This article appeared in Long Poem Magazine no. 3, accompanying my translation of ‘John Keats’, a work by the Greek poet Sikelianós.
Years ago I learnt ancient Greek, but turned my back on it. Recently, translating poems from Europe’s western languages, I’ve found with delight that I can follow modern Greek, given some kind of crib.
A prize was announced for translating Sikelianós and I lit on ‘John Keats’, finding also an Italian version. I get on well with him and have translated several of his poems. This is not the longest, but the most touching, and the most urgently needing to be read. Keats, my London neighbour. Beauty is truth. Writ in water. A deathless legend that moved another poet, born a hundred years later in distant Lefkáda, to fly away with him into Homer’s realms of gold.
I like to work with rhyme and metre, as in the original. This was a very long poem, in translator hours. It was a joy to find so many happy co-incidences, so many rhymes, some ordinary, some curious and unforeseeable. ‘Wake you’ with ‘vehicle’! So many twists and turns and lucky escapes, thanks to the mighty English language.
Looking now, I see the poem begins open-textured and has a higher density in the second half. The translation is the same. There is no conscious decision; one empathises with the original, and follows it: one knows nothing about all that, at the time. Any comment one can make about creating or recreating a particular poem is after the event.
Often I am drawn into translating a poem by a single phrase that enters my head, unbidden. The poem may not be in front of me: it may prove to be much longer than expected. Here it was the manifest beauty of the language that drew me, and such details as the exotic plural word for amber, kekhrimpária, which the ancient Greeks called ēlektron.
My dictionaries work hard.
I translate more from French. Robert Desnos captured me with this:-
J’avais rêvé d’aimer. J’aime encor mais l’amour
Ce n’est plus ce bouquet de lilas et de roses
Chargeant de leurs parfums la forêt où repose
Une flamme à l’issue de sentiers sans détour.
I dreamed of loving. Still I love, but now
Love is no more that rose and lilac spray
Whose perfume filled the woods where each pathway
Led on directly to the blazing glow.
That quatrain grew to be a sequence of thirty poems, Against the Grain, and a forthcoming book of 180 poems, some very substantial. Desnos is the most exciting French poet of the 20th century. He is not unknown, but translators up to now have fought shy of the big metrical rhyming poems, heavyweight poems of his life-crisis, and his great Resistance sequences.
With Jean Cassou, cerebral and little-known, a sonnet of the same period begins:
La plaie que, depuis le temps des cerises,
Je garde en mon cœur s’ouvre chaque jour.
En vain les lilas, les soleils, les brises
Viennent caresser les murs des faubourgs.
Since cherry-time I’ve nursed, deep down,
A wound that opens every day,
While by the walls of Anytown
Lilacs and suns and breezes play.
That grew into two books, and several poems besides. ‘The Madness of Amadis’ is an important long poem of his. He had experienced a broken skull, and rejection by his associates. His 33 Sonnets, composed earlier in a Vichy prison and held in his head, refer to Rilke, Machado, the Latin poet Lucan, Hofmannsthal, and Victor Hugo. Hugo is a great spirit and enormously prolific. He won me over with his last volume of poems, L’Art d’être Grand-Père, which includes a 30-minute poem, ‘Epic Story of the Lion’:
Un lion avait pris un enfant dans sa gueule,
Et, sans lui faire mal, dans la forêt, aïeul
Des sources et des nids, il l’avait emporté.
A lion had clamped its jaws around a child,
And carried it, unharmed, into the wild
Forest, where streams and birds’-nests are at home.
Hugo’s original is all alexandrines; my version is varied. It came out like that.
The Mexican Alfonso Reyes grew into a potential book from one classical line about a cactus:
En lugar del olivo virgiliano,
la planta de cuchillo y de ganzúa,
y el árbol sirve de potencia y grúa
para izar por el cuello al hortelano.
Not Virgil’s olive-tree of Rome.
For forcing locks and filleting,
A skyhook and a scaffolding
The gardener’s neck is dangled from.
Reyes, mainly a prose writer, is a wonderfully varied poet. His successor Octavio Paz called him ‘a group of writers’. He wrote a full-length verse play, hard to stage, called Iphigeneia. He translated much of the Iliad. He was a supreme man of letters, a networker, an animator, a leader.
Ricarda Huch grew to book length from this: Alles Menschenwerk, schönstes, gewaltigstes, endet:/ Auch das heilige Ilion fiel… ‘All our work, the finest, the greatest, must perish:/ Fell at last even holy Troy…’ Modernism passed her by. A long late poem recalls the playtime of children, distantly remembered. Huch was an accomplished historian, essayist, and novelist, and among the first German women with a doctor’s degree, taken in Zurich before German universities admitted women. Arp, Brecht, and Huch all reached me as recommendations: two were exiles, one became a Frenchman; Huch stayed in Germany and emerged with honour. Brecht’s fifteen hundred poems are as good as his plays, and half are not yet put into English.
Als wir zerfielen einst in Du und Ich
Und unsere Betten standen Hier und Dort
Ernannten wir ein unauffällig Wort
Das sollte heissen: ich berühre dich.
We separated into me and you
Our beds were over here and over there
We chose an unobtrusive word, to bear
This private meaning: I am touching you.
Arp the Dada artist, self-translator, punster and fantasist was a challenge for which I needed help.
das mundgerät nimmt nicht notiz von dem verplapp
vermummte muhmenwörter stehen ihm spalier
the mouth-trumpet takes no notice of the tell-tale-tit
muffled auntjemima words line its path
All these poets except Hugo were born between 1860 and 1900.
The Sikelianós prize? There were only three entries, so the competition was cancelled. No matter! He is one of many foreign poets who have brought me immeasurable benefit, which I only hope others will share.