A translation is no translation … unless it will give you the music of a poem along with the words of it. – John Millington Synge
When God confused all the languages at Babel he did a right number on us. (Not quite sure what the evolutionary equivalent is. I mean, seriously, what is the benefit of all these different tongues?) Anyone who’s ever watched a film with subtitles realises that what the people are saying and what they’re reading never quite matches up. I even saw one recently where apart from a couple of sentence the entire film was in Norwegian. Whoever did the subtitles also saw fit to translate the two English sentences and got them completely wrong.
We Brits are a bit snobby when it comes to language. When we go abroad we expect everyone else to be bilingual. But how many of us are? The BBC website had this to report back in 2004:
Recruitment firm Office Angels’ poll of 1,500 workers found less than 5% could count to 20 in a second language – even though a majority of the respondents said they would like to live abroad.
Some 80% said they thought they could get by at work because “everyone speaks English.”
In all my life I have only known one person who could speak conversational French. That’s sad. I took French for two years at secondary school and Latin for one but never sat O-Levels in them; mine was the last year before taking a foreign language became compulsory at our school. In 2004, however, the Labour government removed modern languages from the "core curriculum" which means that at the moment at 60% of state schools, three-quarters of 14-year-olds are not taking a modern language.
When the great Australian poet Les Murray said: "We are a language species", he didn't mean English. We think and are and have our being in, and in and out of languages – and where's the joy and the richness, if you don't even have two to rub together? If you don't have another language, you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases, all your life. It's harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself, in just one language. It's harder to play.
There is this strange cluelessness of the English.
English is a square hole that we resolutely try to hammer round pegs into. And that is what another Australian poet, John Kinsella, has tried to do with his new book of “Translations, Adaptations, Versions, Extrapolations, Interpolations, Afters, Takes and Departures.” In The Jaguar’s Dream he takes poets from a huge range of backgrounds and eras, beginning with the Grecian poet Alcman who lived during the 7th century BC and ending with a couple of trans-versions of fellow Australian Ouyang Yu’s poetry. In between there are large chunks of Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Villon, Leconte de Lisle, Baudelaire, Cros, Rimbaud, Rilke and Mayakovsky. An eclectic mix; let’s put it that way. My first thought when I flicked through this was: Who exactly is this book for? There are those who assume that if you like poetry that you like all poetry but I can assure you that’s not the case, certainly not with me. But these are translations so whose poetry is this exactly? Well, Kinsella thinks they’re his now. He says in the book’s introduction:
In the end, they are “my” poems, insofar as my own biography and experience inform their references, conceits and dynamic equivalents.
[It] is really as much a book of “my” own poetry as it is an attempt to bring the work of poets from other languages I admire into the language I speak and think with most days.
No language is fixed, not even dead languages. And I’d like to think that these poems are part of the language they came out of as much as the language they’re made over into. It’s all flux, and flux is where this poet revels and discovers. Ultimately, the many different approaches to “translation” used in this book are really different ways of engaging with poetry in “other” languages. And these engagements are driven by deep curiosity, fascination and even obsession.
I have never tried to translate a poem into English before. I have tried to translate my own poetry into French but I doubt I did a very good job of it. Google Translate would do as good a job as I did but there wasn’t even an Internet when I had my go. I wasn’t sure how to go about reviewing this book because I’m really not qualified to comment on the standard of his translations nor is there any point in criticising his choices since the majority are great poems by great poets. What I decided to do was take one poem from each of the major languages represented in the collection and have a look at the original, what’s been done with it before by others and what John’s done. It was an interesting and time-consuming exercise.
The first poem in the collection is a reworking of a fragment of a poem by the Greek poet Alcman. It is a poem that must have something going for it to have survived 2700 years and has been translated numerous times. But how accurately? Here is the original poem followed by a transliteration with the help of Google Translate and my friend Andrew McCallum Crawford who teaches in Greece since Google wasn’t quite up to the job. Where there was not a single suitable English word I’ve enclosed the phrase in brackets:
Φαράγγια, λόφοι και βουνά, χαράδρες, δες, κοιμούνται
και τα ερπετά της μαύρης γης καθόλου δεν κουνιούνται.
Των μελισσών το γένος δες, στον ύπνο που εγλυκάθη,
τα κήτη μες στης θάλασσας της σκοτεινής τα βάθη,
των μακροφτέρουγων πουλιών το σμήνος που εβουβάθη.
Gorges hills and mountains ravines see sleep
and the reptiles of black land [at all] not moves
Of bee the genus see in sleep that [felt sweetly satisfied]
the cetaceans inside joined sea of dark the depths
of long-winged bird the flock that [became silent]
So, where would you start? I suppose the first thing would be to try and restructure the sentences so that they make sense in English. Let’s just take that first line to see how other’s have tackled it before we look at what John did. It doesn’t look as if we’d need to do much with it, does it? And yet…
They sleep, the mountain crags and gullies,
headlands and brooks,
Trans. Rosanna Warren (full poem here)
The mountain summits sleep, glens, cliffs, and caves
Trans. Thomas Campbell (full poem here)
Over the drowsy earth still night prevails;
Calm sleep the mountain tops and shady vales,
The rugged cliffs and hollow glens;
Trans. Colonel Mure (full poem here)
The mountains sleep, the valleys and peaks,
The jutting headlands, the tumbling creeks,
Trans. Lionel Casson (full poem here)
Now sleep the mountain peaks and chasms,
The crags, the promontories;
Trans. J M Edmonds (full poem here)
The mountain brows, the rocks, the peaks, are sleeping,
Uplands and gorges hush!
Trans. Edwin Arnold (full poem here)
Okay, styles of poetry have changed over the years and it’s obvious that some of these have been tweaked so that they fit in with contemporary views of rhyme and metre—the American classicist Lionel Casson’s jumps out—but which is the most faithful? What has been lost in the translation?
I said that Alcman was Greek but Greek, as with any other language, has its dialects and Alcman wrote in dialect: Doric, Dorian (the so-called Laconian dialect of Sparta) and Aeolic. Glaswegian is a dialect and I’m sure most of you struggle with my ‘Aggie and Shuggies’. I can translate them into English but they lose so much of their character when I do. Would a more ‘faithful’ translation of the first line of Alcman’s poem be:
Thay kip, th' ben crags 'n' gullies, heidlands 'n' burns,
John opted for:
Dormant are pinnacles and streams of the mountains,
Chasms and bluffs
Everyone else goes for ‘sleep’ apart from Thomas Campbell who plumped for ‘silent’. Dormant is not a bad choice. It originates from Old French dormant, from dormir to sleep which comes from the Latin dormīre. Dormant suggests latent but capable of being activated, ergo asleep. But what word jumps to your mind when you think of a ‘dormant…” It’s a volcano, isn’t it which is a mountain that blows its top every now and then. The phraseology isn’t very modern, is it? It sounds like poetry. We’d probably say something like “The gorges, hills and mountain ravines are dormant,” wouldn’t we? So I’m not sure what John’s aiming for here. But then I’m not sure what Alcman was aiming for either; poetry does not state; we have to deduce and read in between the lines. I would bet that he was using personification here and we are supposed to be imagining mountains actually dozing. It’s a virtual cliché, the sleeping mountain. Nounou Mountain in Hawaii is known as Sleeping Giant as is Mount Carmel in Connecticut. So maybe that’s why John chose not to use the obvious symbolism, because nowadays it’s outdated, but then we lose some of the faithfulness of the translation if that is what he was going for.
Here’s John’s complete poem:
A VERSION OF ALCMAN’S (FL. 630 BCE) “SLEEP” POEM . . .
Dormant are pinnacles and streams of the mountains,
Chasms and bluffs and crawlers fed by the dark earth;
Dormant are wild animals and that tribe of bees
And monsters out of the sea’s dark syntax;
Dormant are clans of birds with wings that envelop.
Compare that to Casson’s version:
The mountains sleep, the valleys and peaks,
The jutting headlands, the tumbling creeks,
The black earth's teeming creatures that crawl,
The beasts of the forests, the swarms of bees,
The monsters deep in the purple seas,
The wide-winged birds, asleep, one and all.
Has John made the poem his own? Yes, I suppose so. Which is the better poem? It’s a matter of taste. But Alcman was a choral lyric poet and so I suspect that Casson’s feels more like he’s struck the right balance. Remember the opening quote from Synge. Bottom line: I’m not educated enough to say.
Okay I’ve spent a long time on this first poem but I did so for a reason, to illustrate the mountain (sound asleep or not) that John Kinsella had to climb. He will have been faced with a list of words that don’t make sense in English and had to try to get inside the head of a man who has been dead for hundreds of years and whose entire oeuvre has been reduced to a hundred or so fragments of poetry. Difficult call. I’m not sure that any of the translations are any more than versions of the original; takes on it, which is what this final poem is.
Greek is completely alien to me; I known Alpha, Omega, Hades, Gehenna and that’s about me. French, on the other hand, I can muddle my way through. Here’s a short poem by Jules Supervielle that I recognised:
LA MER SECRÈTE
Quand nul ne la regarde
La mer n’est plus la mer,
Elle est ce que nous sommes
Lorsque nul ne nous voit.
Elle a d’autres poissons,
D’autres vagues aussi.
C’est la mer pour la mer
Et pour ceux qui en rêvent
Comme je fais ici.
and here’s John’s take on it:
THE SECRET SEA
When no one is watching,
The sea is not the sea,
It is what we become
When no one observes us.
It has other fishes,
And also other waves.
It’s the sea for the sea
And for the ones who dream
Of it as I do here.
Try cutting and pasting the original into Google Translate and you’ll see that John’s is almost a transliteration. Voir is usually understood to mean ‘to see’ but it’s a weak word; the implication here is that we’re being surveilled, spied on, mostly likely without our knowledge. So would I have changed voit to ‘observe’? Quite probably. The context suggests that it’s the right word. In this poem the context is much easier to suss out. The language is simple and straightforward. Regarder is usually understood to mean ‘to look at, watch’. In English you’d say that no one was paying any regard to you. Just to say ‘watching’ doesn’t really underline the level of importance you represent; people aren’t watching you because you’re not important enough to watch. I, personally, might have changed that opening line to, “When no one’s paying any mind to it’ but that’s me and this isn’t my poem. How much is this poem John’s though?
There is a tweet going around at the moment: “When no one is looking at her, the sea is no longer the sea. She is what we are when no one sees us. – Jules Supervielle.” Notice the difference? The sea is now a woman and women are often looked at, even spied on. Okay French has no neuter and so someone, somewhere along the line decided that the sea should be feminine but is Supervielle saying, “It is what we become” or “She is what we become”? I think I prefer to think of the sea as a woman we watch, that we pay regard to. It’s more poetic, like a sleeping rather than a dormant mountain. Is this more faithful to the spirit of the original?
No one notices
when the sea is no longer the sea.
She becomes what we all become
when no one’s watching.
Considering I grew up in Scotland surrounded by people whose language seems to consist entirely of consonants you’d think I would have been drawn to German as a language. I was anything but. My wife took both and has a fondness for the precision of the German language; it’s very German if you see what I mean.
Here’s a poem by Rilke:
Und sie schweigen, weil die Scheidewände
weggenommen sind aus ihrem Sinn,
und die Stunden, da man sie verstände,
heben an und gehen hin.
Nächtens oft, wenn sie ans Fenster treten:
plötzlich ist es alles gut.
Ihre Hände liegen im Konkreten,
und das Herz ist hoch und könnte beten,
und die Augen schauen ausgeruht
auf den unverhofften, oftentstellten
Garten im beruhigten Geviert,
der im Widerschein der fremden Welten
weiterwächst und niemals sich verliert.
Here’s how Google Translate renders this poem:
And they are silent, because the partitions
are taken away from her mind,
and the hours, as she understood it,
lift and go down.
At night many times, when they come to the window:
suddenly it's all good.
Their hands are placed in the concrete,
and the heart is high and could pray,
and rested looking eyes
the unexpected, [often presented]
Calmed square garden,
in the reflection of unknown worlds
continues to grow and never gets lost.
I could only find one other translation online although the translator is not named:
And they say nothing, since the dividing walls
inside their minds have been removed,
and the hours when one would understand them
approach and slip away unstruck.
Sometimes at night, when they step to the window:
suddenly all is well.
Their hands touch the tangible
their hearts are full and fit to pray,
and their eyes gaze restfully
on the unexpected, oft-distorted
garden at peace now in its perfect square,
growing on and on in the reflection
of foreign worlds and never getting lost.
And here’s Kinsella’s version:
And they say nothing, the divisions
removed from their minds,
while the hours, when they are sensed,
lift and leave and are lost.
At night, when they step to the window,
suddenly all is clear.
Their hands rest in the actual,
their elevated hearts can pray,
and their eyes rest tranquilly
on the unexpected, often distorted
garden within the sedated square,
which in the reflected light of other worlds,
increases and never fades away.
God alone knows where Google came up the ‘The Father as a title because the German for ‘father’ is vater. Irren can be translated in a number of ways:
v. stray, wander, roam, deviate; err, make a mistake; be in error, be wrong, be incorrect
n. lunatic, crazy or deranged person, insane person, mattoid
nm. lunatic, crazy or deranged person, insane person
Die Irren literally mean ‘the errers’ but not errors as in mistakes rather err+er+s as in those who err. The closest we have in English would be ‘the mistaken’. The suffix –en, as in German, pluralises the word. I’m not saying that ‘The Lunatics’ is a bad title because it’s not. It’s not neat though. The people in this poem are peripatetic loonies, wandering round the asylum, looking out at its garden. The poem makes that clear but the title does not. At least it does in German because Rilke starts the second stanza with “Nächtens oft”—‘Often at night’—but John’s translation—and the other if it comes to that—misses this, for me, key word.
And again in this poem’s opening line John has opted for a less poetic word than he might have in the first line. Scheidewände comes up consistently as ‘partitions’ rather than ‘division’. Partitions used to be common. Not so much these days. You find them in offices these days rather than homes. They function as room dividers but the important point is that they are meant to keep people separate not simply to break up space.
The last two poems in the collection are by Ouyang Yu, a Chinese poet now living in Melbourne. They were originally published in Jacket 35 in 2008 and you can read them both here along with the original poems. In these cases John had access to the poet. In his introduction he writes:
I [wrote] “translationese” responses to the Chinese of Ouyang Yu, with minimal understanding of the source language, but a deep (I think I can claim) understanding of Ouyang’s poetry in English (Ouyang Yu composes in both Chinese and English). This approach, with just a few words on intention from Ouyang, plus the original Chinese and a Pinyin version was liberating. The resulting poems were responses to the idea of a Chinese-language poem, and the idea of interaction between us as poets. Almost “translating” blind, and always asking the question, translating what?
Here’s the original followed by what Google Translate threw up followed by John’s poem:
他不由 主地激动?动悸动 动乃 动浮动
仿佛从 明中 望了
根?穿 体的 线的中断
PASSION OF A
A passion like pain
He help. Excited. Move throbbing. Action is. Move floating
Another. Above the
He realized one.
Before his death. Now
As if from. Out. Look
Body. Line interruption. Root. Wear.
Then poured out of her mouth in all saliva
Also, I divide along the line,
want to arrive swiftly
with light shining through to a depth we cohabitate —
plimsoll, lateral, fish lines to keep
us upright in water cold
as heat, refulgent
and opaque; through it all
I dart, I lengthen my stroke, slice
through turbulence with my fins wide wide
If I thought the Greek was hard then this is impossible. Let’s just look at the last line which contains two logograms. Google provides six possible translations: withdraw, regain, revoke, call in, retake and countermand so where does John get ‘awake’ from? I tried checking each logogram but that only confused me further. This is a poem where all I could do was read it and trust what I was reading.
The book is similar to Tones/Countertones by Philip Cranston which is subtitled, “English Translations, Adaptations, Imitations and Transformations of Short Poetic Texts from the Latin, Italian, French, Spanish and German.” The main difference is that Cranston includes the poem in the original language which Kinsella doesn’t; all the originals I’ve shown above are ones I’ve searched for online. Is this a good or a bad thing? I think this is a good thing because—and I discovered this when I reviewed the last book of poems I got from Alma which was a bilingual edition—I got caught up comparing versions to the determent of the translation which I found I kept picking holes in like I have done above which is fun in its own way but I really don’t think that is what John had in mind for this book. If you happen to be familiar with the original poems here or a different translation of them try to put that knowledge to the side. The poems that are unfamiliar accept as they stand and not as possibly inferior versions of great poems.
Most translators specialise. They get to know two or three languages inside out and spend a lifetime trying to incorporate every nuance into their translations. Some words are simply untranslatable which is why L'Étranger is known as The Outsider in the UK and The Stranger in the States and let’s not get started on the problems slang expressions and idioms throw up. This was why Beckett preferred to do his own translating which involved almost rewriting the texts for the new language. John Kinsella is by his own admission “an English-language poet interested in the boundaries of language as a thing-in-itself, and in exceeding those imagined boundaries and borders wherever possible.” He is not a professional translator. He lives with a polyglot and was brought up by a mother who, he says, “spent her life exploring new languages, studying a few and delighting in all.” That he would attempt a project like this should come then as no surprise. But I don’t think he’ll be adding the title ‘translator’ to his CV any day soon. That is not what this book is about. It is about introducing all of us to the possibilities that exist in foreign poetry. For many poetry in English is hard enough and as far as they will get, and that’s fine, but there will be others who have never heard of poets like Leconte de Lisle or Charles Cros, both of whom are well represented here, but who have read some Baudelaire perhaps or Rimbaud and have a taste for more; this would be a good starting place because French poetry is well represented. Not so many women—actually not any as far as I could see—and Kinsella acknowledges that this is an area he needs to work on in the future.
For me I would rather he had skipped some of the more well-known poems and tackled a few poets whose work needs translating into English—I don’t know, Polish or Icelandic poets—where even an amateur’s sincere efforts would be better than nothing. Who will buy this book is another thing entirely. I’m not sure that fans of Kinsella’s own poetry will rush to grab this unless they are completists. There is too little of him here. Yes, the poems have been filtered through his life experiences and are a result of choices that he has made but all the ones I looked at were too close to existing translations to make me care. The subtitle “Translations, Adaptations, Versions, Extrapolations, Interpolations, Afters, Takes and Departures” promised much—I was expecting much freer takes on these works—but I didn’t really see it although I confess I did not search out more than a handful of poems online from which I selected the five above as illustrations.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
There are two biographies on his website. The first is boring, what he’s written, where he’s been published, what awards he’s won, etc., etc. You can read it here. The site also contains an alternative biography which is a bit more interesting and I have reproduced it below but resisted the urge to add in all the capital letters:
i established a prominent email poetry discussion list – poetry etc – some years ago. i am a vegan anarchist pacifist of 16 years. i am editor and international editor of a number of well-known literary journals and have had over 30 books of poetry, prose etc published. i am a literary critic and cultural commentator, based at cambridge university in england, though am at present working as a professor in the u.s. i also hold an adjunct professorship in australia. i am a supporter of worldwide indigenous rights, and an absolute supporter of land rights – without which, i agree, there can be no reconciliation. i am against nationalism and the centralised nation-state – which i see as the root of many evils. i believe that the 'control' of language is the most significant factor in resisting colonisation, invasion, and oppression. i believe in decentralised community living, the equality of humans and animals, and respect for the land. i am totally against any form of violence. and finally, i believe in cultural and gender respect. brothers and sisters together!!