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March 28, 2010

Growth Rings in Poems: Poetry in Translation

Growth-Rings in Poems

Growth Rings in Trees

Antonio Machado claimed that, ‘In order to write poetry, you must first invent a poet who will write it’. It might be a smart move to invent your translator while you’re at it. Robert Frost’s over-celebrated remark that ‘Poetry is what is lost in translation’ may make poets feel unattainable, but what Frost went on to say was, ‘It is also what is lost in interpretation’ which makes attainability a little problematic. And it says more about the nature of poetry than it does about the process of translation, or of criticism for that matter. Few enough writers realise that good translation, like good criticism, is a vocation and practice as thorny as original composition.

In fact, for many creative writers, translation shares the table with writing, just as for literary translators it is another form of creative writing. Translation is always a negotiation. To paraphrase Ngugi wa Thiong’o, translation moves beyond and around language. Some words are charged with particular meanings in their host language; that does not entail their carrying those associations into another tongue.

It is not only the spectrum of meaning that is considered in excellent poetic translation. There are polyphonies of factors: the physical sound of the poem’s internal movement; the speed, shiver and intent of word-notes, taken individually, within a line, and within a whole poem. And what about the meanings of the sounds of words, the tongues and voices ringing and ringed in the grain of poetic lines, and the notion of locality in how a word is spoken and understood?

The Dutch poet and archaeologist Esther Jansma may have a view given that she established the age of wooden artefacts from growth-rings in the wood which could be applied to timber in The Netherlands. Are there growth-rings in a poem’s language and form? Her translator writes in her introduction to the excellent What It Is that ‘if a source poem is rhymed, some translators see the rhyme as somehow “separate from” meaning… I feel that if rhyme is used, it is part of a poem’s meaning…’. Author and translator held a painstaking negotiation over every draft, and their teamwork makes for a very convincing, clear, almost scientifically-eyed poetry:

If we have to dress, when all is said at last

against the cold or in something’s name

in what remains of this or another past

tales and aides-memoire which simply claim

that we were here and nothing more

in time which existed before today…

from ‘Archaeology 2’

With the exception of Jane Holland’s persuasive and energetic versioning of The Wanderer, the books under review are all ‘beyond and around’ translations in that they are neither re-imaginings nor imitations. That does mean they are any less under-imagined than Holland’s delightful appropriation of the Anglo-Saxon original. She states ‘the switch from Christian to secular beliefs and the switch from male to female narrator were acts of reinterpretation…Those who find this change too much of a strain…should consider that each age must reinvent the classics rather than simply ‘translate’ them…’. She is correct of course except there is nothing simple about translation, whereas reinterpretation (pace Frost) sets up another force field for the reader.

The translator makes a choice of an author’s work, decides the posterity of certain poems. For example Driven by the Wind and Drenched to the Bone by the Argentinan Daniel Samoilovich is a beautifully selected collection or sharp, startling, colourful lyrical poems. Conversely, I got the underwhelming feeling in Starve the Poets! that the selection of work from ‘controversial Chinese poet’ Yi Shah shows him to full disadvantage. The translators have done almost too good a job in rendering into English - what seems to me - a self-regarding, self-important, sexist set of work. It’s almost as if Yi Sha had taken the least attractive tonal elements of Bukowski then done his best to divest his poetry of the quality of mercy. The trouble is that we passed through this kind of phase some time ago: half-pretending to enjoy poems that yielded you zero as a reader except corrosion of precious attention. Eye-wateringly, this appears to be one of the stated intentions of the author except he believes he’s being laconic, as opposed to tedious:

Walking across life’s stage.

Just now

as I handed him a cigarette

he gave me a light

Walking across life’s stage

In the flickering flames

I got a glimpse of his cigarette lighter –

well, what d’you know?: it was shaped like a mini-

fire extinguisher

from ‘Crossing the Stage’

Many poets argue that all writing is translated in that it is translated from silence. Midnight and Other Poems by the Palestinian writer Mourid Barghouti reads like a series of skilful resurrections, through language, of a silenced majority:

After the dust and smoke

have cleared from the house that once stood there

and as I stare at the new emptiness,

I see my grandfather wearing his cloak,

wearing the very same cloak –

not one similar to it,

but the same one.

He hugs me and maintains a silent gaze,

as if his look

could order the rubble to become a house…

from Part 1 ‘Midnight’

‘Midnight’ is clearly an ambitious sequence, a montage of images from the land of his birth, and rewards being read aloud. One gets the feeling it is written to be heard, and can be considered part of a wider debate about language, land and dispossession, rather like the interesting poems in Flowers of Flame by some new poets of Iraq.

Moving finally to the resonant and gloriously complex Prague with Fingers of Rain by Czech writer Vítězslav Nezval, first published in 1936, and translated here by the brilliant Ewald Osers. This is an expertly evocation of Prague’s interwar liveliness and polyvalence. What’s especially exciting is how landscape and streetscape are rendered clearly and precisely within an apparently ‘surrealist’ confection of forms and strategies. Unlike the tired strategies of Yi Sha, we are only just catching up with such approaches (John Hartley Williams and Luke Kennard spring to mind). It is unlikely you will have read anything else quite like this collection, not only in terms of meaning and structure, but also ricocheting forms and acutely-judged sound.

Many thanks to Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, in which this piece first appeared.

What It Is: Selected Poems, Esther Jansma, translated by Francis R Jones, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 96 pp., £8.95, ISBN 978-1-85224-780-5

Lament for the Wanderer, translated by Jane Holland, Heaventree Press, pb., 22 pp., £4.00, ISBN 978-1-90603-806-9

Driven by the Wind and Drenched to the Bone, Daniel Samoilovich, translated by Andrew Graham-Yooll, Shoestring Press, pb., 60 pp., £8.95, ISBN 978-1-904886-60-0

Starve the Poets!: Selected Poems, Yi Sha, translated by Simon Patton and Tao Naikan, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 96 pp., £9.95, ISBN 978-1-85224-815-4

Midnight and Other Poems, Mourid Barghouti, translated by Radwa Ashour, Arc Publications, hb., 240 pp., £14.39, ISBN 978-1-906570-08-8

Flowers of Flame: Unheard Voices of Iraq, edited by Sadek Mohammed, Soheil Najm, Haider Al_Kabi, and Dan Veach, Michigan State University Press, pb., 96 pp., £14.50, ISBN 978-0-87013-842-3

Prague with Fingers of Rain, Vítězslav Nezval, translated by Ewald Osers, Bloodaxe Books, pb., 64 pp., £8.95, ISBN 978-1-85224-816-1

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