Translating poetry is equivalent to an act of literary cruelty and a deliberate destruction of everything that is poetic art.
Perhaps this is counter intuitive, at first glance.
After all, the translation of a poem from one language into another is done with the intent of sharing a literary creation across cultural boundaries and to bring the original into the limelight.
In reality, any poetry translation is a failure, and a dismal one, at that.
Here are some arguments.
Every poem, just like delicate clockwork, is made up of a harmony of puns, syllables, rhythms, accents, rimes, syntax, assonance and not in the least, of what I would call ‘poetic DNA”.
The ‘poetic DNA’ is the hallmark of a poet, whose unique perspective orchestrates, behind the scene, meaning and words.
Mozart’s music is easily recognized – it speaks of an incomparable artistic temperament.
Such is the case for poetry too – it bears the imprint of its author.
Mozart’s music remixed and re-written by others may be something that gets our attention for a couple of seconds, but then makes us run, full speed, back to the original.
Translating poetry is, in a way, the re- enactment of the legend of Procrustes from the Greek mythology.
Syllables are moved into another language, which turns the rhythm of a poem into a barbaric mash-up.
Groups of vocals and consonants are maimed, to make them fit another meaning.
Puns may not be rendered, since they may require foot-notes to explain a cultural context.
Changes to the minute clockwork that constitutes the delicate balance of a poem wreak havoc on the ensemble.
So what’s to be done?
Would you give up reading Dante if you cannot speak Italian, or would you rather read a translation of Dante’s poetry, knowing full well that the true Dante may never be within reach in the translated version?
It’s a difficult question.
Fortunately enough, the situation is marginally better when it comes to translating prose.
But don’t get me wrong – In this blog - I’m not suggesting that you read prose.
In this blog, I’m suggesting that you read poetry.
A reason to talk about Seamus Heaney’s poetry. Seeing Things, a book of poems published by Seamus Heaney in 1991 includes forty-eight poems in suite of poems called Squarings.
A suite of poems, each 12 lines long– 4 stanzas of 3 lines each, titled i to xlviii are bound into an elegant poetic form, almost geometrical in its alignment.
In Seamus Heaney’s words quoted from the book here: “The 12-line form seemed arbitrary but it seemed to get me places swiftly. So I went with it, a sort of music of the arbitrary that’s unpredictable, and can still up and catch a glimpse of the subject out of the blue”.
Squarings has four parts, each made of 12 poems. The title of this suite evokes the square, a structure of balance and even planes and its meaning is suggested by Seamus Heaney in iii:
“Squarings? In the game of marbles, squarings
Were all those anglings, aimings, feints and squints
You were allowed before you’d shoot”
The first part Squarings is Lightenings .
The poems in this group revolve around major themes such as: transparency, light dissociated in shards of brightness and movement, echoes spreading out through clay flutes towards sea and air and a sustained effort of poetic levitation that defines and destroys roofs – poetic ones, that is.
Here us a quote from v:
"High on a windblown hedge. Ocarina earth.
Three listening posts up on a some hard-baked tier
Above the resonating atmosphere."
The second part of Squarings is Settings.
This group of poems is a foray into memory, in which images of an early childhood (the father, the surrounding universe) evolve in effigies of places and sensations from golden, angelic hues to a carmine red zone, filled with heat and lava, a mini-inferno, and then again towards an equilibrium of aer and water in a continuous thinning of borders.
"Air and ocean known as antecedents
Of each other. In opposition with
Ominipresence, equilibrium, brim. "
The third part of Squarings is Crossings.
The poems in this group talk of a metamorphosis, of a rebirth, of entrance and exit into deep corridors inside one’s psyche, corridors explored with a sense of profound loss, on a realm close to the Styx where we grope in search of a ‘crossing’.
“Running water never disappointed.
Crossing water always furthered something.
Stepping stones were stations of the soul.”
The fourth and last part of Squarings gives its title to the entire cycle of poems.
This group holds poems which gleam under a starry sky and in which the haunting bogland appears, a fixed axis in a shifting universe.
From xliv :
"All gone into the world of light? Perhaps
As we read the line sheer forms do crowd
The starry vestibule."
A closing note.
The poems in Squarings, (and most of Seamus Heaney’s poetry for that matter) bring forth a poignant, deep-seated lyricism that is the hallmark of memorable poetry.
There are unique traits to Seamus Heaney’s unconventional lyricism.
A brilliance of light, congealed and tempered, as if balanced on square angles that face off the distant seas and vaporous stars.
A haunting bogland of stubborn childhood memories, and the equanimity of restrained sorrow, that gives birth to poetry as a second life.
I often think that my choice of poetry, as a fundamental way of remaining alive, stems from a need for security.
When we voice an opinion, there’s a high chance that this opinion would be met with rudeness, insults, and caustic jibes, or plain gratuitous meanness, taking one’s thoughts completely out of the context or the topic they were trying to affirm.
At first glance, it would appear then that poetry is an abode against the menacing and nauseating territory described above.
At first glance, poetry may seem more of a safety zone, since it’s less susceptible to generate violent verbal volleys or eternal venom.
Given its abstract connotations, poetry may become a neutral topic, much like a discussion on weather which you can easily take up with a stranger.
A subject fundamentally polite, where every opinion is accepted with tolerance and the replies, even if malevolent, acquire an air of bland civility through metaphors.
Poetry is often indirect, even if through the act of redirecting reality, it becomes very direct and uncomfortable. Difficult to tolerate.
Difficult to tolerate especially by those who embrace ugliness.
This is only at first sight. In reality, poetry is far, far from being a harmless topic.
Which begs the question …. if poetry is not a harmless topic, what kind of topic is it?
It’s been my observation that good poetry, or good literature for that matter, has something special to it.
Good poetry provides us with new insight at every attempt to peruse it, as if the piece in question becomes a newer version, morphing into something different than what it had been at first sight, and through this metamorphosis, also changing its readers.
Going through e.e. cummings’ poem this week, I garnered some nuances which had previously escaped me.
I’ll focus on one.
The ability of poetry to take us somewhere we “have never traveled, gladly beyond any experiences”.
Where is that space that lies “beyond any experiences?” What are its main attributes?
I would like to suggest that the space of poetry, far and close, wherever the imagination of a poet and its readers anchor it, is, of course, infinite, and due to this lack of containment intimately and closely linked to freedom and individual empowerment.
So, if you will, poetry takes us into the renewed respect and affirmation of those around us and the beauty of being part of a group – a human link to a larger universe.
Which brings us to its second attribute.
Poetry takes us into a place of beauty.
“Beauty” may seem a trite and scary word, but the place of beauty is intuitive for most of us on a good day and for ...well, ...possibly all of us on a bad one.
Beauty comes to us equally through joy and inspiration and through catharsis and suffering, through doubt, despair and hopelessness, as a healing vision.
Poetry, voicing the depth of our own souls, takes us on this healing path, and into the realm of beauty, as a redeeming hope.
Poetry takes us into a land of exploration.
Good poems are acts of self validation and growth, they challenge who we are and what we know, force us to ask questions that we never thought we had to, thus stretching our creativity.
They make us look at reality through different lenses that we borrow, not only for the short span of the poem, but for long time after we closed a book or powered down our PC.
So, we have come at the end of this post and if you know of other places where poetry takes us, feel free to let me know of them.