There are many reasons that knowing other languages enriches our lives. I would go into them, but we all know you, dear readers, are here for poetry and not for musings on multilingualism. That said, speaking, or reading more than one language is the best thing that could happen to a poet whose muses have been relatively quiet for a time, as mine have been. That’s not to say that translation is not inspired – in some respects it is more so than writing original poetry.
A poet need only make sure that his or her poem be as perfect as it can be once it’s been set down on a page. The translator must take into consideration the translated poem as a poem in its own right, and on top of that, grapple with the dialogue created by the act of translation itself. I’ve been reading George Puttenham’s 1589 book The Arte of English Poesie. For all the dicta that still ring true about poetry 426 years later, one passage in his first few pages really riled me. George Puttenham had a rather low opinion on the art of translation, which, keeping the cultural context in mind, strikes me as odd – everybody in the world of poetry in the 16th century either was familiar with the Greek and Latin classics, or knew them through the very process of translation that Puttenham badmouths when he says
Euen so the very Poet makes and contriues out of his owne braine both the verse and matter of his poeme, and not by any foreine copie or example, as doth the translator, who therefore may well be sayd a versifier, but not a Poet.
If you’ve been reading the past installments of this column, by now have known me as a Poet (in Puttenham’s scheme). If this is your first time reading me, then you’ll get to know me as one through “Ode to Salt” and “The Sea-Girl’s Song.” The other two poems, “A Song of Nothing” (a Provençal poem from the eleventh century) and “The Fatal” (a Nicaraguan poem from the late nineteenth century) I hope, will showcase my efforts as a versifier – which is to say a translator, in modern (read: unbiased) English.
Until next time!
A Song of Nothing
from the Provençal of Guillhèm de Peitieus
I’ll sing a song of nothing, then
Not about me or other men,
Not about love, or some cute girl –
Not that, of course!
It came to me asleep and still
Upon my horse.
I don’t know what time I was born,
I’m neither glad nor filled with scorn,
I’m not a foreigner nor a native son,
believe me still –
I spent a night with fairies on
a jutting hill.
Am I awake or sleeping well?
I’ve no idea unless you tell
Me, but I know my heart will split
In pain and break.
And I don’t even give a shit,
For goodness’ sake.
I’m sick and I don’t want to die
And all I know is what some guy
Told me I have. Which doctor’s best
And has the cure?
If it works out, I’ll be impressed,
well, that’s for sure.
The girlfriend that I haven’t met
(I haven’t even seen her yet)
Won’t make me grouse.
No French or Normans come or go
Into my house.
I haven’t met her once, you see,
She’s neither good nor bad to me.
When I don’t think of her, sometimes
I love her well.
But there’s this other girl and I’m
Under her spell.
I don’t know where her hometown is:
There are hills and plains all over this
Place. I won’t say she’s done me wrong
Or good. I fear
I won’t be staying much too long –
I’m out of here.
I sang a song. Of what, who knows?
I’ll lock it up for one of those
Who knows someone who likes to read
My ideal reader knows he’ll need
A master key.
Ode to Salt
for Lauren Kessler
from a mountain mine
in the Himalayas
by the crack
of steel on stone,
to the surface of the sea
on the Spanish coast
by the warmth
of the sun,
you find your way
onto our tongues –
your grey grains guarding
between the fingertips
of a baker,
your pink petals
to lovers’ lips,
The Sea-girl’s Song
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed in seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
–“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Because you thought I wouldn’t sing to you
With my inhuman voice, my seaweed hair
Would never wreathe your fingers – in despair
You rolled your trousers up and left me to
Look on alone; you know not what you do
And I will not forgive. You’ve lingered there,
By the beach, looked lustily at us: our bare
Backs, shimmering in the hot and salty air.
We’ve heard you mutter and we know you ache
For some soft touch. But, since you never asked –
Wearing instead a bland, self-pitying mask,
I’ll take you by the hand and I will slake
Your thirst with kisses. No! Don’t shake;
You will not drown because you will not wake.
from the Spanish of Rubén Darío
for René Pérez
The barely-feeling tree is joyous, and
the hard stone’s more because it feels no more,
there is no greater pain that’s known to man
than to be alive – consciousness makes us sore.
To be, not knowing, a compass’s faulty arrow,
the fear of having been can terrify,
so can the scare of being dead tomorrow,
and suffer life, and suffer shadow by
what we barely suspect, what we don’t know,
and the flesh that tempts with ever-fresher fruit,
and the waiting tomb with funereal bough,
and to not know where we will go
or where we’re coming from to boot!…