Poets Translate Poets
A Hudson Review Anthology
Paula Deitz, Editor
(Syracuse University Press)
This fat book is parceled out amongst translations from twenty-five different languages, including Russian, French (and Old French), Greek (and Ancient Greek). There's Swedish but no Norwegian, Vietnamese but no Laotian, German but no Old High German, Macedonian (but no Albanian, Roma, Bosnian nor Aromanian) ... and Polish, Portuguese and Provençal; but, alas, no Punk (nor Neo-Punk).
Japan? Certainly it deserves more than two obscure poets --- Motomaro Senge (1888 - 1948) and Kakinomoto No Hitomaro (660 - 708) with a mere six pages, including a few awkward translations: "This is the news the runner brings, / news like the twang of the yew-wood bow..."
And I am lost, like a man undone, going on a journey
but going in grass, without words, and the way lost,
and a grief in my guts
like the salt-burning of the fisher-girls of Tsumu.
Where, we ask, where is Matsuo Basho's frog or fallen snow ... or his dear horse or bugs?
a horse peeing
near my pillow.
And China? Are we to be satisfied with two poems by Tu Fu, (712 - 770) while we have available in translation one done by Ezra Pound in 1936 --- from Riyuku --- one that makes such loving sense, one that should be reprinted everywhere, again, and again, and again:
At fourteen I married my Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
For ever and for ever and for ever.
Why should I climb the look out?
We know that Pound fabricated most of it out of his own head, but it is an ecstatic fabrication, deserves a place in this anthology.
§ § §
It's not all crash and burn in this collection. Neruda's "Ode to My Socks" is an old favorite, in William Carlos William's charming rendering,
my feet were
made of wool,
two long sharks
of ultramarine blue
with a tress of gold
two gigantic blackbirds,
in this manner
that for the first time
my feet seemed to me
like two decrepit
of that embroidered
Who beside Neruda (and Williams) would dare to compare one's feet to blackbirds, cannons, or, above all, "decrepit firemen."
There's a charming conceit from Macedonia by Bogomil Gjuzel, "How the Eagle Sees It:"
For me, the Caucasus is just a prison, too.
Though I'm unbound. No rock, after
all's said and done, holds him.
I tear at his liver every day. By night,
obviously, I'm exhausted.
But the damn thing grows back again...
There, too, are some nice translations from the Spanish of Borges by Robert Mezey, a good rendering of Apollinaire's "Church Bells" by Anthony Hecht (although we prefer X. J. Kennedy's version), and a collection from the very bawdy, very witty poems of G. G. Belli (d. 1863) translated from the Romanesco by Charles Martin. For example, "The Life of Man," (which easily could have been titled, "Life's a bitch, then you die"),
Now months in the stench; and then swaddling bound,
Among the kisses, the milksops, and the bawling;
Then strapped into a basket, hauled around
With a stiff neck brace to keep the head from falling.
Then there begin the torments of the school,
The ABCs, the cold, the cane's hard knocks,
Measles, the potty seat, the squeezed-out stool,
A touch of scarlet fever, the chickenpox.
Then hunger comes, and weariness, a trade,
The rent, the jailhouse, and the government,
The hospitals, the debts, the getting laid;
The scorching summer, and the winters snow ...
Then, blessèd be God's name, when life is spent,
Comes death to finish it with hell below.
The longer translations in Poets Translate Poets are often overblown, if not wearying. There's "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" running on (and on) for eighteen pages, Corneille's "Le Cid" for eighteen more, and a tedious translation (by Pound) of Sophocles' Antigone (fifty pages!) and Marin Tsvetaeva's endless "Poem of the End,"
(For everyone!) Nature doesn't amass
Riches in vain, is not completely niggard!
From these blonde tropics, my
Hunter --- how will you find your way
Back? With her rude nakedness
Teasing and dazzling to tears ---
Adultery, like solid gold,
Pours out. Laughing.
Of all people, translators, this one included, should have a gut feeling for words that just don't work, words that have unfortunate echoes in the 21st Century. As our dictionary sensibly says,
The words niggard and niggardly have no connection with the highly offensive term nigger, but because of the similarity of sound and its negative meaning of "mean, ungenerous" many people are uncomfortable using it for fear of causing offense and in the U.S. it is now generally avoided.
§ § §
What would we offer in place of all the poems we have cited here? I can think of a few that would have jollied up the collection, added some life, joining the very few soulful writers that appear here. For starters, there's Aquiles Nazoa, a Venezuelan poet, with his powerful romantic "Credo" which begins,
I believe in Pablo Neruda, almighty creator of heaven and earth
I believe in Charlie Chaplin
Son of violets and mice
Who was crucified, died, and laid in the grave by his era,
but who each day is revived in the hearts of men ...
There are the writings of Roberto Bolaño, such as his otherwordly "Godzilla in Mexico,"
Listen carefully, my son: bombs were falling
over Mexico City
but no one even noticed.
The air carried poison through
the streets and open windows.
You'd just finished eating and were watching
cartoons on TV.
For a sample of the ancient, we can find that even scholarly Gaelic transcribers love their pets, as in Pangur Bán My Cat:
I and Pangur Bán my cat,
Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
And Brecht? Where's Brecht's radio?
You little box, held to me escaping
So that your tubes should not break
Carried from house to house to ship from sail to train,
So that my enemies might go on talking to me,
Near my bed, to my pain
The last thing at night, the first thing in the morning,
Of their victories and of my cares,
Promise me not to go silent all of a sudden.
If it's comi-tragedy you want, you'll want Oscar Hahn's "Death Is Sitting at the Foot of My Bed,"
My bed is unmade: sheets on the floor
and blankets ready to fly out the door.
Ms. Death announces she'll make up the bed.
I beg her not to bother: just leave it like that.
She insists and replies that our date's for tonight,
snuggles down and adds that she's in love and in the mood...
And from the Polish, how about Urszula M. Benka's "The Touch and the Taste?"
The stranger leans his face
toward my sex.
In its concave-convex dampness
the old face reflects in red.
On the library's massive oak
there's a configuration of planets
and a gold patera with fruit.
We would also suggest a Dutch poem by Tonnus Oosterhof, "There's a Secret Agent;" another from Russia by Sandzar Yanyshev; a Hebrew --- why no Hebrew nor Yiddish poems here ? --- Song of Praise by Tamir Greenberg; Ángel Pérez' "Moon Dog Song," and Homero Aridjis's soulful "How Poor a Thing Is Man." From Bosnia, we have found a dream of a vision called "Feldwebel Zorn's Motorcycle" written by Senaden Musabegovic:
Forty years have passed, I've never heard of him, he's not among the criminals of war
He's not among Castro's compañeros with beards, he's not in letters or postcards
Just the Zümdapp, in the corner of my shed, among the wardrobes, bicycles, and automobile tires
Grease keeps it from rust, moths, flies, and ants have died in it, this sticky trap
In which there's no salvation, either for them, or for me.
Outside this volume's overly-literary vision of poetry, let the rest of us continue to seek out the thousands of verses that address themselves to our joy, and our sense of fun, and most of all, our hearts. In all poetry let's unearth the merry or, if tragic, ones that accurately echo the darkness. At all costs, we must avoid the long, often dreary rambles that have been duly collected here.
Consider for example one that --- if for no other reason than for humanity's sake --- should have been a must for this collection ... a rich and bitter epic expertly translated from the Polish by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavenagh.
§ § §Hitler's First PhotographWislawa SzymborskaAnd who's this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe?
That's tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers' little boy!
Will he grow up to be an LL.D.?
Or a tenor in Vienna's Opera House?
Whose teensy hand is this, whose little ear and eye and nose?
Whose tummy full of milk, we just don't know:
printer's, doctor's, merchant's, priest's?
Where will those tootsy-wootsies finally wander?
To garden, to school, to an office, to a bride,
maybe to the Burgermeister's daughter?
Precious little angel, mommy's sunshine, honeybun,
while he was being born a year ago,
there was no dearth of signs on the earth and in the sky:
spring sun, geraniums in windows,
the organ-grinder's music in the yard,
a lucky fortune wrapped in rosy paper,
then just before the labor his mother's fateful dream:
a dove seen in dream means joyful news,
if it is caught, a long-awaited guest will come.
Knock knock, who's there, it's Adolf's heartchen knocking.
A little pacifier, diaper, rattle, bib,
our bouncing boy, thank God and knock on wood, is well,
looks just like his folks, like a kitten in a basket,
like the tots in every other family album.
Shush, let's not start crying, sugar,
the camera will click from under that black hood.
The Klinger Atelier, Grabenstrasse, Braunau,
and Braunau is small but worthy town,
honest businesses, obliging neighbors,
smell of yeast dough, of gray soap.
No one hears howling dogs, or fate's footsteps.
A history teacher loosens his collar
and yawns over homework.--- Lolita Lark