Skip to main content

Fictions of otherness


 (An essay on poetry translation, from the Dublin Review of Books, December, 2016

We carry poems around with us in our heads, part of the internal tradition we create for ourselves. Often these are translations, although that fact may not necessarily register. When something causes us to dwell on the poem as translation, the result can be troubling. To give just one example, Czesław Miłosz’s “Encounter” has been part of my own personal anthology for many years. Recently I had cause to dig it out again. Here, first of all, is the poem in the English version I remembered:

    Encounter

    We drove before dawn through frozen fields,
    The red wing was rising, yet still the night.

    And suddenly a hare shot across our path.
    One of us pointed to it with his hand.

    That was long ago and both are dead:
    The hare and the man who stretched his arm.

    O my love, where are they, where do they lead,
    The flash of a hand, the line of movement, the swishing icy ground?

    I ask not in sorrow, but in contemplation.

    Wilno, 1936

The translation is by Adam Czerniawski, and I liked the poem primarily for its central image of the hare shooting across the path of the travellers and the pointing hand, and the quiet registration of the disappearance of both, a moment in a rich tradition of such registrations of mortality. I also liked the opening line – “We drove before dawn through frozen fields” – maybe because of its simple directness, its alliterative forcefulness, and the sense that anything could follow. The early hour, the frozen fields, the purposeful journey – it seemed like the opening to a thousand evocative stories and poems. I was less happy with the phrase “yet still the night”, which seemed to have been lifted from an anthology of nineteenth century poetry, and the final line seemed a little weak: “contemplation” didn’t really do it, didn’t seem like a strong enough alternative to sorrow. However, Czerniawski’s is not the version sanctioned by the poet, as I discovered when I pulled down my copy of the Collected Poems. Here is the poem as translated by the poet himself and Lillian Vallee:

    Encounter

    We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
    A red wing rose in the darkness.

    And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
    One of us pointed to it with his hand.

    That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
    Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

    O my love, where are they, where are they going
    The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles?

    I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

More



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

John Riley

John Riley’s early death — he was murdered by two muggers at the age of forty-one — combined with a history of publication by small presses and a talent that doesn’t lend itself to easy categorisation have tended to keep his work on the margins, admired by the few but generally unknown. This is a pity, because Riley was one of the finest poets of his generation. In his lifetime he published three collections, Ancient and Modern with Grosseteste Press, which he founded with Tim Longville in 1966, What Reason Was, and That is Today, published by Pig Press in 1978, the year of his death. The now out of print Collected Works (Grosseteste Press) came out in 1980. Carcanet published his Selected Poems, edited by Michael Grant, in 1995.

I had always been impressed by the few poems I came across in anthologies like A Various Art, edited by Andrew Crozier and Tim Longville. The impression I had of an extraordinarily gifted poet was borne out by the Selected Poems. I first came across this in …

The rustling of the silk

Back after a long absence with three versions of a poem from the Chinese, for our edification, followed by a moral quandary.

The first is Ezra Pound’s.

Liu Ch’e

The rustling of the silk is discontinued,
Dust drifts over the court-yard,
There is no sound of footfall, and the leaves
Scurry into heaps and lie still,
And she the rejoicer of the heart is beneath them:

A wet leaf that clings to the threshold.

Much has been written about Pound as a translator or mediator of Chinese poetry into English. He didn’t speak Chinese, so his versions don’t have scholarly pretensions. In the Cathay poems he relied on the notes that Ernest Fenollosa compiled in Tokyo, and was quite happy to use the Japanese designation Rihaku for the Chinese poet Li Po. Arthur Waley, whose own translations of Chinese poetry were hugely influential, objected to many of Pound’s versions, though it’s hard to see how his version of, say, ‘The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter’ improves on Pound’s. Pound’s great gift as a p…

Songs of the earth (1): Yannis Ritsos

The Meaning of Simplicity
I hide behind simple things so you’ll find me; if you don’t find me, you’ll find the things, you’ll touch what my hand has touched our hand-prints will merge.
The August moon glitters in the kitchen like a tin-plated pot (it gets that way because of what I’m saying to you), it lights up the empty house and the house’s kneeling silence– always the silence remains kneeling.
Every word is a doorway to a meeting, one often cancelled, and that’s when a word is true: when it insists on the meeting.
(Translated by Edmund Keeley, published in The Greek Poets: From Homer to the Present, Norton, 2010)
Yannis Ritsos’ output as a poet was enormous. He published more than a hundred collections of poetry, and often wrote with great speed, sometimes producing three collections in a single year. Such protean fluency can interfere with the reception of a poet in his own culture, and it can also inhibit or distort the reception in translation. How do you choose? How much o…