The article itself was uncompelling. Just a mish-mash of biographical facts and banal judgments. But then this is Simic, the man who writes English poetry in a language not remotely resembling English. Good taste though - I'm rather attached to his selection of Camion's songs.

Cheshire Cat said...


Falstaff said...

Cat: You're welcome.

Yes, Simic doesn't really say much, does he - what I liked about the article was that I felt he played to his strengths and just picked a bunch of good poems and shoved them in there. Those are pretty much what I focussed on. As for Heaney, I've always loved the way his poems sound, never mind what they say. All those endless poems about bog-men, for instance, fairly tedious if you pay attention to the sense, but ah, the language.

Finally, the Snodgrass:


I walk on a dark road so that I won't see
The way my young oxen limp so much;
The horseshoes gouging into their hooves,
They're frightened at the earth's least touch.

Time to time, they kneel down in their yoke;
I'd prod them on but I'm too weak at heart.
They look at me mildly, yet, on their own,
As if at a signal, struggle up and then start.

Only at midnight I bring them to a halt,
Untie them for a while, then stand and wait
With the village dogs all barking at me
Outside the old blacksmith's gate.

With both arms I hold their legs up, one by one,
Pressing my palms to their hooves, finding
Which side they have been limping on,
And where the bones, worn down, need binding.

Through the fire, the old man passes nails,
Settles each into its place, pounding it in then;
And when the nails bend, stabbing into flesh,
Pries them, blood-stained, back out again,

Hammers them straight, then drives them in.
He asks me who I am and where I'm bound.
And then, deciding if I can get that far,
He makes the team stand on solid ground,

Helps yoke them up and get them on the road.
They trudge along, limping at first and slow.
The dogs keep barking a while, then let us be.
And the wounds heal themselves as on they go.

- Ileana Malancioiu

gunesvara said...

Interesting blog about your passion poems, keep up the good work passion poems

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