Monday, June 15, 2009

Translating poetry

During the long hiatus this blog has had I have mainly worked with a different type of blogging on a Tumblr platform. Under the title Ordinary Finds (originally intended as a companion to this blog's self-professed 'rarer finds') I have produced close to 5.000 posts - most of them visual rather than text-driven - mentioning important cultural figures from the fields of literature, art, film, music etc.

However, I have frequently experienced language problems when trying to disseminate knowledge about poets who didn't write in English and therefore have had their reputation in Anglophone countries largely depend on the quality of the translations of their work. Routinely I've come across language hampered by old-fashioned formulations, stiff meters, or melodramatic metaphors when looking for good versions of German Romantics or French Modernists alike. As a result I started producing my own translations for posting on Ordinary Finds and its more recent off-shoot Lumpy Pudding - whenever I felt that I was able to improve on the already existing work, or in extreme cases when nothing at all was at hand in English...
I thought that now I would take the opportunity to collect the work of this kind I've done more or less casually over the last 6 to 8 months. Here are seven of my translations from German, French and Romanian. The poets in question are Friedrich Hölderlin, Rainer Maria Rilke, Wolfgang Borchert, Lucian Blaga, Boris Vian and Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau...


Recently my translation of one of Hölderlin’s best short poems, Hälfte des Lebens, was reprinted in the Stanford University program for their fifth Pan-Asian Music Festival - the occasion being the performance of Joji Yuasa’s setting of the poem for chorus and orchestra, entitled Cosmic Solitude… This event illustrates the importance of Hölderlin still: Japanese music, German Romantic poetry translated into English by a Dane, performed by a bunch of ‘Californians’ - good, no?

Hölderlin: One Half of Life

Hung with golden pears
and full of wild roses
is the land in the sea.
Your stately swans,
drunk with kisses,
dunk their heads
in the holy, sobering water.

Alas, where shall I take, when
winter comes, flowers,
and shades of the Earth?
The walls stand,
speechless and cold, in the wind
the banners rattle

Image - Markus Lüpertz: Ritter Hölderlin und Heine im Schwertkampf - Oil on canvas (The UBS Art Collection)


Next, I felt the need to tackle Rilke's Herbsttag, which has been translated numerous times by high-level American poets - with quite miserable results. A web page conveniently gathers all the bad ones here...

Here's my take:

Harvest Day

Lord: it is time. The summer has been huge.
Lay your shadows across the sun dials,
in the fields let the winds run loose.

Command the last fruit to ripen;
give it two more Southern days,
force it to completion and chase
its last sweetness into the heavy wine

He who still has no house shall never build.
He who is alone shall be given short shrift,
shall read and write long letters, shift
and restlessly pace the lanes that skirt the field
watching as the leaves drift.


I knew little about Wolfgang Borchert before encountering his birthday, but after a little reading I began to admire his political stance as well as his writings. I chose one of his simple poems to translate, but on Ordinary Finds I also posted a mini-bio and an excerpt from his anti-war manifesto, Then There Is Only One Thing To Do...

Wolfgang Borchert: Try to
Stand in the middle of the rain,
Believe in the blessing of the drops,
Cover yourself in its noise
And try to be good!

Stand in the middle of the wind,
Believe in it and be a child -
Let the storm enter you
And try to be good!

Stand in the middle of the fire -
Love this monster
With the red wine of your heart
And try to be good!


Shifting to Romanian poetry, which of course I have been introduced to chiefly by my wife Camelia (who many years ago gave me a trilingual edition of Blaga - which did not have English versions in it!), I quickly ran into problems whenever I wanted to research well-known Romantic or Modernist poets, since they were hardly ever translated into English - or if they were the translations were horrible...

Lucian Blaga was a particular favourite of mine, so I had to do two poems of his, one for OF and one for Lumpy:


It is so silent all around me that I can hear
the moonbeams when they strike the windows.

Inside me
a stranger’s voice has come awake
singing of a longing that is not mine.

They say that those who died before their time long ago
with young blood in their veins,
with strong passion in their blood,
with strong sunlight in their passion,
will come,
come and live on
in us
those unlived lives.

It is so silent all around me that I can hear
the moonbeams when they strike the windows.

Ah, who knows in whose breast – once, in eternity
you, my soul, will play
on the soft strings of silence,
on the harp of darkness –
a choked-off song of longing and desire to live? Who knows, who knows?

The Light

The light I feel
streaming in my breast when I see you,
is that not a drop of the light
created on the first day,
that light which thirsts for life?

Nothingness lay dying,
as the impenetrable one, hovering alone in the dark,
gave a sign:
Let there be light!

An ocean
and a raging storm of light
arose in an instant:
a thirst for sins, desires, longings, passions
a thirst for light and sun.

But where did it go, that blinding
first light – who knows?
The light I feel
streaming in my breast when I see you – wondrous one,
may be the last drop
of the light made on that first day.


While Camelia could certainly help me with the Romanian language (and I am grateful that she did), since it is her mother tongue - and while I have a pretty good command of German myself, the thought of translating from French (a language I have a somewhat troubled relation with) seemed utter lunacy... Still, it wasn't hard to see that a lot of the poetry I was interested in posting could use a bit of a face-lift, and I often managed with the help of pre-existing versions to streamline the texts I enjoyed...

Boris Vian was always a particular favourite:

I don’t want to croak
Without having known
The black dogs of Mexico
Who sleep without dreams
The monkeys with bare bums
Devourers of the tropics
The silver spiders
With nests stuffed with bubbles
I don’t want to croak
Without knowing if the moon
Under her false nickel-face
Has a pointed side
If the sun is cold
If the four seasons
Are really only four
Without having tried
Wearing a dress
On the grand boulevards
Without having looked
Into a sewer inspection-hole
Without having put my prick
Into some bizarre corners
I don’t want to end
Without knowing leprosy
Or the seven maladies
One catches down there
The good or the bad
None of them bother me
If if if I knew
That I would have the first of it

And there is also
All that I know
All that I value
That I know pleases me
The green depth of the sea
Where the strands of algae waltz
On the rippled sand
The baked grass of June
The crackling earth
The scent of the pines
And her kisses
Now here, now there
Her beauty obvious to all
My Bear cub, Ursula
I don’t want to croak
Before having used
Her mouth with my mouth
Her body with my hands
The rest with my eyes
I say no more, it’s better
To stay reverential

I don’t want to die
Before someone has invented
Eternal roses
The two hour work-day
The sea at the mountain-side
The mountain at the sea-side
The end of sadness
Newspapers in colour
All children happy
And so many gadgets still
Asleep within the skulls
Of genial engineers
Of jovial gardeners
Of civil citizens
Of urbane urbanites
And thoughtful thinkers
So many things to see
To see and to hear
So much time to spend
Searching in the dark

As for me I see the swarming
End arriving
With his lousy mug
Opening for me his
Bandy toad arms

I don’t want to croak
No Sir, no Ma’am
Before having explored
The flavour which torments me
The flavour which is the heaviest
I don’t want to croak
Before having tasted
The flavour of death.

On the morning of June 23, 1959, Boris Vian was at the Cinema Marbeuf for the screening of the film version of his novel J’irai cracher sur vos tombes. He had already fought with the producers over their interpretation of his work and he publicly denounced the film stating that he wished to have his name removed from the credits. A few minutes after the film began, he reportedly blurted out: “These guys are supposed to be American? My ass!” He then collapsed into his seat and died from sudden cardiac death en route to the hospital.


Finally, my latest find, Hector Saint-Denys Garneau, the French-Canadian Modernist who died tragically young, and who seems to anticipate this fate in one of his poems:

Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau: Bird Cage

I am a bird cage
A cage of bone
With a bird

The bird in the cage of bone
Is death building his nest

When nothing is happening
One can hear him ruffle his wings

And when one has laughed a lot
If one suddenly stops
One can hear him cooing
Deep down
Like a small bell

It is a bird held captive
Death in my cage of bone

Wouldn’t he like to fly away
Are you holding him back
Am I
What is it

He cannot fly away
Until he has eaten all
My heart
The source of blood
With its life inside

He will have my soul in his beak


Robert Gibbons said...

Well, Bent, glad to see A Rare, Rare Find… resume in earnest with your personal introductions to poets, who for most of us are obscure, or even unknown, two attributes often lending to curious intrigue & validity of their work, evidenced here. As for my own experience beyond any curt, staccato, American voice with possible added extensions of improvisational breath, I have little experience in the world of translation, other than that of the magic of a sentence memorized in French which can make a glass of French Burgundy appear at an outside table at Les Deux Magots, for some reason your choice of the word “croak” in the first stanza of Boris Vian’s extraordinary poem [I do know the black dogs of Mexico] rang with such an air of primitive animal amphibian cry leading straight out toward the dark reaches of the Cosmos, that it stunned the Soul with utter Truth this morning. –Merci Beaucoup! rg

Bent said...

Thanks, Robert - It's good that the barbaric yawp of the human beast dying resonates with you, esp since you're the next poet I'll be translating...

Vian's 'crever' was exactly one of the words that his previous translators stopped short at, or sanitized into mere 'dying'. But then we lose the contrast prepared by Vian who doesn't use 'mourir' until the stanza that speaks of the impossible hopes of a dreamer - and then reverts to 'crever' after the toad of death yanks him back out of the fantasy...