Thursday, January 19, 2006

Henry Snodden and the Coastguard Station

Below is a poem by Eugenio Montale followed by three translations. The first version is less a translation than an extended riff on a vague notion of the original, and is taken from Tom Paulin's The Road to Inver, which came out last year. Billed as presenting four decades of the poet's translations, the book does nothing of the sort. Instead, it presents a series of loose takes on original poems identified only by the appearance of the poet's name in brackets underneath the titles. Thus

Who can say to the birds
shut the fuck up
or tell the sheep in the yow trummle
not to struggle and leap?

turns out, after a deal of searching, to be Goethe's 'Unvermeidlich':

Wer kann gebieten den Vögeln
Still zu sein auf der Flur?
Und wer verbieten zu zappeln
Den Schafen unter der Schur?

Is there anything wrong with this? It's a pretty common procedure, after all, translation as 'imitation', a kind of intertextual frolic à la Pound or Lowell. What's interesting about this particular example is the lengths Paulin goes to to domesticate Montale's poem into a Northern Irish context. You won't find Henry Snodden in 'La casa dei doganieri', nor any references to the Black and Tan war, nor to Teelin, Carrick and or 'Tim Ring's hill above the harbour'. Part of Paulin's fun here is this kind of radical domestication and transformation of Montale, as if he fell asleep in Liguria and woke up in Portnoo sounding very much like, well, Tom Paulin.

The other two are close, faithful translations, the first by Jonathan Galassi and the second by William Arrowsmith. Both have a lot to recommend them, both work as poems in English and catch the dark urgent discords of the original at the same time. As always in this kind of exercise, it's fascinating to see how two versions of the same text differ; how different translation decisions get made. For instance, the phrase 'Tu non ricordi' occurs three times in the Montale poem; it's the very first element of the poem and its repetition in the third and in the final stanza hammers home the haunting absence of the addressee. Galassi translates this phrase differently on each of the three occasions:

You won’t recall the house of the customs men...

You don’t remember...


You don’t recall the house of this, my evening.

This seems to me less urgent than the original; it loses the force of the repetition. Arrowsmith sticks to the simple 'I don't remember'. His is maybe the nervier of the two translations, tauter, less conversational.

The Arrowsmith version is taken from The Occasions (Norton and Company, 1987), one of the best Montale translations, and Galassi's is from his monumental Collected Poems 1920-1954 (Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 1998). Both are excellent examples of the translator's art.

In his Translator's Preface Arrowsmith sets out the principles behind his translation of Montale:

In general I have tried to translate according to a few rule-of-thumb derived from my sense of what accurate rendering of meaning and tone requires. I have therefore avoided prettification, embellishment, and traditional concinnities like the plague. [five euros for the first accurate definition of 'concinnity']...I have conscientiously resisted the translator's to fill in or otherwise modify Montale's constant ellipses, to accommodate my reader by providing smoother transitions. And I have done my best to honor Montale's reticence, his ironic qualifications, and evaded cadences....'

Here are the texts; you can judge for yourselves the success of the various versions.

La casa dei doganieri
/ Eugenio Montale

Tu non ricordi la casa dei doganieri
sul rialzo a strapiombo sulla scogliera:
desolata t’attende dalla sera
in cui v’entrò lo sciame dei tuoi pensieri
e vi sostò irrequieto.

Libeccio sferza da anni le vecchie mura
e il suono del tuo riso non è più lieto:
la bussola va impazzita all’avventura
e il calcolo dei dadi più non torna.
Tu non ricordi; altro tempo frastorna
la tua memoria; un filo s’addipana.

Ne tengo ancora un capo; ma s’allontana
la casa e in cima al tetto la banderuola
affumicata gira senza pietà.
Ne tengo un capo; ma tu resti sola
né qui respiri nell’oscurità.

Oh l’orizzonte in fuga, dove s’accende
rara la luce della petroliera!
Il varco è qui? (Ripullula il frangente
ancora sulla balza che scoscende...)
Tu non ricordi la casa di questa
mia sera. Ed io non so chi va e chi resta.

The Coastguard Station

Henry Snodden and me we’ve nearly forgotten
that scraggy coastguard station –
a ruin from the Black and Tan war
it stood on Tim Ring’s hill above the harbour
like an empty a crude roofless barracks
-- same as the station in Teelin or Carrick
with the usual concrete harbour
like a berm built the century before last
to make a new fishing village with a slightly daft
name – in this case Portnoo – below the head

one August we came back and instead
of that ruin there was only the grassy track
on the grassy hill and so the field’s stayed
year after year though we’re both afraid
that one day very soon that unused field
‘ll be sold as sites – then we’ll watch
as a new colony of thatched
breezeblock cottages – Irish Holiday Homes –
with green plastic oilgas tanks at the back –
as a new colony starts up all owned
by people like us from Belfast
who’ve at last laid that claggy building’s ghost
-- well I wouldn’t go as far as that

[Tom Paulin]

The House of the Customs Men

You won’t recall the house of the customs men
on the bluff that overhangs the reef:
It’s been waiting, empty, since the evening
your thoughts swarmed in
and hung there, nervously.

Sou’westers have lashed the old walls for years
and your laugh’s not careless anymore:
the compass needle wanders crazily
and the dice no longer tell the score.
You don’t remember: other times
assail your memory; a thread gets wound.

I hold one end still; but the house recedes
and the smoke-stained weathervane
spins pitiless up on the roof.
I hold on to an end; but you’re alone,
not here, not breathing in the dark.

Oh the vanishing horizon line,
where the tanker’s lights flash now and then!
Is the channel here? (The breakers
still seethe against the cliff that drops away…)
You don’t recall the house of this, my evening.
And I don’t know who’s going or who’ll stay.

(Jonathan Galassi)

The Coastguard Station

You don’t remember the coastguard house
perched at the top of the jutting height,
awaiting you still, abandoned since that night
when your thoughts came swarming in
and paused there, hovering.

Southwesters have lashed the old walls for years,
the gaiety has vanished from your laugh:
the compass swings at random, crazy,
odds can no longer be laid on the dice.
You don’t remember: a thread pays out.

I hold one end still; but the house
keeps receding, above the roof the soot-
blackened weathervane whirls, pitiless.
I hold one end: but you stay on, alone, not
here, breathing in my darkness.

Oh, the horizon keeps on receding, there, far out
where a rare tanker’s light blinks in the blackness!
Is the crossing here? (The furious breakers
climb the cliff that falls off, sheer…)
You don’t remember the house of this, my evening.
And I don’t know who’s staying, who’s leaving.

[William Arrowsmith]

See also Arrowsmith’s Translator’s Preface to The Occasions, p xxi.


sean lysaght said...

You know, sometimes the version which seems at some distance from the original can actually capture the meaning more memorably than a 'faithful' translation. An example I have been considering lately, one of Goethe's Venetian Epigrams:

Mache zum Herrscher sich der, der seinen Vorteil versteht;
Doch wir waehlten uns den, der den unsern versteht.

The thought here is actually unremarkable; the formal interest is in the parallel between the reality of power politics and the expectations of the voters, itself something of a novelty in 1790, just after the French Revolution. The difficult bit for a literal translation is the use of a subjunctive I (mache) followed by a subjunctive II (waehlten). Such a translation might run as follows:

Whereas the person who becomes a leader knows which side his bread is buttered on,
We would like to select a leader who looks after our interests.

Again, unremarkable, especially after the loss of the economy offered by two versions of the subjunctive in German.
Raising the stakes a little, we can try to rhyme in order to increase the formal interest of the translation:

The fellow who follows his interests will make it to the top,
But we would vote for one who understands our lot.

The contrasts is coming into more focus now, but this still does not have, for me, the appeal of the following:

The gut we voted in is going to cream it.
He told us we would win - or did we dream it?

The last is farthest from the original in lexical and structural terms, but it captures the crux of Goethe's observation most effectively.

The Cat Flap said...

I agree with this,of course, Sean, and would never be an apologist for a slavish translation. A bad translator is faithful to the original and careless of the genius of the 'target' language....

sean lysaght said...

Your diagram of the translator's task is neat, and instructive; but I wonder whether there can be such a thing as 'meaning' adrift from the language in which it finds expression? The intractable problems of translation from Irish to English, for example, teach us how difficult the interface between languages always is; it's as if each language had its own grubby, wobbly glass with which it looks on the world; the task of translation is a wager on the possibility of a common meaning, but that wager is always provisional, always subject to revision and correction. Think of the different versions of Montale or Goethe or Merriman you can have in English, for example. Or think of all the transformations in the reception of Homer's original over the centuries.

The Cat Flap said...

The illustration isn't mine-- I found it on the net and inserted it for comic effect. I'm always amazed at attempts to render this kind of process in neat diagrammatic form, and I don't for a minute think there's there's some absolute 'meaning' isolatable from the language in which it occurs. I'm teaching a course on literary translation at the moment, which is concentrating the mind on some of these issues. I've put up a closed blog for some of the material we're using, at

sean lysaght said...

I was trying to remember where the hoopoe (in your picture) comes into classical story; a few moments' shuffling in Hughes' Ovid and I found it: Tereus was changed into a hoopoe in the same gruesome story which saw Philomela changed into a nightingale

Dina said...

The dude is completely just, and there is no skepticism.

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