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   John Dewey is the author of Mirror of the Soul. A Life of the Poet Fyodor Tyutchev (Brimstone Press 2011)    

   Q1. Do you only ever translate from a language you  know well?
   A: Yes (Russian, German, occasionally French).

 Do you prefer to read other translations of the piece you are translating?  (a) Before starting  (b) After making a first draft (c) Never ?
A: I avoid this if at all possible, as I prefer to start from scratch and would worry about unconscious plagiarism. It would of course be a different matter if asked to revise an existing translation, but this has never arisen.

Q3.  Do you use a dictionary?  If “Yes”, do you use a foreign language/English dictionary or a dictionary in the source language itself?
A:  Yes, both: Foreign Language-English for quick reference, FL-FL for more obscure points, use of words in context, and so on. Also useful are a thesaurus and (for poetry) a rhyming dictionary.

Q4. Do you show your translation to anyone before sending it off?
A:  No.

Q5. Do you ever translate books or poems you don’t like?  If “Yes”, does this bother you when translating?
A:  Like everyone, I suppose, I prefer to translate things I like and have some sympathy with, but have also undertaken work on a ‘jobbing’ basis as long as the original is not too disagreeable. Recently I did turn down a commission, unable to face the prospect of translating a distressing and evidently autobiographical account of a young girl’s struggle with cancer. 

Q6.  Do you work regular hours or in spurts ‘when you feel like it’?
A: I try to keep to a routine, particularly with longer prose pieces. Having said that, both with poetry and tricky prose passages inspiration often comes away from the desk, while doing something else.

Q7. Do you use stimulants (e.g. coffee, alcohol, drugs) to ‘get started’?
A:  No (unless walking counts as a stimulant: the steady rhythm seems somehow conducive to poetic translation!) 

Q8. Could you give examples of particular difficulties in translating poems or prose from a specific language ? Have you any tips about how to get round these difficulties?
A: Rhymes (especially feminine, i.e. double-syllable ones) are much more abundant in inflected languages such as Russian than in English. Some of the strategies for dealing with this are discussed below (No. 10).

Q9.  Do you see yourself as a ‘literal’ translator or a ‘free’ one?
A: As others have no doubt pointed out before, in many ways this seems a misleading choice. After all, neither a resolutely literal nor a completely free translation would convey much if anything of the spirit of the original. My own aim is to produce a faithful translation: as ‘literal’ as possible, as ‘free’ as necessary, if one insists on putting it in those terms. A possibly more productive question: What would the author have written if his/her native language had been English?

Q10. When translating rhymed poetry, do you try to imitate the rhyme scheme and metre?  (a) always; (b) sometimes; (c) never ?
A: While full of admiration for translators able to convey the spirit of rhymed metrical poetry in English free verse, I personally find it easier to retain a formal framework as far as possible. It seems to me in any case an integral part of the poem’s musicality. Sometimes this can be achieved without sticking blindly to the original scheme,  for instance by substituting half-rhyme (especially for feminine rhymes) or by rhyming only alternate lines.
John Dewey July 2012

Note about the translator and his book :

Mirror of the Soul. A Life of the Poet Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-73)
 by John Dewey

Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-73) was a contemporary of Pushkin and is widely considered his equal as a lyric poet. This new biography tells the story of a fascinating life and personality as reflected in the poems, presented here in the author’s own verse translations.

  How can the soul its flame impart?
How can another know your heart,
The truths by which you live and die?
A thought, once uttered, is a lie,
The limpid spring defiled, once stirred:
Drink of it, and say not a word.

A paradoxical statement for a poet to make, one might think. Unless, that is, he believes poetry to be uniquely capable of challenging the opaqueness and inadequacy of language alluded to in these lines. Tyutchev’s lyric verse can be read as an intimate diary of his inner life (the ‘mirror of his soul’, in the apt phrase of a contemporary), publication of which he resisted or at best tolerated throughout most of his mature years. It was largely thanks to the persuasion and efforts of others that his work became more widely known.
Tyutchev’s poetry combines emotional intensity with philosophical depth, revealing glimpses of an eternal, unfathomable reality beneath the fleeting world of appearances. His nature lyrics are unsurpassed, as is the remarkable ‘Denisyeva cycle’ charting a tempestuous long-term extramarital relationship.
In his own country his literary status has never been in doubt. He was the favourite poet of Leo Tolstoy, who declared: ‘One cannot live without him.’ For Dostoyevsky he was ‘our great poet’, for Turgenev (who published his first volume of verse) ‘one of our most remarkable poets’. Afanasy Fet considered him ‘one of the greatest lyric poets ever to have existed on this earth’. Yet outside Russia Tyutchev’s name remains curiously unknown.
John Dewey’s biography — the first in English, and one of the most comprehensive to date in any language — provides a long overdue introduction to this major figure, with new verse translations by the author. Written with the general reader in mind, the book also makes important new contributions in the field of Tyutchev studies. For its account of the life it draws on an extensive range of sources, including much previously unpublished archival material. Datings, addressees and circumstances of composition are established for a number of the poems which have hitherto proved problematic in this respect. Tyutchev’s poetry, and his relationship to the major intellectual and political movements of his age, are subjected to detailed analysis and reassessment.

Reviews of Mirror of the Soul:
‘magnificent book … beautifully written and edited. It will be, for a long time, the standard work on Fyodor Tyutchev anywhere in the world’
– Times Literary Supplement
‘This book is not only the first life of Tyutchev in English, it is by far the best and most complete anywhere, including Russia. Dewey’s scholarship is meticulous’
– Literary Review
‘magnificent biography … the clear writing and lively exposition keep the reader fully engaged … a highly informative and richly rewarding volume’
– Slavonic and East European Review
‘Not least impressive are the translations of Tyutchev’s lyrics which … give the non-Russian speaker a real sense of the originals’
– Malcolm Jones, Emeritus Professor of Slavonic Studies, Nottingham University
‘brilliant analysis of the lyric verse … penetrating commentaries on [Tyutchev’s] political writings.’
– Radio Free Europe
‘has convincingly resolved many of the unresolved questions of Tyutchev’s biography … Brimstone Press are to be congratulated on making it available.’
– East-West Review

555 pages, including 17 photographs. Also available as a downloadable e-book.

      Order from Brimstone Press website Price £20 free p&p; add £3.50 for Europe, £9 for rest of world.   Downloadable e-book: £10.

Other translations by John Dewey have appeared in the series Glas New Russian Writing, among them Boris Yampolsky’s chilling novel of everyday life under Stalin, The Old Arbat, and The Nomadic Soul, a collection of stories by the US-basedwriter Irina Muravyova. His published verse translations include a substantial selection for the 15-volume Complete Works of Pushkin in English, and a version of Pushkin’s narrative poem The Bronze Horseman which was
shortlisted for the John Dryden Translation Prize.          SH


Those of you involved in the ‘business’ of translation, whether for gain or pleasure (or a mixture of both) will probably be interested, more likely  alarmed, to hear about “Duolingo”, the brainchild of Luis von Ahn, an American computer scientist. The business strategy behind Duolingo is adroit : Duolingo  offers  free online tutoring but doubles as a non-free translation service. Nothing specially innovative about that, you might think : there exist several good free educational sites on the web (I recommend Khan Academy) while there is a growing need for translators, especially in technical areas, because of globalisation. But Duolingo joins the two strands together to form a closed loop : learners pay for their tuition by translating material which can be sold on, so Duolingo has it both ways !

       So far, where translation is concerned, computers and artificial intelligence have proved to be no match for humans : chess programmes can beat grandmasters but automated translations are usually awful. This is not surprising : you don’t need life experience to solve Sudokus but language, even that used in technical manuals, crucially depends on context — a computer finds it hard to decide whether a ‘plant’ is the vegetable or industrial variety.  But what about learner human translators? Are they going to provide unexpected competition for the professionals? The idea is not so daft as it may sound : there will apparently be a system of cross-checks and revisions before a Duolingo translation is given the OK. It is not inconceivable that a large and varied number of enthusiastic translators, if properly supervised, could come up with something quite interesting.

Von Ahn seems to have his sights more on factual stuff than the sort of material showcased on this website  — one of his aims is to get the whole of Wikipedia translated into Spanish without paying a penny — but learners might well have something to offer even in the field of literature proper. The Elizabethan and Jacobean era was a golden age for fine translations (Chapman’s Homer, Plutarch, The King James Bible, &c.) although, by modern standards, the translators were rank amateurs. Beginners have an enthusiasm for a new language and its poetry that people who translate for a living have, in most cases, long since lost : Ezra Pound, arguably the greatest 20th century English translator of poetry, remained gloriously ignorant of most of the languages (Provencal, Anglo-Saxon, Chinese) he trafficked in.

 Maybe, given the nature of von Ahn’s business formula, one ought to get one of his students to translate into English the French expression, “Aux frais de la princesse” , or, better still  —  but this would be for advanced students only — into Sixties Cockney. We’ll see if any Duolingo student manages to come up with “Down to Larkin” which is what you said to a London publican when he asked you to settle up for your last ten pints.   S.H.  

Note : I heard about Duolingo via the excellent article “Learn a language, translate the web” by Jim Giles (New Scientist, 14 Jan pp. 18-19)

Who, if I were to scream, would hear me
amidst the din of those up above?
If one of them were to take me under their wing,
I would vanish in their stark design.

That ideal is nothing other than the onset of a horror
that we are drawn to, and wonder at,
and all the while it threatens to destroy us.
For these angels bring terror.

But if we are to swallow grief, where should we find solace?
Not in those up above, nor in others.
And even the dogs in the street can sniff out
our existential anxiety.

Perhaps there is some hilltop tree, seen on our daily commute,
or the other fixtures and fittings of our lives.
Then there is the night, when a huge nothing confronts us.
Darkness lies there in wait for all of us, softly enticing,
with desire and nocturnal disappointments.
But do couples simply hide behind each other to forget their fate?
Throw off that empty gesture of longing.
Let it waft into the sky and make more space for those birds that are full of flying.

Springtime sought you out.
Stars hoped to be spotted by you.
Waters move at your orders.
Violins pour out of open windows.
This was your calling, if you had the stomach for it.
Anticipation was too much.
As if for the arrival of a lover.
As if you had time for one, amidst your lucubrations.

So sing of the lovers of the past. Their stories can never be proclaimed enough.
Especially the abandoned lovers whom we almost envy.
Begin over again forlornly to sing their praise.
Think how heroes outlive themselves, how their fame is made anew each day.
But lovers by their nature burn up in their passion once and for all.

Have you heard of Gaspara Stampa,
whom all abandoned lovers should aspire to be like?
Should we not have learned from these endless sufferings
that it is time that we released ourselves, as an arrow flies from the string,
to become more than ourselves? The holding on is inertia.

Soundings. Soundings. Hear, my heart, as only prophets have heard,
so that they’ve been raised up from their knees, rapt in their hearing.

Not that we could endure, by any means, the voices of eternity.
But listen to those signals, the news that stays news,
formed out of silence, that streams to you today from those who died young.
Does their fate not speak to you through the architecture of old Italian churches? Or that inscription in Santa Maria Formosa?
And my task is to lessen that sense of grievance that clings to them and can hinder the pure progress of their souls.

Strange, to no longer inhabit the earth,
to no longer follow frail routines,
for roses and other pretty things
to no longer have human significance.
To be no longer what one was in infinitely
patient hands. To shed even one’s name,
to lay it aside like a broken toy.
To no longer will. Strange,
also, to see what once cohered
now flutter loosely amongst the celestial bodies.

To be in this state is laborious,
full of the little stirrings needed
before one can retrieve something of eternity.
We draw these borders too readily.
They say the dead don’t know if they move
amongst those who live or those who’ve passed away.
Both are immersed in an eternal current that envelops all ages,
and finally drowns them out.

And eventually they no longer need us;
they wean themselves off this earth.
But we, who crave the great mysteries,
who find in sorrow inspiration,
could we survive without the dead?

And what does the lament for Linus leave us with?
In the unexpected space where the godlike youth had been:
the pioneering notes of a pained harmony that can delight and comfort and help.

Commentary :

When I started this I knew hardly a word of German. I did have in mind what Ezra Pound did in his versions of Old English and Latin, though I did not go as far as Pound’s extremes in his 20th century equivalent of Propertius. I do subscribe to Pound’s notion of translation as creative criticism. This version took over a year. The commentary that follows is an attempt to present an edited version of some of the thought processes.

The first word? Should we begin with Who – the most common translation? How this word has echoed down through the 20th century in thousands of readings, passing through many languages. The first stirrings of consciousness, of self-consciousness. Who am I? Who is out there? Who might affirm my own presence? Or a more phonetic rendering of the original through Where? Instead, the original is echoed later in this first line. And to scream instead of the usual cry, to echo the German schriee.

The angel problem arises early on. It emerges out of the original and into the light of the new poem, newly born, unsure, and falls flat on its face. The decision was to go for those up above instead of angel. Some readers might be offended, but the connotations of angel make it an untouchable here, and indeed elsewhere. The modern English poem can’t stomach it. At least there is still the implied sense of hierarchies.

The translator’s problem is that, when recreating this poem, the term angel must take on its own meaning throughout the sequence. It must come into being as something other than what most people think of when they hear the word, but this is impossible when the translation is re-making the poem and the subtleties of the later descriptions have yet to come into being. No, the angels of this poem are terrifying for the translator and their very mention is enough to destroy the work. They will only exist in the margins, between the lines, in the wing-beat of enjambment.

The idea of angel is hinted at in the next line with: under their wing. More interestingly is the end of the next line. First of all I wrote, flounder in the depths of their being, but then I remembered Ezra Pound’s translation of The Seafarer. I considered a phonological approximation of the original stärkeren Dasein. I decided to try the term stark design. It took its place fairly and squarely in the poem.

There are other phonetic equivalents in these lines. For example, zerstören calls to mind the English destroy. The ghost of the sound of the original haunts this poem like the ghost of iambic pentameter haunts Eliot’s free verse.

But the next hurdle was the iconic line: Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.

While it seemed impossible not to include the word angel here, it occurred to me to give the line a jolt with all the connotations and perhaps a certain immediacy that come with the word terrorist. It is only the proximity of this term and the savour of paradox here that allows the admission of the word angel. And terror rather than terrorist? The history of France and Russia and the founding of just about every modern state swirls around this word.

The real trouble in this section is to be had with the German schone. The are two options. Either the line should be paraphrased or the literal translation, the word beauty, has to be avoided. Especially with the appearance in the same line of another abstract noun. The angel of the elegies is, to my mind, more akin to Blake’s mythological characters than to the traditions of organised religion. The word ideal is an attempt to generalize. I hold my hands up here. I hit a brick wall and this fudge of a word might be the only way around it. It is less of a crime than some of the printed translations.

Gass’s book should be required reading for anyone engaging with Rilke’s poem. But there are places where his reasoning is suspect. For example, where he castigates Leishman’s translation for his wrestlerish angel but then goes on to write of the angels’s grip in his own version.

Gass only comments on his translation of the first page. I would have liked to hear him justify his next line which includes, There’ve been stars to solicit your seeing. As ‘translatory’ as it gets! There is a fake book online that purports to be a translation of Rilke by robots. But many of the official translations sound like they’ve been done by robots.

Here’s the dilemma for any translator of the elegies. For the next passage might seem like a kind of rest, a prosaic interlude. Does one translate as literally as possible or summarise to get it out of the way quickly? We want only the fireworks.

It took a long time to decide between mission, calling or vocation for auftrag. Calling sends us back to the first line. For the poet, the calling is a calling out.

Next l take Leishman’s line: with all those great strange thoughts going in and out and often staying overnight. I’ve abbreviated it to lucubrations, a rare example of a long latinate word in this version but I felt that it captured the sense of the lines succinctly.

A note on the overall style of this version. Various translations exist which make Rilke sound like staccato histrionics. To my mind, the rhetorical flourishes and the existential meditations can only work in a more laconic style, though this perhaps betrays my own failings more than anything else. I wanted it to sound as, much as possible, like it had been written in English, even if I did, at times, employ everything from William Gass to Google translation.

The next lines I have tried to keep as simple as possible. The distinction is made clearly between lovers and heroes and the former are given embodiment in the name Gaspara Stampa. I would even consider getting rid of this name as I have done with the names of the Italian places a few lines later but it carried too much weight in the original and readers will have to do some work here.

I had a lot of trouble with the aphoristic, Denn bleiben ist nirgends. For the last word I decided on inertia for the sound as well as the sense. Bleiben is translated as staying in Leishman and Gass but this word didn’t seem to have the same force as, I presumed, the original. I considered the staying put but it sounded awkward. Biding seemed closer to the original sound but didn’t fit with the rest of line even with the definite article before it. The answer lay in going back to the previous lines about the arrow released from the string and finding the opposite in the holding on, which also has echoes of lovers desperately trying to maintain a relationship, albeit with the unfortunate echoes of a certain pop ballad. It also conjures up the image of the arrow frozen at the moment before release and stuck in time.

I start the next section with soundings instead of the usual translation of voices, partly because of the similarity to the original stimmen, but also with the added meaning of sounding out. I change saint to prophet, again playing down, if only slightly, the religious connotations.

Not much later comes a passage that is at the heart of this elegy but which hasn’t been done justice in any translation I’ve read. My first version, which is close to previous ones, began with

To be in this state is laborious,
full of the little gatherings needed
to retrieve something of eternity.

 But the problem here is what sort of gatherings, or as Leishman calls it, retrieving, or as Gass writes, all that catching up, can lead, in Rilke’s terms to a hint of eternity for the newly dead?

In a letter from 1920, Rilke wrote: ‘Only … when death is not accepted as an extinction but imagined as an altogether surpassing intensity, I believe, is it possible to do justice to love’. The retrieving can be imagined as the same process that the living go through when remembering those who’ve passed away. Tennyson writes of something similar in his In Memoriam: the only immortality is the memories of others. Can we imagine the dead gleaning an altogether different kind of consciousness? This mirroring of the grieving process and the newly dead state is confirmed afterwards with the blurring of the distinctions.

Might it be too much to see this as a sort of reawakening? This nachholn is a coming round, or as I finally settled on, a stirring. Perhaps also with a sense of steeling oneself.

The paradox of Rilke’s ideas about death are inherent in one of the last lines of the elegy when he says, konnten wir sein hone sie? Both Leishman and Gass render it as, could we survive/exist without them? That last word, them, of course, is the dead who have just weaned themselves off the earth. But this rendering leaves open the misreading (to my mind) of: can we go on living after loved ones have passed away? But Rilke seems to be asking the opposite question. He’s asking here whether living is possible without death. The word, them, is so far removed from what it refers to, across several lines, as to cause unnecessary confusion. So my version avoids this for the sake of clarity and also to try to keep the sharp metallic taste of Rilke’s paradox.

I decided to shape the lines in a kind of free verse, allowing the phrasing to suggest, as naturally as I could, their own endings, but in other places the lines seem to sweep onward. They fill themselves to the brim with their own longing. The ending, for example.

Stephen Brown     June 2011

Review of  Saudade, an Anthology of Fado poetry  Edited by Mimi Khalvati, Selected by Vasco Graça Moura  Published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation 2011

Fado is music associated with a place.  Like Memphis Blues, Cuban Son, Colombian Cumbia, or Argentinean Tango, Fado celebrates its birthplace, evoking the streets and characters of Lisbon, that ‘city of sailors that never puts out to sea.’  And, just as Blues tells you all about the Blues, every Fado song is a re-exploration of what Fado is: that melancholy yearning for lost or unattainable happiness, which in Portuguese goes by the name of saudade.  With its feet in the poverty of the gutter, Fado has made a transition from the street to the stage and now, with the publication of Saudade: an anthology of Fado Poetry, it has arrived in the London literary establishment.

   Why would this genre of Portuguese song attract poets in a way that the Blues, Son, Cumbia and Tango do not?  What makes Fado special?  Reading this anthology whilst listening to the songs being sung, it is easy to understand the attraction.  The songs have a lyrical hinterland in the broader poetic culture of Portugal that adds depth to their common themes: loss, yearning, memory, poverty, solitude and sadness.  Although the songs are clearly meant to be sung they can also stand as lyrics: they scan and rhyme.  And, to go by what the writers in this volume tell us, the rhythms of the Portuguese language exercise a peculiar charm over the musical sensitivities of British poets, even when they do not understand the words.

   When you first start to investigate Fado or Saudade you will recognise this sound instantly: it is the soundtrack to a thousand posh shops and wine bars.  Saudade has filtered into the consciousness as much through Brazilian CDs of Saudade, where the traditions of Portuguese song took root with mass emigration in the nineteenth-century, as through tourism to Portugal itself.  The Fado/Saudade tradition is continually re-inventing itself, as some of the lyrics in this collection tell us:

                        Confesso então que chorei
                        Que julguei por tais razões                       
Que o fado tinha morrido

(Alberto Rodrigues, p.54: ‘I confess I cried/thinking because of these/Fado itself had died).

    The clear and concise historical note by Rui Vieira Nery that introduces the collection explains how Fado became associated with nationalist sentiment during the Salazar regime which promoted it as a key attraction to foreign visitors.  Spain did something similar with Flamenco.  The popular singers of the fifties and sixties who tapped into the Flamenco traditions, such as Lola Flores and Carmen Sevilla, are called folklóricos.  They weren’t just for the guiris, or tourists; they were important in building a sense of national identity in an age of rapid social change.  Fado is a Portuguese folk music tradition, like Flamenco, and has the same range of popular to experimental singers and writers.  It is the popular expression of a deeper cultural phenomenon- saudade– and has the capacity of all folk music to return to its roots and periodically revive itself.

   The Calouste-Gulbenkian Foundation has brought together a group of writers of various backgrounds to translate fados, selected by Vasco Graça Moura and edited in their English dimension by Mimi Khalvati.  Originals usefully appear alongside English language versions.  The songs are prefaced in sections under the translators’ names, rather than by the original authors whose biographical information is relegated to an appendix; the voice of the English language poet is given priority.   These ‘translators’ are poets, first and foremost, and have taken their task as translating the feeling of lyrics, which many of them confess to not understanding in the original, having been provided beforehand with literal translations to work from.   They are faced with a double problem in that, first, there is no context for this poetry in English and, second, translating a sung lyric into a poem to be read is a difficult task in itself: poetry has its own musicality.

   It is immediately apparent that there are one or two good poets represented in the collection, such as Antonio Lobo Antunes, whose Valsa breathes a quality of metaphorical expression several degrees more subtle than the simpler Fado songs.  Sorrizo da vazante na almofada (The smile of the ebb-tide on the pillow) is a beautiful image that ties in with the symbolism of sea/beach/tide corresponding with desire/rejection/loss and culminating in the crushing final lines:

            A noite tem segredos
            Que dizem coisas que não seu capaz

            (the night holds secrets
            Which say things that I cannot say).

Philip Jenkins, the translator of this poem, is an amenable guide.  He gives a good parallel version of the text, does not go out of his way to ‘poeticise’ his diction, maintains the images and ideas in their order and shows respect for the original by not doing it excessive violence in his translation.  Alexandre O Neill is another poet of renown.  His poem Gaiv ota seems to demand reading rather than listening, to resolve the paradoxes of the heart in the chest and in the hand, the power of the gaze- olhar– and then to reread the gentle musicality of the chorus:

                        Que prefeito coraçao
                        No meu peito bateria.

The sung version of the Fado is good, but I still prefer it as a poem.

   The inclusion of these two quality poems in a book of song lyrics is a little like including Yeats in a collection of Bob Dylan and John Lennon lyrics: they share space but they are not the same thing.  And, curiously, the better poem does not make the better Fado.  I watched an aged Alfredo Marceneiro singing Henrique Rêgo’s Cabelo Branco é Saudade (White Hair Means Yearning):

                        White hair means yearning
                        For youth’s lost pleasures
                        Not only through age
                        But also life’s sorrows

                        (Tr. Ruth Fainlight).

Read as a poem it is repetitive and, frankly, a little dull but as a song it comes alive: its repetitions gain meaning in the lilting of the voice and the guitar accompaniment.  Don Paterson alludes to this when he ends up with an ‘Audenesque thing’ translating Manuela de Freitas, saying he likes the ‘improvisatory feel and rough artefacts you get in song lyrics’.  A song has to leave space for the interpretation of the singer who can turn what, in a poem, would be maudlin, conventional or overblown, into powerful expression.

    Returning to that central concept of saudade as a yearning for something lost or unattainable I am brought up against the relationship of Fado with its audience and context.  This is something that a number of the contributors to the volume mention.  George Szirtes, for example, says that ‘the heart recognises itself’ in Fado because it ‘possesses the wealth of association with which to equip it.”  Just as you can appreciate the Blues in Hampstead, you can listen to Fado in Hull.  He also mentions Auden, along with Elizabethan song lyrics and 40s Hungarian popular songs, attempting thereby to translate the song into a different and comparable network of associations. 

   Marilyn Hacker goes further taking her originals as mere pretexts for an entirely different context in Palestine.  Can you do the West Bank Blues?  Does a Bratislavan Flamenco make sense?  And Palestinian Fado?  When a translator wants to force these connections as a part of the job of translation, I am tempted to say, “But I just want you to be invisible, so that I can make my own mind up!”  The urge to over-translate can become self-contradictory as when Alfred Corn translates Travessa da Palha as Haymarket Lane, which sounds English enough, but keeps fado in the third stanza untranslated.  Fado being so closely associated with one place- Lisbon- seems to positively demand that its network of local associations should remain in the original, especially since a large part of the appeal of the lyrics is precisely the fact that they emerge from a different and unique culture.  

   Fado and saudade are concepts of sufficient specificity and weight to remain untranslated, but I think there is not enough historical and critical apparatus in this volume to support our understanding of them.  Saudade underlies the lyric tradition of Portugal and is of fundamental importance in understanding the literature of the region.  Ramon Piñeiro, the Galician philosopher of saudade, thinks that the tendency to appreciate the world through the feelings is particular to the west coast of the Iberian peninsula; yearning for transcendence of the soul’s inevitable solitude.  This is not angst  and predates existentialism.  In its lyricism and its veneration for poetic vision it reaches out to Ireland and even yearns for a Celtic connection. 

   Saudade has a long history in Portugal and Galicia.  The word gives its title to the first novel in Portuguese, for example (Menina e Moça, 1554), and the nineteenth-century revival of Galego was deeply imbued with reminiscences of yearning medieval troubadour songs, when the culture of Portugal and Galicia was even closer than today.  The revival acquired an especially profound expression in the poetry of Rosalía de Castro, without mention of whom any book on saudade is bound to seem incomplete.  It is intimately linked with poverty, deprivation, emigration and longing.  In Portugal ‘Sebastianismo’, that longing for a the return of a mythical good king, which in some respects recalls the legend of King Arthur, affected perhaps the greatest writer of saudade the country has produced- Fernando Pessoa.

   Perhaps this seems overly academic, but there are two concepts of translation on the table: one involves translating yourself into another culture and, by virtue of reading and investigation, attempting to understand it; the other consists in importing cultural artefacts, such as Fado, so that they can be remade in a form that is comprehensible in your own culture.  This volume, which represents the second concept, by drawing people into the study of Fado, may perhaps lead them on to a further investigation of a literature that is well worth studying in depth on its own account.  For that study a different book would be required with a more modest idea of the role of the translator.

     I was in Lisbon two years ago and in Oporto last year.  Portugal is now in Europe.  No one is looking out to the Western Sea for the return of the king.  What place does Pessoa´s sensibility have in the materialism and economic development of modern Portugal?  Will Fado become just another means to sell television sets?  Shopping centres, smart cars, motorways and ranks of anonymous new apartment buildings are transforming the face of the country.  These improvements must, inevitably, affect the culture.  Putting Fado into English is one translation, but in Galicia and Portugal the context of saudade is disappearing.  The past itself is a foreign country and modern versions of Fado are themselves translations of what could be seen as a golden age of lyrical poetry and song-writing that now survives, not as a living tradition, but as a museum-piece. 

   A Portuguese might say that this idea itself is Fado.                                Jason Preater


Note : Jason Preater will be coming to the Poetry Café later this year on Wednesday November 25th to present his translations of Galician Saudade and I shall be bringing out a book of his translations at the end of the year. He maintains a website where you will find many examples of Galician Saudade especially lyrics by Rosalia de Castro and Eduardo Blanco Amor.       Sebastian Hayes  







In this pleasantly produced book (130 pages)  which is part of the Yale Why X Matters series, Edith Grossman, the acclaimed translator of  Márquez and Cervantes, first discusses translation generally and says why she thinks it is important. She then says something about the problems she encountered when producing a new translation of Don Quixote and concludes by commenting on her translations of Spanish poems, some modern, others written during the  ‘Golden Age’.  There is also a useful Personal List of Important Translations at the end.

Edith Grossman says that, as a translator, she always hopes “that readers of the translation will perceive the text, emotionally and artistically, in a manner that parallels and corresponds to the aesthetic experience of its first readers”. The translator typically does this, not by direct transcription, but rather “by analogy — that is, by finding comparable, not identical, characteristics, vagaries, quiddities, stylistic peculiarities in the second language”.  To become a good translator is challenging because you need to “develop a keen sense of style in both languages, honing and expanding our original creative awareness of the motional impact of words, the social aura that surrounds them, the setting and mood that informs them, the atmosphere they create. (…) It is a commonplace, at least  in translating circles , to assert that the translator is the most penetrating reader and critic a work can have.”

So far, well and good, though I would have liked to see Edith Grossman  tackling in greater depth the literalist/interpretative divide. She claims not to be a literalist and considers Nabokov’s literal translation of Eugene Onegin to be ‘unreadable’ — and so, to judge by the brief excerpt she gives, it is.  However,  I doubt if she would go so far as to endorse Ezra Pound who saw himself as not even an ‘interpreter’ but rather as a ‘broadcaster’ or ‘imitator’, someone whose mission was to communicate the ‘spirit’ of the original without bothering too much about the exact meaning.  And, like him or loathe him, Pound is probably the most successful translator of poetry in the twentieth century : almost single-handed he put Provençal poetry on the map, and remains, apart from Waley, the person most responsible for the West taking an interest in Chinese poetry. Pound’s translation of The Seafarer from the Anglo-Saxon (which was then part of the English course at Oxord) is perhaps  the most effective rendering of a short Angle-Saxon poem I have ever read,  though riddled with questionable interpretations and downright errors.  So at one end we have Nabokov, the literalist, and Pound the ‘interpreter’ par excellence.  Most translators lean towards literalism these days, partly because they are understandably afraid of getting involved in lawsuits, also because the important university market wants cribs rather than imaginative reconstructions.

Edith Grossman started by making a very good impression indeed : here, I thought, we have a seasoned translator who wears her erudition lightly and is above all concerned with the needs of the ‘ordinary reader’. She subsequently disappointed me, however, by falling into the trap of devoting far too much space — the greater part of a whole chapter — to gripes against contemporary American and English publishers, likewise some book critics (without naming them). Worse still, she puts her case so badly that she almost makes one side with the publishers and reviewers : the tone is petulant, reminiscent of Dawkins going on about religion.
Translation is an intellectually demanding and emotionally draining activity — more so than ‘creative’ writing in my experience — while it is not very well remunerated and translators do not rate that highly in the literary pecking order. Translators thus have legitimate causes  for complaint,  especially since publishers and, even worse, presenters of TV cultural programmes often do not bother to even mention the translator’s name. However, translators themselves tend to be unreasonable in their demands. Edith Grossman, like other translators I know,  finds it outrageous that a certain book reviewer declared that he was not capable of assessing the quality of the translation since he did not know the original language.  What was he or she supposed to say? That “the book does not read as a translation” ? Seemingly not, as this phrase was singled out as ‘particularly annoying’ in a sort of manifesto that was put to the Translators Association in a meeting last year.
According to Andre Dubos III  :    “50% of all the books in translation now published worldwide are translated from English, but only 6% are translated into English”.  Edith Grossman, ditto many other translators I have met, naturally thinks this situation is disgraceful (I don’t) and, as only to be expected in these politically correct times,  American publishers  get charged by Grossman with “jingoistic parochialism” and God knows what else. But why should publishers in the current, or any, economic climate risk bringing out books that probably won’t sell and might not be worth reading anyway ?  “For translators,” she writes, “of course, there can never be enough translations”. I couldn’t believe what I was reading! Sorry, there can — there can be too much of anything ! And why can’t Edith Grossman see that the asymmetry of the translation situation (50% as against 6%) is quite as much the fault of the Third World or non-English speaking European publishers and translators who neglect their own cultures  in favour of Anglo/American  literature, thus furthering the cause of American cultural imperialism that Edith Grossman so deplores?

Leaving aside frivolous considerations (“Translators need to earn a living”), there are, I think, only three reasons why an American  publisher should be encouraged to bring out a certain translated novel (let’s keep poetry aside for the moment):

1.     It is superior in quality;
2.     It deals with an experience of life that is ‘different’ ;  BUT
3.    [ It deals with] an experience that a contemporary reader in the UK or America can relate to,  and hopefully learn something from.

Take translations from a language I do not know and am unlikely ever to know, Japanese. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima was definitely worth translating (maybe needs re-translating). Why? Because, in the first place, it is an extremely well-written and intense, though somewhat unhealthy, novel. It is ‘different’ since it deals with a way of life that is both interesting and even now largely virgin territory to the normal westerner : the central character is a novice Zen Buddhist monk. But, when I first read this book years ago, despite the exotic décor, I found many passages in this work to which I, as a hung up young Westerner, could relate : the central character, though a novice monk,  has many of the usual problems  of a young man growing up in the modern world. He has little contact with his parents, has serious difficulties relating to girls, meets another student who dominates and bullies him intellectually and eventually drifts into outright criminality  — he burns to the ground the Temple of the Golden Pavilion of which at one time he hoped to become the Patriarch.  So this book ticks all three boxes.

On the other hand, countless more recent, Japanese novels strike me as being of virtually no interest, since Japan has largely lost its strangeness, is today just another overcrowded urban society and, unless these Japanese novels are streets ahead of contemporary ones set in America or Europe, I’d rather read Roth. If someone wants to translate these books, well and good, but I don’t see why a publisher who doesn’t finance such a venture should be charged with being a xenophobic crypto-Fascist.

Edith Grossman is on firmer ground when she tells us how she goes about her own work, more specifically, how she set about translating  Don Quixote. Her approach is sensible enough  since she says that she early on decided her main concern “was not [to provide] a text for the classroom….but to create a piece of writing in English that could perhaps be called literature too”.  One interesting anecdotal snippet is that a certain Mexican writer known to the translator sent her “a photocopy of a… seventeenth-century Spanish-English  dictionary he had found in Holland” which she found ‘invaluable’. Here is the sort of ‘inside tip’ that could be pure gold — I  would never have thought of looking out for dictionaries of the period but I am sure they could be very illuminating.  Edith Grossman tells us that she decided for the first time in her life to use footnotes and that the function of the footnotes was to be,  principally,  to “clarify possibly obscure references and allusions”. She wants the footnotes above all to deal with  “difficulties not intended by the author”, rightly realizing that the modern reader cannot be expected to know the ballads and folk-tales of the time, likewise recent historical events which Cervantes could assume every reader of his time would be familiar with. This is a good point and one not made often enough.

Grossman concludes with some examples of translating poems  for The Golden Age : Poems of the Spanish Renaissance (Norton, 2006) but I shall put off consideration of her attitude to poetic translation until another post.   All in all, this is a very worthwhile little book despite its occasional shortcomings. I might end by quoting some views about translation from famous authors that she herself quotes in her book.

“Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel, that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water”   (Translators of the King James Bible).

“A translator that would write with any force or spirit of an original must never dwell on the words of the author. He ought to possess himself entirely and perfectly comprehend the genius and sense of his author, the nature of the subject, and the terms of the art or subject treated of.  And then he will express himself as justly, and with as much life, as if he wrote the original : whereas he who copies word for word loses all the spirit in the tedious translation” (John Dryden).

“Poetry is that which is lost in translation” (Robert Frost).

Sebastian Hayes

Ville Morte by Albert Samain

Formless and sheltered beneath deep unchanging sand,
the old city, whose walls and staunch towers fell long ago,
sleeps the final rest of dead Babylone
buried in marble shrouds of ancient tombs.

Once this city was an imperious queen.
Its victories spread out iron wings on battlements
to meet Asia swarming to its gates,
to its long stairs that led downward to the sea.

But, empty now, and in strict silence, the city dies
stone by stone under rituals of the pious moon;
its silent shards rest endlessly beside the silent river’s edge.

Alone among these ruins, a bronze elephant,
still fixed to the pediment of a fallen door,
lifts its trunk in tragic greeting to the stars.

Tout s’est éteint  by Pierre Reverdy

There is darkness everywhere;
The wind sings as it moves on
And the trees shiver.

The animals are dead —
There’s no one left here,
And notice this :

The stars do not sparkle now —
Earth no longer turns;
A head bows down,

Its hair brushing over the dark;
Now from the last-standing clock tower
There erupts the ringing of midnight’s hour.

Editor’s Note: These two pieces come from Variations by Roger Hunt Carroll (The Hague Press, 2009). The author is at pains to stress that these are not ‘translations’ in the normal sense of the word, nor even ‘renderings’, but more ‘arrangements’ in the musical sense — “I place a poem in an alternate language, as if in another musical key and/or form, amalgamating the impressions and distilling the indispensable experience I receive from it [the poem]” as he says in A Personal Note which prefaces this engaging little collection.    Sebastian Hayes

When I was translating Onegin my shrink asked me, as they always do, what I ‘felt’ about it, how I responded to this or that character. I pondered and replied that I felt nothing, that I had only one concern – to get the translation as ‘right’ as possible in terms of style, vocabulary, rhyme and metre. In other words, my task was purely technical. ‘Feeling’ was confined to the intensity of the task. I was retired, but had never worked so hard at anything before. The translation took between seven and eight years. Every stanza was a struggle. With each successful final couplet I’d jump up, crying ‘erquickend!, for some reason choosing the German word. I certainly felt ‘quickened’. The process of translating each stanza resembled a Sisyphean labour except that I was always able in the end to topple the boulder over to the other side. The final couplet did that for me, resolving the complex rhymes of the preceding twelve lines and summing up or puncturing the preceding argument. So we were engaged in a parallel labour. The stanza left an indelible stamp on me. For a long time I could only write poetry using Pushkin’s fourteen lines. These seemed to capture the novel as a whole, capacious enough to include all the moods listed by Pushkin in his Dedication to Pletnyov:

Half-comic and half-melancholic,
Ideal and down-to-earth bucolic,
The careless fruit of leisure times,
Of sleepless nights, light inspirations,
Of immature and withered years,
The intellect’s cold observations,
The heart’s impressions marked in tears.

I think this is why so many English and American poets have tried to repopularize narrative verse by imitating the Onegin stanza.

But these are the exigencies of translation rather than the meaning of the story, although I know the two can’t be separated. As my good shrink remarked, I must have been reacting to the novel unconsciously. I wrote two unfinished accounts of the translation once I had completed it, and there my feelings began to emerge. I am glad therefore to have been invited to write yet another in which I can scrutinize more clearly what I felt. Translation and reading are two distinct activities. I had read Onegin a number of times and thought about it. But translation brings you unusually close to the original and enables you to see the text differently. Hitherto, I had read Pushkin intellectually, influenced by the Marxist critic Georg Lukacs, who saw in the Russian poet the embodiment of the ‘beautiful’. It didn’t need a Marxist to say this, but the ‘beautiful’ wasn’t a category used by Marxist critics. ‘Realism’ was their criterion. Lukacs singled out beauty as an autonomous sphere within a realist aesthetic, locating it in three periods – classical Greece, the Renaissance and the French Revolution, each of which, he argued, benefited from a pause between successive class societies. Pushkin he regarded as a late representative of the French revolutionary epoch in spite of Russia’s persisting feudalism. In the art of the beautiful, Lukacs found the Russian poet superior even to Goethe, master pupil of the Greeks in this age. There is no other kind of beauty for Lukacs but the classical. He ignores or discounts Romantic beauty and Romanticism in general. But here is not the place to pursue his theory further.

I had always been attracted to the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘classical’. I was by nature predisposed to proportion, harmony and balance. The idea that these aesthetic qualities could be married to a materialist philosophy excited me as a young Marxist interested in the arts. From then on Pushkin became my principal object of research.

Translation changed my ideas. I should mention that I suffer from bipolar disorder, which involves the very opposite of harmony, balance and proportion. It is understandable therefore that I should seek them in art. There were several occasions during the translation when I was depressed or manic. When I was depressed I was unable to continue. During one manic phase I came near to destroying the already finished translation and substituting an inferior one. I took the manuscript from one hospital to another, not necessarily working on it, but keeping it as a talisman. I believe that my disablity left no mark on the final version. Pushkin’s precision and clarity steadied me. And both my Penguin editor and my devoted helpmeet Barbara Rosenbaum tested the translation at every step. Angela Livingstone, a former colleague brought more precision to the text. She and I had planned a book on Pushkin of which only a few pages remain extant. We discussed Lukacs’s essay together. Robert Chandler, who encouraged me to submit the first chapter to Penguin, so making the translation possible, suggested some perceptive changes at the final stage. Above all, my thanks go to Barbara, who patiently withstood the blast of my mania and kept the original version safe.

In my retrospective accounts I dwelt not unexpectedly on the suicidal moments in Onegin or what I took to be such. Towards the end of Chapter Two Pushkin writes of his generation:

Meanwhile, enjoy, friends, till it’s ended,
This light existence, every dram!
Its nullity I’ve comprehended
And little bound to it I am.

The concluding stanza of the poem expresses a similar feeling without the bitterness:

Blest who betimes has left life’s revel,
Whose wine-filled glass he has not drained

To these may be added the concluding lines to Chapter Six which, if not articulating a suicidal inclination, conjure a ferocious alienation:

Let not a poet’s soul be frozen,
Made rough and hard, reduced to bone
And finally be turned to stone
In that benumbing world he goes in,
In that intoxicating slough
Where, friends, we bathe together now.

The first quotation reminded me of Keats’s wish ‘to cease upon the midnight with no pain’. In the aftermath of the French Revolution Keats laments the beauty that can no longer ‘keep her lustrous eyes’ (‘Ode to a Nightingale’). The lure of death is common to Romantic poets. Pushkin is held back from the abyss by what he calls his ‘sad mission’, that is his poetic gift, and his desire for posterity.

I feel now that the last stanza of Onegin is not so much an invitation to suicide as an Epicurean appeal to withdraw from the storms of life into congenial company. In the penultimate stanza he thanks his novel for giving him this shelter:
With you I’ve known
The things that every poet covets:
Oblivion, when the tempest buffets,
Sweet talk of friends.

Nor can it be by accident that Pushkin refers in the final stanza to the Persian poet Sadi, who in his poem Bustan celebrated a garden retreat similar to that of Epicurus. Pushkin’s last stanza is a gentle and accepting valediction.

It was natural that I should have been attracted by the dark sides of the novel. But it was a discovery I needed to make, for I was also discovering myself. My depressions impinged several times while I was translating and, costly though they were, led me to a more sombre view of the novel than hitherto. Yet it was not a subjective view. I believe the novel is objectively very pessimistic, and that I had previously approached it with a one-sided theory derived from Lukacs.

He sees Tatiana as the embodiment of beauty. Her fine ‘moral balance’, he says, is rooted in the people. But in the ‘benumbing world’ of St. Petersburg high society she is isolated from the people. Her beloved nurse has died. She is cut off from her adored countryside. She hates her new social milieu, although she adapts to it very well. Her marriage is arranged and her love for Onegin wasted. She is a broken woman who maintains an outward poise, who behaves ‘comme il faut’. Is this the embodiment of beauty? I now began to see Tatiana very differently. Her stoicism evoked compassion, and like Herzen I felt anger for the society that imprisoned and thwarted not only her but Onegin and Lensky too. Like her, they were broken people. Onegin withdraws from a shallow life, and experiences a helpless love too late. Lensky is prevented from realizing his impossible ideals, and sacrifices himself in a futile duel. No wonder Pushkin ends his novel before any further degradation takes place in his hero’s life (though it is witnessed in the fragments of his Journey). Likewise he refrains from following Tatiana any further into her marriage.

Translation brought me closer to the characters. I could never identify with Lensky, whom Pushkin himself nearly destroys in his prediction of the young poet’s philistine future. Nor could I identify with Onegin, but I now saw him as a tragic figure. I saw his frequent yawns not just as symptoms of boredom, but as entrances into a void, perhaps the ‘nullity’ that Pushkin found in his ‘light-headed’ generation. There is nothing metaphysical about Pushkin, yet when Onegin hears ‘the timeless mutter of the soul’ we are carried into a dimension beyond everyday life. The novel is laconic, therefore one has to read slowly to become aware of its depths which are often capped by irony. But the irony differs from the cutting tones of Lermontov or Heine. It does not undermine, but binds oppositions – illusion and reality, past and present, town and country, digressions and narrative, poetry and prose and the contrasting and self-contradictory characters. No single aspect of the novel acquires predominance, yet none is fragmentary. (The fragment was the goal of Romantic Irony.) Not even the most straightforward description (Onegin’s estate, the theatre, the duel etc.) escapes a touch of the ironic. Pushkin’s irony unites the novel, but it is a unity quite different from the ‘epic objectivity’ or ‘totality’ that Lukacs talks about. It is a unity of dissonance. Only nature here is entirely free of irony, providing the chronological canvas of the novel and the source for many of the similes, especially the monitory lines in Chapter Two:

Alas! Each generation must
By Providence’s dispensation
Rise, ripen, fall in quick succession,
Upon life’s furrows

Tatiana of course is most closely involved with nature, enabling her to grow. Neither Lensky nor Onegin grows. I could not only sympathize now, but positively fall in love with her, with her shyness, passion, imagination and waywardness. For Kuchelbecker she was a portrait of Pushkin himself, Pushkin combines dark and light. Pisarev, offended by what he saw as the brilliant triviality of the surface, could not see the depths. Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky remarked that Onegin could only gain by the removal of the digressions, where the depths of the novel are mostly to be found. I was drawn more and more to the digressions. I had written an essay on them long ago. While translating Onegin I wrote another, which means that I had been thinking consciously about the novel despite my earlier disclaimer. But it was only after I’d finished the translation that I could discover my feelings about the characters. I saw the digressions and the narrative as a counterpoint of bass and treble or a chiaroscuro of depth and surface, longing and light, past and present. The surface depicted what is and what must be, the world to which the characters have to adapt or fall by the wayside. The digressions, like Pushkin’s urge to freedom, expressed unfulfillable desire or mourned an irretrievable past. Although Pushkin as author is at home everywhere in the novel, it seemed to me that the digressions were his true abode. I have in mind the lyrical digressions, not the commentary on the state of the roads or the debate between the ode and the elegy. All the characters leave home. Lensky of course dies, Olga joins her hussar in his regiment, Tatiana marries into an alien milieu, Eugene travels, returning to a hostile St. Petersburg, Pushkin sheds his digressions, bidding farewell to youth and poetry for a literature of prose.

I saw now a different beauty in Onegin, not just the familiar serenity, light-heartedness and harmony, but the disparity of dark and light, which reminded me of similar contrasts in the music of Mozart and the paintings of Leonardo. The surface sparkle rests ‘upon a base of suffering’ as Nietzsche said of the art of the Apollonian Greeks or, as Pushkin himself noted, upon ‘The heart’s impressions marked in tears.’

Before translating Onegin I had regarded my life as a failure because of the bipolar disorder which nearly ruined me. I had managed, as I have indicated, to write a few things about Pushkin, including a critical study, which was first accepted and then turned down by the publisher. This study which I longed to rewrite was superseded by the translation which I completed at the age of 75, earning me high praise. Having gone through Pushkin’s school, I am now much more eager to write poetry than to write about it. I’d rather have written this present piece as a poem. I’ve composed the odd poem since my adolescence, but I never regarded myself seriously as a poet. Pushkin was my only teacher. My translation goes back to a collective project at Essex University in the nineteen-sixties, when Angela Livingstone and I collaborated with our Head of Department, Donald Davie, an established poet, to translate Onegin. The project foundered and the poet died. Many years later I tried my hand at the first stanza and still more years passed until the translation was born. Only here do I recognize myself as a poet. Verse that I had written before or composed after the translation cannot compare with it. Reading it through recently with a small group, I marvelled at some of my lines. But that is not the main point. Since completing the translation, I know that I shall never have to feel a failure again. Repeating Pushkin’s self-congratulation on finishing a piece of work, I said of mine : ‘Well done, you son-of-a-bitch!’        Stanley Mitchell

Note: This moving account of the joys and tribulations of a translator is taken verbatim (with permission) from the author’s website .           Sebastian Hayes

Yiddish was the principal daily language of European Jews for nearly one thousand years.  Yiddish is a fusion language based on German, written in Hebrew script, with additional vocabulary drawn from Slavic, Hebrew, Aramaic, and other sources. It reflects the dispersal (‘diaspora’) of a whole people through many lands; from the sixteenth and especially during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a rich literature developed, fuelled by Hasidic emotionalism, comprising song, fiction, poetry, disputation and polemical writing and as such had an impact on politics, national and social movements.  The language was nearly extinguished by the Shoah, remaining today as the ordinary language of only a remnant of the Jewish people – Hasidim and elderly survivors.  The past four decades, however, have seen a revival of Yiddish as a cultural phenomenon: language courses are now given at major universities; Yiddish phrases, humor, music are common parlance among Jews and even non-Jews; perhaps also as a reassertion of Diaspora Jewry against the hegemonic rule of Hebrew in the State of Israel.

Folksongs in Yiddish existed as far back as the fourteenth century. But the genre especially flourished from the eighteenth century onward, originally because of the rise of ecstatic Hasidic prayer, and expanded generally in  the Pale of Settlement – the old Lithuanian and Polish empires – where Jews were banished until the end of the nineteenth century. Conditions there were appalling: persecution, pogroms, military conscription, and poverty.  The thousands of Yiddish folksongs reflected the plight of the people, as well as their hopes, prayer and daily lives.  “Yiddish folksongs are in a vernacular closest to the popular speech of the folk,” wrote Ruth Rubin, pioneer archivist of Yiddish folksong. “…Into folksong were poured feelings, thoughts, desires, aspirations, which often seemingly had no other place to go.” [1]

The categories in chapter headings to Rubin’s seminal work, “Voices of a People. The Story of Yiddish Folksong,” [2] are illustrative: “At the Cradle…The Children’s World…Love and Courtship…Marriage…Customs and Beliefs…Merriment…Dancing Songs…Historical and Topical…Chasidic Melody and Songs…Of Literary Origin…Poverty, Toil, and Struggle…Out of the Shadows (Underworld songs)…To America…To Zion…Soviet Yiddish Folksong…The Struggle to Survive.”  As Isaac Bashevis Singer explained in his Nobel Lecture (delivered in Yiddish), “In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of a frightened and hopeful humanity.”

Some folksongs began as poems, some became poems adapted from the songs. (In Yiddish lid means both song and poem.) The folksongs were, in any event, fluid, often altered and adapted in passages from one person, time, or country to another. Adaptation and transformation of Yiddish songs to new purposes is an honored tradition. As the composer Stefan Wolpe once said,
When using folklore material for creative purposes the composer strives to reveal and to remould in a novel fashion what nobody but himself is able to detect in it….He thus preserves and transforms the original at the very same time.”

As a Jew rediscovering his own cultural history, and as a poet, I noticed that most English translations of the folksongs’ lyrics are mainly dutiful, literal, stilted, capturing none of the rich idiom and feeling of the original; certainly none of the felicitous rhyming or cadence as conveyed in both the language and the melody. As I scanned through nearly one thousand texts from Rubin’s archives and others, from collections on the Internet and CDs, many ‘spoke’ to me, begging for recomposition or ‘re-imagination’, as I term it: aI penetrated the lyrics to distill their essence; I recreated, advanced, and sometimes subverted the original in order to create a vibrant poem in English.

This poem, published in the April 2010 issue of Modern Poetry in Translation (used with permission), is an example – I give the recomposition first, then the original (a perennial klezmer favourite):


I had a pretty cousin, just over on the boat, a real greenhorn.  Her hair cascaded in curls, her cheeks flushed with freedom, she was the kind who skipped when she walked, trilled when she talked. “Listen greenhorn,” I warned, “this may be the goldene medine, but it’s no land of milk and honey. The streets are pocked, the men are goats, you’ve no mama no tate to watch out for you.” Yet her feet begged to dance, her eyes to flirt, and no bent-backed tailor or pasty-faced scholar for her, God forbid!  But you can’t eat gaiety. Soon she was tied to a machine, working for some lecher himself once green. Meantime, I had my own troubles, so when I saw her again her feet were wrapped in rag-slippers, her hair cut blunt, her cheeks, once like pomegranates, now sunken and sallow, her belly swollen. “Nu, greenhorn, how goes it?” She stared past me as if not knowing that anyone spoke. Finally: “To hell with your goldene medine.

Notes: greenhorna newcomer (as to a country) unacquainted with local manners and customs; esp: a recently arrived immigrant.’ – Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged.


goldene medine –  land of gold.

Di Grine Kuzine (music by Abe Schwartz (1881-1963), lyrics by Hyman (Khayim) Prizant, a perennial favorite for Klezmorim. (hear a sedate version of the song at

and a raucous one at

Tsu mir iz gekumen a kuzine                        A girl cousin arrived, a greenhorn.
Sheyn vi gold iz zi geven, di grine              Beautiful as gold she was,
Bekelakh vi royte pomerantsn                    Cheeks red as oranges,
Fiselakh vos betn zich tsum tantsn.          Tiny feet, just made for dancing.

Herelakh vi zaydn-veb gelokte                    Her hair was as a silk web,
Tseyndelekh vi perelakh getokte                Her teeth as pearls on a string,
Eygelakh vi himl-bloy in friling                   Her eyes, blue as skies in spring,
Lipelekh vi karshelekh a tsviling.                Her lips, just like twin cherries.

Nisht gegangen is zi, nor geshprungen,     She did not walk, she leapt.
Nisht geredt hot zi nor gezungen                 She did not talk, she sang.
Lebedik un freilech yede mine                     Her every feature joyful and gay —
Ot aza geven is main kuzine!                          Such a one was my cousin!

Un azoy ariber tseyner yorn                        But, as the years passed by
Fun mayn kuzine iz a tel gevorn                  My cousin went downhill
“Peides” hot zi vokhenlang geklibn             From working hard week after week.
Biz fun ir iz gornisht nit geblibn.                  Nothing remained but a wreck.

Haynt az ikh bagegen mayn kuzine            Today, as I meet her on the street,
Un ikh freg ir: S’makhtsu epes, Grine?      And I ask: How’s everything, Greenhorn?
Ziftst zi op, un kh’leyen in ir mine:              She just sighs and I read in her eye:
Brenen zol Colombus’ es medine!               To hell with Columbus’s paradise!

Norbert Hirschhorn

May 2010

[1] Yiddish Folksongs from the Ruth Rubin Archive. Edited by Chana Mlotek and Mark Slobin (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2007; pp. 16, xii).

[2] Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois University Press, 2000.

Many authors today speak and write in at least two languages : indeed, it has for some time been almost mandatory for Scandinavians and inhabitants of the former Warsaw Pact countries, also inhabitants of India (where there are no less than twenty-two officially recognized languages and hundreds more spoken). As it happens, we have recently had consecutive presentations by two eminent Anglo-Hungarian poets, Goerge Szirtes and George Gömöri, at the Poetry Café (April 21 and April 28, see Events and Meetings).

Interestingly, they have opposite approaches to the problem : George Szirtes told us he always writes his poems in English and subsequently has them translated into Hungarian, whereas George Gömöri always writes in Hungarian first and has the poems translated into English later, usually by his friend Clive Wilmer who is an an esteemed poet in his own right.  George Gömöri has written a poem on this very subject :

Daily I switch languages — call them masks:
At times a mask can feel like your own skin.
At other times, the spirit has to struggle,
Saved only by the tongue it calls its own.

The mysteries of life, of the universe,
I can describe in English now, although
In my mother tongue alone I can stammer out
The words that compose the sunset, make it glow.

from Polishing October  (Shoestring Press, 2008)

Though now, like most American poets of the early twentieth century, something of a forgotten figure, Edna St. Vincent Millay was a greatly acclaimed writer in her time, also, rather unusually for a poet, an engaging personality. A bohemian in an era when there were serious risks in stepping out of line, especially in strait-laced East coast America, she did what she wanted with her own life and without making a song and dance about it.
When George Dillon sent her some of his translations of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal , she not only agreed to write an Introduction but became so captivated that she started doing some translations of her own and the eventual volume was a collaboration. Some of what she says in her Introduction sounds strangely today  : she finds it necessary to defend offering to the American public the poems of a man who committed the unforgivable sin of living openly with a woman for many years out of marriage and who took opium. But much of what she says about the business of translating is very much to the point — though one is not obliged to agree with her on everything. Many thanks to our American corresp0ndent, Roger Hunt Carroll, for bringing this Introduction to my attention.

“To translate poetry into prose, no matter how faithfully and even subtly the words are reproduced, is to betray the poem. To translate formal stanzas into free verse, free verse into rhymed couplets, is to fail the foreign poet in an important way. With most poets, the shape of the poem is not an extraneous attribute of it: the poem could not conceivably have been written in an y other form. When the image of the poem first rises before the suddenly quieted and intensely agitated person who is to write it, its shadowy bulk is already dimly outlined; it is rhymed or unrhymed; it is trimeter, tetrameter, or pentameter; it is free verse, a sonnet, an epic, an ode, a five-act play. To many poets the physical character of their poem, its rhythm, its rhyme, its music, the way it looks on the page, is quite as important as the thing they wish to say; to some it is vastly more important.
(…) When George Dillon wrote me that he was translating some of the
Fleurs du Mal into English verse, and that he was using in every instance the meter and form used by Baudelaire in the original poem, I was very much interested; this had always seemed to me the only way to go about such a task. It is true that the translator, who is hard put to it enough in any case to transpose a poem from one language into another without strangling it in the process, here takes upon himself an added burden; but he is more than rewarded when he finds that his translation, when read aloud directly after the original, echoes the original, that it is still, in some miraculous way, the same poem, although its words are in a different language. The poetry has been pretty roughly handled, possibly, but its anatomy at least is still intact.
(…)   Poetry should not, and indeed cannot properly be translated except by poets. But there is more to it than that; it is as complicated as a blood-transfusion. It is doubtful if any English poet could translate equally well the poems of Pierre de Ronsard, Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset and Charles Baudelaire. It is quite conceivable that William Wordsworth could have made an excellent translation of the poems of Victory Hugo; but one drop of the blood of Wordsworth in the veins of Baudelaire would have meant instant death. Baudelaire himself was so eminently fitted to translate the works of Poe that one feels sometimes when reading the translation that Edgar Poe wrote his own stories both in English and French, and one is not sure in which language one prefers them. But Baudelaire in his imitation of Longfellow was not so successful. Quite apart from the question of meter, a natural, unbridgeable gulf existed between the minds and the tastes of the French and American poets.
(…) It is impossible to make a good translation of a poet of whom one disapproves. To excuse him or to condemn him is, for the translator, equally impertinent and equally fatal. The poem is the thing. Is it interesting ? — is it beautiful? — is it sublime? Then it was written by nobody. It exists by itself. “

from Introduction to the Dillon/Millay translation of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1936)