Sunday, June 30, 1996

Poetry International

AUDACIOUS TONGUES: THE HEART OF TRANSLATION

Poetry is what gets lost in translation
—Robert Frost
As you die/ you meet the light/ of before creation
—Bert Schierbeek



“Sometimes poetry is literally a matter of life and death,” said Martin Mooij, founder and shy godfather of Poetry International in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. A central focus of the 27-year-old literary organization is to liberate poets incarcerated by oppressive governments due to his or her literary work. The annual Poetry International Award “to distinguish an imprisoned poet, was established in 1979 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Poetry International,” said Mooij.

At the 1996 festival, exiled South African writer and political prisoner Breyten Breytenbach, who received the Poetry International Award in 1981, was also the recipient of this year’s translation Vertaalproject where world-class poets participating in the festival translate a selected poet during the annual two-week event. Breytenbach is the only poet to receive both honors.

 Like many of the poets chosen for the Poetry International Award, Breytenbach lives in exile, borderless, without a country, having only his mother tongue to sustain the roots of his art and culture. We began our translation workshop honoring those imprisoned poets—Breytenbach painting the name of the latest recipient of the 18th Poetry International Award, Iraqi poet, Adnam Abbas Salman al-Sayegh, on the Poetry Wall mural on the corner of Niewe Binnenweg and Gaffelstraat in Rotterdam. It is hoped he’ll be released from prison to collect his award.

Executive director Mooij explained, “The Poetry International Award began as a fluke. I'd published some Turkish children's books, and I mentioned the name of an imprisoned poet, Nevzat Çelik.” Mooij said he was merely wondering aloud what had happened to the Turkish poet. Surveying Kruisplein from the squat, modern post-war De Doelen building in Rotterdam, Mooij explained, “The editor promised to write to a government official, and in 1987. . . the poet was set free!”

Mooij continued, “We cooperate closely with PEN International, and the Index on Censorship.” Without the political pressure and media exposure wielded under the auspices of the Poetry International Award, the voices of world-class poets might not be with us today—

Past recipients have included 1979 recipient Moroccan poet, Abdellatif Laabi (confined from 1972 to 1980); 1988 winner Jack Mapanje of Malawi (1987 - 1991); Vasili Stus of Russia (1972 - who died in prison camp in 1985); South Korean poet Park no-Hae (in prison since 1991); Song Lin (1989 - 1990; rumored to be in Paris); and 1981 recipient Breyten Breytenbach of South Africa who went into self-inflicted exile in 1969, and was later arrested for crimes against the state: he was accused of “resistance against apartheid” when he made a secret, illegal visit to his homeland in 1975. He was imprisoned for seven years until 1982. He was released one year after he received the Poetry International Award.)

According to Mooij, “With much public fanfare, the selected poet is invited to attend Poetry International to receive the Poetry International Award which also includes a prize of ∫10,000 Dutch guilders. If he is unable to attend, the award is postponed until the following year. . . . Most awards have been collected.”

Unfortunately Mooij, age 65, poetry pioneer and extraordinary civil servant who has had a profound effect on so many poets around the world, faces compulsory retirement this year; he’ll be sorely missed. One hopes his sucessor, Tatjana Daan, will keep alive the vital poetic traditions Mooij has instated.

Past poets commemorated in the translation, or Vertaalproject include Belgian poet Paul van Ostayen (1972); Tomas Venclova (Lithuania—1980); Remco Campert (The Netherlands—1983); the 1995 Nobel Laureate, and this year’s Poet Laureate of Britain, Seamus Heaney (Ireland—1986), Yehuda Amichai (Israel—1988); Lucebert (the Netherlands—1989); Bert Schierbeek (The Netherlands—1991); Roberto Juarroz (Argentina—1993); Hugo Claus (Belgium, 1995; and of course, this year’s poet, Breyten Breytenbach (South Africa).

As we watched Breytenbach paint the finishing touches on the Poetry Wall, and descend the ladder, I recalled that in his Mouroir: Mirrornotes of a Novel, Breytenbach once wrote a story to establish a monument, or a grave of the Unknown Poet, “to be built into the back wall of a nightclub” in Rotterdam: “Thus I believe it is best situated in some public enclosure or thoroughfare of R’dam—within the confines of de Doelen—on the Kruisplein—along the Lijnbaan—in such a way that it can become a rallying point easily accessible, a place of pilgrimage where resident and visiting poets may leave their ex-voto.”

He envisioned a dedication ceremony with Mother Earth in a gaily decorated coffin filled with poems during a Poetry International festival. “Personally I prefer a grave. . . Why a grave? the body of the poet is her or his poetry. The corpse of the poet is her or his poetry. It can even be argued that every poem is a grave for the unknowable Poem. . . .” With the dedication ceremony over, we took obligatory photographs beneath the mural. And a body of lively poets strolled into the nearest pub to slake the exquisite corpse of our terrible thirst.

Perhaps tongue-in-cheek, Breytenbach wrote from prison, “Poets aren’t incarcerated or tortured for their poetry—at least not very often: the powers that be prefer to lobotomize their poetry, and it is a more refined form of torture.” The Rotterdam Poetry Wall bears ample witness to those incarcerated poets. Chilean poet Neruda once said that the poet’s “. . . function is no more important than other functions, except when he dares to confront the forces of social reaction. And that is dangerous too, because the poet speaks as the custodian of truth.” (Clarín literano, 1971). Breytenbach was incarcerated for being “a custodian of the truth” for South Africa.

One of South Africa’s leading literary and artistic figures, poet-novelist and painter Breyten Breytenbach was born in Bonnievale, Cape Province in 1939. His first collection of short stories, Katastrofes, was published in 1964. Other publishing credits include Collected Poems: 1964-1969; In Other Words: Poems; and In Order to Paint a Sinking Ship Blue (1972, tr. into English, 1983); A Tree Behind the Moon, and House of the Deaf Person (1974); A Season in Paradise (1977, tr. 1980).

In a collection of his drawings smuggled out of prison, Finger Moon: Drawings from Pretoria, Breytenbach uses ordinary objects: a cup, a box of matches, cigarettes, prison-issue blankets, insects—surreally juxtaposed against images of tortured men and hermaphrodites—where he employs a distorted dreamlike perspective of twisted logic reminiscent of Belgian painter René Magritte. (Finger Moon also has text by Rutger Kopeland, Gerrit Kouenaar, Lucebert and Bert Schierbeek). Eclipse (1983); and Mourior: Mirrornotes of a Novel, composed during a horrific period of incarceration in his homecountry’s prisons. Nadine Gordiner wrote of Mourior: “Prison irradiates this book with dreadful enlightenments; the dark and hidden places of the country from which the book arises are phosphorescent with it.” Also published that year: The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1983). Perhaps playing a sleight of tongue on racial issues with the pun, “horse of a different color”, he said, “No, it’s all one horse in” All One Horse (1989);

* * *
We commenced our 27th international gathering of poets—dedicated to Bert Schierbeek and Joseph Brodsky—on a somber elegiac note by paying homage to dead poets—Brodsky (who died in January), and Schierbeek, a co-founder of the COBRA* movement, who died June 9, right before the festival began.

Bert made me, an unknown poet, feel welcome at the 1992 and 1993 Poetry International festivals, and he sent poems to our Mother Earth International Journal, giving us creedence, and, more important, the courage to go on.

At the crematorium, Bert’s translator, Charles McGeehan, and I stood between Dutch poets Jan Wolkers, Willem van Toorn and Simon Vinkenoog, and several hundred other poets coming together. We sent Bert off with words that burned like the stars; his coffin, an arc in search of a new art, covered with flowers and poems for safe passage to meet the light of from before creation. This, our tribe. Remco Campert read a poem entitiled Bert:
. . .
So fragile
his legs
in his trousers
his chest
in his shirt
his hands bruised
from the work
of death

yet suddenly
a glimpse of a wink
never say die
let somebody else
say it
not Schierbeek. . . (tr. Linde Voûte)

* * * *
In the crowded elevator at Poetry International headquarters, I thought of failing cables, and surrealistically quipped, What does one call a group of world-class poets? A gaggle of poets, a heard of poets, a weight—an audacity of poets? We settled on a Genius of Poets and the elevator didn’t crash. Perched in the roof garden foyer of the De Doelen building we were a Genius of Poets from the six continents: the collective brain power exponentially exceeding the sum total of some 200 poets gathered at the festival. An Imagination of Poets belatedly rose to my lips, but I was wedged between Czech immunologist, the doctor-poet Miroslav Holub, Mexican eco-poet Homero Aridjis who founded the environmentalist El Grupo de los Cien, and the 1993-94 U.S. Poet Laureate, Rita Dove (the youngest and only Black woman poet to be so honored), thinking, Omigod, they’ve made a terrible mistake. Somebody pinch me: I’m in the wrong dream. Like the one I had in 2nd grade—where I removed my beautiful red princess coat only to find I was in my holey underwear. My only consolation was that being an Imagination of Poets was the reason we were gathered here, the sum total of my resources: a poet writing poetry.

The art of translating poetry raises some ethical questions: How to approach it? Who is qualified? If a poet who isn’t bilingual or literate in another language, qualified to “translate” poetry into his or her native tongue? Is it unethical? What about integrity? Or imagination? Not everyone can take years to learn another language or two—as did the exiled Russian poet and translator, Joseph Brodsky (1940 - 1996), who studied Polish and English in order to translate Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, John Donne and W.H. Auden into Russian. It’s almost impossible to have equal command of two or more languages; one language always interferes with the other. But both Brodsky and compatriot poet-novelist Vladimir Nabakov were unusual in that they both later wrote in English with equal fluidity—though Nabakov only wrote prose in English.

“Literature reflects the whole of human experience. . . . Bilingualism is not simply a matter of language learning; it involves the culture” states The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. A translator must “see the author’s use of language in the contest of language as a whole.” Or as poet T.S. Eliot put it, “A case of walking languge’s borders.” Most translators agree that translating poetry is an exacting art form compared to that of prose, which is more forgiving.

What if the translators aren’t themselves poets? Brodsky said, the poet is language’s servant: language is not the poet’s instrument, but he is its vessel. The same adage must hold true for translators of poetry. Obviously, the best combination is to have a poet/translator working with the original author. We at the Poetry International translation workshop were poetry’s dedicated servants working under the most ideal of conditions.

At the beginning of the Breytenbach translation workshop, Francis Galloway (of J.L. van Schaik Publishers; one of Breytenbach’s South African publishers), and French translator Georges Lory and Dutch translator Robert Dorsman, who each gave a brief overview on Breytenbach’s work, and, more importantly, gave us carte blanche to use images and ideas different from what appeared in the original Afrikaans.

To feed the spark where words rub shoulders, Breyten often coins new words. Francis described how Breyten, who is also a painter, uses visual imagery with brushlike surreal juxtapositions, and said that he is interested in all possible meanings, the root origins of words, or “multinaety” of layers (to coin a word) buried within language. Though English and Afrikaans are both official languages of South Africa, English is the dominant language. Breytenbach uses street, or worker’s Afrikaans (sometimes called kitchen Dutch), the youngest branch of the Germanic language tree, evolved from 16th century Dutch and a creolization of several African languages.

Some three-dozen of us sat at the tables—unlikely schoolchildren: marxist professor and activist Edoardo Sanguineti, who championed Italian avant-garde poetry of the ‘60s, sat in one smoke-filled corner, toothlessly chewing his cheroot like a pencil; Cairo poet and experimental playwright, Zein al-Abadin Fouad, who suffered years of imprisonment for his outspoken humanitarianism, sat in another. In the sidelines were Arab-Israeli poet Salman Masalha who translated Mahmoud Darweesh into Hebrew, journalist and cultural attaché, Moshe Dor of Israel, with Barbara Goldstein, Moshe’s translator, from New York. Taiwan painter-poet Lo Ch’ing who studied in the U.S. and has brought a new voice to both American and Taiwanese poetry.

Also present was griot Niyi Osundare who chairs the English Dept. at Ibidadan University of Nigeria, exiled Chilean poet Waldo Rojas who teaches the study of history at the Sorbonne in Paris, Henri Habibe of the Dutch Antilles, Afrizal Malna of Indonesia—the only poet who was confined to his “esoteric” tongue—and Linde Voûte, his door, his translator. With not one language in common, we met every morning for a week and translated Breytenbach’s poems into 32 languages including Chinese, Yoruba, and Indonesian. The room contained a Tower of Babel where the common tongue was poetry. Waldo Rojas compared our converstational bedlam in many lenguas to that of Tarzan and Jane in the jungle of ultramodernist constructions.

Linde Voûte and Afrizal Malna of Indonesia
Afternoons and evenings were filled with public readings and lectures that spilled into the midnight hour; informal caucuses rarely ended when the pubs closed. When the summer solstice arrived at the 52nd parallel, with time slipstreaming away into the future, sleep was a luxury.

In night’s meager darkness, we quaffed resevoirs of strong Dutch genever and coffee, only to catnap between readings, on banquet tables, or while waiting in line for dinner—especially after Seamus Heaney discovered the neck of his uisge flask had sprung “a terrible leak.” We, of course, helped him with his problem, the cap, our elegant shotglass; Flemish poet and M.C., Geert van Istendael, was soon proclaiming all poets were Celts, Ogaga Ifowodo of Nigeria giddily raising his cap, nodding in agreement.

Outings to the Pilgrim’s Pub in Delftshaven, where the pilgrims left for the New World, the lovely Belvedere inn on the river dijk in Schoonhaven often ended in singfests. A group of us led by the two Adrians (Henri, and Mitchell, who invented the British “pop poetry” scene with the Beatles), and (Pink Floyd “The Wall” guitarist) Andy Roberts, hopped a tram singing “Poetry, poetry. . .” to a bemused, if captive, Surinamese audience. O brave new world. . . .

Earlier in the week, many of us did mental calisthenics in preparation for the Breytenbach workshop by participating in a “young translator’s workshop”. Dutch translator and workshop leader Rob Schouten, said, “English has become the lingua franca of poetry translation.” (English is an official language in over 50 countries.)

My partner was Lo Ch’ing from Taiwan—my job was easy for he spoke English. We discussed other levels of meanings hidden in the Chinese characters and, due to my dyslexic bent, came up with one of those rare and lucky wordplays that worked in both Chinese and English: Crossword, with the hidden portmanteau or word play of crossed swords. A fortuitous koan for the translation process:

One jet fighter
a single dove
bisecting the sky
draw
an invisible cross (tr. Maureen Hurley with Lo Ch’ing)

Danish philologist Rasmus Rask (1787 - 1832) observed, “Language is a natural object and its study resembles natural history.” But Victor Stevenson in Words (1982), wrote that language is living, continually evolving from parent stock; it spreads far from its native soil, blends with other languages to create a vigorous hybrid (as did English). “A language has no life of its own, it exists solely on the lips of its speakers.” Today’s fresh language is tomorrow’s cliché. Breytenbach said he wasn’t interested in word-for-word accuracy; he wanted a strong new poem to be born out of the process, not a hybrid—leaving the barn door wide open, so to speak. I didn’t know whether to bolt, or imagine a fire in the stable.

Philology traditionally focuses on the historical development of language with two schools of thought: conventionalist and naturalistic—neither accurate in its extreme form. An ancient Greek philosopher wrote (Hermogenes?) the relationship between words and things is arbitrary, “For nothing has its name by nature, but only by usage and custom.” Aristotle also held the former viewpoint. “No name exists by nature, but only by becoming a symbol.” Another philosopher Cratylus evoked the idea of divine origin to support that language came into being naturally, the intrinsic relationships between words and things. “There is a correctness of nature existing by nature for everything.”

Dionysius Thrax (c. 100 BC) wrote first formal Grammar, hammering out a doctorine on the proper usage of correctness and stylistic excellence according to the classical style of Homer. This led to two styles of writing, classical for literature, and the vernacular for poetry. Story of the bible in classical vs vulgate..

My native tongue is American English. I live on the San Andreas fault in Northern California where West meets East, where the Pacific plate creeps north at the rate of two inches a year past the westbound Atlantic plate. I like to compare the growth of language to that of tectonic plates, inexorably shifting. Each time I come to the process of translation, or writing for that matter, I bring with me the subtle shift and evolution of my understanding of my own language buried deep inside me.

What is language? Can one think without a language? Dutch painter and translator Linde Voûte who has translated poets including Lucebert into Indonesian, and Rendra into Dutch, noted, “I’ve been a translator for 20 years. I notice myself change and develop with the language. Your thinking changes because your life changes; it teaches you and influences your way of thinking. Language is continually developing each season, blossoming like a child.” The Indonesian poet she translated for at the conference, Afrizal Malna, is monolingual. “I don’t have this instrument of language. Linde is my door, she opens it, but we have to go through it together.” Afrizal described himself as, “a person living with language.” Both Charles McGeehan and Linde agree the translation process is a kind of alchemy. It requires a certain empathy and a life-long committment to the pursuit of language.

The translation question becomes complex: language continually shifts with the passage of time. One evening Herman Berlandt and I sat drinking wine on the Bolinas Mesa (that small scrap of Pacific plate on the westernmost edge of California that nurtured many writers—including members of the Beat generation—from Robert Creeley to Gary Snyder and Richard Braughtigan) reading from two translations done several years apart of the Gallo-Latin poet Caius Valerius Catullus (c. 84 - 54 B.C.). Sometimes we didn’t even recognize the same poem. Take # 94 “Mentula moechatur.” moechatur mentula certe. . . Mantool fornicates; he fornicates; why not? You know what they say: “For the potherbs, a pot!” (Roy Arthur Swanson 1959 Bobbs-Merrill) Or Frank L. Copley’s rendition (1957 Univ. Michigan Press) Dickie-boy Trill loves somebody’s wife/ o somebody’s wife loves Dick/ which is just so/ (as who doesn’t know)/ as to say that a sticker will prick. Compare these renditions with Frank Bidart’s (1980s??? Linde Voûte suggested the timeless poets need to be retranslated every generation. In this case, the language radically shifted within a decade.

To find the voice of the poem beyond the limitations of our own voice, Linde said, “when you get close to an interesting poet, then you can play a bit. I use different voices to act it out. Touching my lips, I taste the words.” My own ethics (or stubbornness) requires me to be as accurate as possible to the music, the sound, rhythm and nuances, as well as the larger meaning. In each poem, something is sacrificed, or, lost in the translation. If we’re lucky, something is gained. Ultimately it’s all poet’s work—I do believe that it’s necessary to be a poet in order to translate poetry well.

Copies of Breytenbach’s work were available in Afrikaans, Dutch, French and English accompanied by a fleet of dictionaries and thesauri, gallons of coffee and broodjes, paper, pencils, but no erasers. Frankly, I was leery of peeking at the English translations of Breytenbach’s poems. One reason is that I’m too easily seduced by language, I might accept the translation as is, and lazily twaddle with a few words and syntax, then call it a day. What’s the challenge in that? I wouldn’t earn the poem. No blinding insights, or epiphanies. Besides, I feared previous knowledge of bad translations would pollute my mind—translators do make mistakes. Ironically, what I had to go by for comparison were the English translation of poems displayed at Poetry International which were, politely speaking, roughshod. I hate to see my own native tongue so cruelly brutalized. It’s rare translators who can truly translate poetry outside their own mother tongue. There are too many pitfalls. As co-editor of Mother Earth International Journal, I’ve spent countless hours unwrapping poems from poor translations (with poets’ permission) because I could sense a poem imprisoned behind the obstinate opacity of language.

Translating and editing poetry has taught me a thing or two about language. The other language I am conversant, but not literate, in Spanish, I also learned because of poetry—spending time in Latin America with poet friends, I wanted to know what everybody was gossiping about and what those marvelous cadences meant. I also have 15 years of uninvited Sunday Latin (from church) floating around in my head, a few words of nursery school French, and turn-of-the-century Irish—all of which I have no real access to—but they do help me to understand root origins of words. I’m the kind of person who can look up one word in the Oxford English Dictionary and, 30 words (or hours, whatever comes first) later, and completely lose track for what I was originally looking for.

My journey to the process of translation is a circuitous back-door route that encompasses half the globe. I have no formal training other than as poet—and even that profession was self-taught. I’m trained as a painter; I respond to the world in terms of visual images and metaphor. As a self-appointed cultural ambassador, I found myself in Cherkassy, Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union, one hot August night in 1989, where 60 poets had spontaneously gathered via word-of-mouth, with only an afternoon’s notice, for a poetry reading. I was astounded by the power poetry had on Soviets. After my reading, others read their poems, my friend Oleg Atbashian interpreting them to me as I furiously scribbled lines down. I was filled with the Russian cadences, I wanted to know more, and poets plied me with kilos of poems.

My poet friends and I translated poems from the Russian and Ukrainian. The next three years I traveled back and forth to the USSR (later Russia), and rendered, wrestled (or in some cases, abandoned), poems into English. This resulted in a samizdat publication, Soviet Poetry Since Glasnost (San Francisco National Poetry Association, 1990), which gave birth to a global regional poetry publication, Mother Earth International Journal. (Then, as the Glasnost pond rippled, Eastern European poets heard of our publication (Romanians and Albanians??) and began sending us work (Yugoslavia fractured as we went to press), and Latin American poets sent us work, and so on. . . )

The other experiences that have prepared me for translating Breytenbach’s work is spending several seasons (1991 - 93, & 1996) living within the Dutch culture in Amsterdam and Noord Brabant, and over a year editing the African issue of Mother Earth Journal—which required familiarizing myself with the tradition of African poetry, corresponding with poets, and reading hundreds of submissions. During this time, my teachers (and regional editors) were the great African poets Niyi Osundare, Tanure Oajaide, Chenjerai Hove, Kofi Anwoor, Frank Chipasula, Syl Cheney-Coker, Mohammad Afifi Matar, Zein al-Abadin Fouad, and others.

First I did a visual, or imagined, transliteration of Breytenbach’s poems—literally guessing at the meanings of words from their shape, texture, and sound. Of course, it helped to hear Breyten read his poems: the timbre of his voice as he leaned forward, the breathy sculptural Afrikaans words nuzzling in my hair, resonating in the frail shell of ear, to drowse in the nacreous crenulations and folds of brain—all added a powerful stimulus to the translation process—giving me the sibilance and rhythm of the poems (as well as some delicious goosebumps).

Then came the laborious process of looking up, and double-checking every word in the Afrikaans dictionary. I was surprised at how often my guesses were accurate. I think it’s a unique accident that the Afrikaans has a closer connection to American English than, say, Dutch or Frisian. Is it because South Africa and America share a similar history with slavery central to the core? No poems were translated into Frisian, so I can’t make a true comparison. On one poem I did work from the Dutch, and found I was farther away from the meaning of the words than working from the original Afrikaans. Because I didn’t trust myself, I then gave copies of the poems to several Afrikaans/Dutch/English speaking poets and had them back-translate for accuracy’s sake. Only then did I allow myself to play with the language. Only then did I look at the English, and queried Breyten as to other possible levels of meanings.

When I relaxed, I found blinding insights came—the levels of meaning not immediately obvious in the words themselves, but in the extensive lists developed by looking up the Afrikaans words, and by divergent thought processes. The most notable insight came with the translation of The Mouth-Opening Ritual. The Afrikaans dictionary defined the verb, los te tor as a clod, something thick, or an insect—on the tongue?—it didn’t make any sense until I asked myself what death, dirt clods, Africa and insects had in common. What kind of insect? The dictionary didn’t elaborate. Nor did looking at the Dutch translation shed any light: los te torren; a non-existent word; the verb to loosen is los te tornen. Was it a typo, or quite possibly an invented word?

Breytenbach often uses neologisms, he coins words such as “outgasm,” he portmanteaus and “verbs” nouns—for a multinaety of meanings, making straightforward dictionary work challenging business. (And me, a dyslexic!) The English translation of the poem gave no clue whatsoever. I was a struggling Sisyphus pushing words uphill: I idly doodled a ladybug in the margin of the poem. Wait a moment: a dung-hill beetle? A scarab! YES! The Egyptian tradition of death? Then I was plauged with self-doubt: I was the only one to get that connection. Surely it must be wrong. But then came the conviction that it was the right word. Why? On what authority? Of the poet’s intellect, borne of a compulsive necessity to gather obscure facts? Maybe, but unlikely. On an emotional, gut-level I just knew it was right. It resonated. With that insight, the poem fell into place: los de tor, to scarab? No, “scarabing loose the tongue.”

The physical sound and taste of poetry is a powerful, visceral force. When listening to a poet recite in a language I don’t know, the arousal of goosebumps on my arms and neck, has been for me, a signal of a good poem—even when I can’t understand the words. During one of the evening readings, Egyptian poet, Zein al-Abadin Fouad, read a poem with a repeated word that sounded like echalym, that literally had my hair standing on end. Brodsky’s litanies also had that effect upon me. One afternoon in the De Doelen Hospitality Room, where numerous impromteau translations were simultaneously combusting tête à tête, we rough-translated Zein’s prison poem, Dream, and it still had the same effect on me in English! In prison,/ dreams enter the body of the day/ Dream and reality having the same face. . . my condemnation are equally balanced . . . I am the prisoner, the judge, and the guard. (Upon my return home to California we watched the total Lunar eclipse, Paul Bowles translator and biographer Jeffrey Miller brought his new Moroccan wife, Nazette. When I mentioned Fouad’s name and said the Arabic word Echlam(Dream) she recited from memory, giving me goosebumps anew.)

In the process of translation, I need to say the words out loud, walk the rhythm of the lines until my body and mind are in accord, walking in time with each other. In Breytenbach’s “Une Vie Sans Ailleuers”: and that strangled cry/ like the blackbird ribboning back from the reeds. . . . I was the madwoman gesticulating and pacing the catwalk on the roofgarden until the words slid into place.

Breytenbach uses surrealistic images as brush strokes, toying with syntactical language structures. Though he gave us permission—no limits—to alter poems or change the images, I found my integrity to the images wouldn’t let me stray too far from what I presumed to be the primal tension and definitive form of the original poem. I had to stretch and grow to make choices outside my own sense of poetics to convey his poetic structure in English. In a milieu of comic relief, I toyed with the idea that anything—especially poetry— can be translated—is an absurdism like counting the angels on the tip of my pencil lead. But I was reminded of what my Dutch translator, Vincent van Neerven, said over a glass of genever, “Translation is never exact to begin with—yet in poetry, you need the exact right word. One word—and one word only—will do.” Neruda’s translator, poet Ben Belitt in Adam’s Dream: A preface to Translation, (Oak Grove, 1978), said every word is a confrontation, every choice, a visible committment. This is where a translator’s integrity comes into play with the poet’s imagination—a return to my own poetic checks and balances so greenly mirrored in multiple images. Do I choose the very literal: where the dying bind/ breath condensed on the windowpanes or go with: where the dying contract with our breath/ on the windowpanes? Ironically, I sometimes came up with the same coined words: the blackbird ribboning back from the reeds, though it took me a long, long time to get there.

The idea is to lose as little as possible of the form and content: the emotional/ visceral, visual/ primal and intellectual/abstract, imagery of a translation, yet owe poetic allegiance to the heightened resonance of one’s mother tongue: I thought of Vinz’ story of a truck he saw in Athens withΜεταφορα Transport Company blazoned on the sides—getting the idea across. And then, back to the elevator metaphor raising an imagination of poets skyward where life and death are forms of exile. I began the translation workshop thinking I wasn’t dressed for the occasion, only to discover in my nakedness, I was appropriately dressed after all. Dream with our eyes in the flames. . . where, letter by letter, long -forgotten words splutter into sparks. . . I noted that when Herman Berlandt reduced Breyten’s poems to veritable haikus, Breyten stroked his beard, and responded with, “Hmmm. Well, you’ve certainly taken some poetic license!” So there are limits—even for Breytenbach.

Below are my translations from the Afrikaans. Aubade (Eerste Lig), and Snow in Paris,1 (Sneeu in Parys), are my visual translations—or transliterations in the “Poundian” tradition where I guessed from the sound timbre and pattern of words what the poem was about. The second translation of Eerste Lig (First Light) and Sneeu in Parys (Snow in Paris) are wrested directly from the Afrikaans as are Une Vie Sans Ailleurs (A Life Elsewhere) and Die Mond-Oopmaak Ritueel (The Mouth-Opening Ritual). I discovered that by the third poem I was becoming familiar with the Afrikaans language, and the abstract visual translation process no longer worked. I did use the English to compare and contrast, once I’d translated the poems. After I’d finished working on the poems, having taken Breyten to task on the opacity of some of the English translations, I found out they were his own translations!



UNE VIE SANS AILLEURS
(A LIFE ELSEWHERE)

but why is the heart always compelled
to think with darkened wings
from where does this wind arise in the clear sky
that makes the trees noiselessly bend and stray?
and that strangled cry
like the blackbird ribboning back from the reeds
and all those blind houses
where the dying contract with our breath
on the windowpanes?
no matter the color of the nightwatchman’s coat
or how long feathers have swirled in the courtyard?
What’s the point in remembering
incoherent ramblings at dusk
again
behind the sun in a woman’s eye at dawn
the woman in the sun beneath the hanging branch?
how many dead, open-mouthed on the mesa
is there anything left to be known?

the crusted blood, the ashes of bone-fires
forgotten on the cold ground—
from the roaring forest or glacial stars
the wind unfurls its dark wings
but what will the heart still sing?

translation from the Afrikaans
DIE MOND-OOPMAAK RITUEEL
(THE MOUTH-OPENING RITUAL)

then death comes
you must be at hand
you must recite from the book
you must isolate yourself, mumbling
you must make-believe true words will explode
spurting white, suckling the night
the dying man whose gaping mouth
rills and quivers hoarsely
retching outgasms
and then:
to the rattle of straining wings
you must, with one finger, lean forward
articulating the sacred gesture,
scarab loose the tongue
a leap. a curl, comma, sigh
for then life goes
like sparrow flight voraciously
keening in the woods
devouring the orchards
of memory
in naked song.

translation from the Afrikaans

EERSTE LIG (AUBADE, I)

Dawn light strokes the sky of the sea
chasing shadows from our heads
urgent dreams, bright, restless
against the lingering slumber
of your body next to mine.

The uneasy origin of poet’s work
trapped within the childish speech
wants to reinvent the world
where flight was not lost to the struggle of defeat
Our mouths open, tonguing
the fleeting warmth of your throat

How certain love seemed in the morning
I held the fading eye of your body
against that deeper sleep

But you threw open the balcony windows
the blind angel trampled
the circle of light

scattering mirrored words
on the new song of the wind

visual translation from the Afrikaans


SNEEU IN PARYS (SNOW IN PARIS, 1)

In the darkness
after the seasons have touched us
snow over Paris
becomes a pyre of light
beneath grey conversation

the sky dead
with all the damp colors
bleached by the language of strangers
we reminisce without the clarity
neglected memory leaves a trail
verdant islands amid drifts of paper

in viscous gutters
handwritten notes scored by bird’s script
escape into the blank silence
like fresh voices of eastern verse

So you made it out of the labyrinth?
with one eye on the drowned flame
the holes in the wall
trap the words that escaped
letter by letter from other prisons

open window in the fog
the road clothed in white sheets
in the white-dark scribble
leads to shuttered rooms of empty houses
how will love find us again?

visual translation from the Afrikaans


EERSTE LIG (FIRST LIGHT)

first light furrows the spume
on the dark-tonsured crest
the dreams foundering
on listless wings
your slumbering body next to mine

the polished brilliance—blinding
how the child in me
remembers the careless memory
of the known world
where birds soared in and out
the oldman within me recalls the child
like the abandoned memory
of a warm throat

how soft your body pulses in the morning
all your sloe-eyed flesh

are you still with me?
you who opened the balcony window
so the purblind angel might stumble out
only to fade behind the light

all is mirror/
we must find each other again

translation from the Afrikaans

SNEEU IN PARYS (SNOW IN PARIS)

out of all the darkness
and the many seasons
snow over Paris
this morning, a sheet of light
beneath grey blankets

the damp skies
saturated color
dusted beneath a strange tongue
with the noiseless memories
etched lines vanish into drifts of paper

thick chimney smoke
a bird composes hand-notes
a flight in the white stillness
of fresh eastern verse
and a sleeve smudges it

shall we build a fire in the hearth?
dream with our eyes in the flames
how the hollows and imprints
of long forgotten words,
letter by letter, splutter into sparks

and go up in smoke
to whirl away
over the white roofscape?
shall we not forget the dead houses
yet, breathe love in again?

Maureen Hurley translation from the Afrikaans

© 1996, Maureen Hurley



An earlier version of this article.

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