MAKE IT GOOD AND IT WILL SING TRUE
Translation is a tool to fool a king
Into a bloody war where dead men sing
Or help a rabbi, priest or mullah to
Murder the infidel for crooning true
Or push a UN minister to vote
And be beheaded, hurled into a moat.
You see how terrible this weapon is.
You win a case or your career will fizz.
A good translation sings or table it.
You are a nightingale or cloud of shit.
There is a huge sea of mediocrity
On which poor words relax like limpid tea
Yet Rob Fitzgerald swims pentameters
On the Aegean and Homer’s waves are cleaner
Than Penelope waiting chaste at her loom.
Odysseus sweeps the suitors with his broom
Into the sea. So Ithaca is real
While other muscular versions conceal
Clarity and song below a battle scream.
A good poet lets Spanish Lorca beam
Andalusian gypsy song into our ear.
We hear the Guardia Civil shooting black fear
Into caves where flamenco verse is born
And the new moon in petticoats adorns
The mountain and a blue horse likes to gaze
At would-be matadors whose death no shouting maze
Of cheers can halt at five in the afternoon,
At exactly five in fatal afternoon.
GREAT POETS NEED GREAT POET TRANSLATORS
Great poets need an Osip Mandelstam
To turn a lion not into Blake’s lamb
But into Soviet brutes who kill Osip,
Freezing him in the snows. You can dip
Anywhere to translate. If you are good
You paint a Robert Frost in jingling wood
Whom you discover in Mongolia.
The world’s a handkerchief, a magnolia
Who lives in every tongue if you have skill,
Knowledge and empathy. So do not kill
Your sources with a tango for a waltz.
The Argentine is not Viennese schmaltz.
And never fear. The impossible is sweet.
Stay close to impossibility and tweet
Your joy with Cossack fury or like a monk
Painting icons in Crete and free of gunk.
Then you’re Greco in Toledo in her storm.
The purple planet keeps you wild and warm.
The original is not faithful to translation
As Borges says, so zoom high with elation
And your version is original, not ham,
A fresh Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
Can you read or write Chinese or Koine Greek?
Great if you do. Or stand in a cold creek
And understand Heraclitus’s game?
Your foot will never step into the same
Stream. Experience the place. Smell doors
And alleys. Talk to fisherman and whores
And soon you’ll master Balzac with a crib.
No sin. Dictionaries are mothers who don’t fib
But pass rough meanings into your wise eyes.
I am a language freak, but can’t spell “pies”
Or “chamber pots” in any tongue I use.
No sweat. I’m faithful to the love Muse
Of reference books. They help unselfishly.
And it won’t hurt your freedom if you see
The wooden meaning that your genius turns
Into a paradise of singing tale, burns
The early mess in your mind to what brave Eve
Discovers when she gains knowledge. Conceive
That first day of the world in every line
You transfer from obscurity to fine
Bordeaux or coffee at a dawn café
In Rome, wondrously taut, not silly hay
Most of the world gobbles. Drink deep your work.
Sappho and Catullus crave the keen quirk
And magic of Houdini to bring song
Into our wondrous bastard English tongue.
Translation is a friendship between two
Fine poets. Respect. Don’t kill the one who
Composed or who rewrites. When you can chat
With a dead poet you have light and art.
Know François Villon’s song in French. No strife,
The cello of his ballad will haunt you for life.
To return grace with grace is a secret pact
In translation. Dictionaries help but sack
You if they master. You are frozen in snow,
Win no seat in the troika sled of poet to
The re-doer and the reader. Have you heard
What Robert Lowell laments? “A poem prepared
By a taxidermist is likely to be a stuffed bird!”
The translator writer fights archaism, scared,
Talking modern without murdering the past.
Old writers don’t lose quality in modern cast.
Modern diction is speech we use today
As past writers used modern in their way,
Not stilted. Be verbally just and fresh
like Cycladic island tomatoes in a dish
4 millennia ago. Same beauty sweet and slick.
Unless you’re Spenser on an archaic kick
Creating Fairie Queenes with dragons and myth
For Tudor patron Queen Elizabeth,
Beware of old talk. If a slave to being
Like past chat, good luck and count on nothing.
The punishment for error: Go straight to jail!
You’re free to invent, imitate, turn a pail
Into a swimming pool, if you confess
By naming what you do. But what a mess
If you make a mistake. You’re on the hot seat.
You are not human. Truce. Maybe you can beat
The game by being Icarus misreading sun.
Yeats dining with Madame Blavatsky for fun
Though she was mad. To err is human. Just be
Magnificent. And sing whatever melody.
LITERALISM OR LITERARISM
Horace and Jerome draw back from the cage
Of literalism, of word-to-word. Their rage
Is for sense and page. They embellish Greek
And Latin from Hebrew letters, tweak
Koheleth’s’ “a time for peace” for Joan Baez.
They’re safe in turning prophets into jazz.
“A time of peace, a time of war,” but Joan
And Pete Seeger never word-by-word clone
Hebrew poems. Even elephants can’t bear
Blundering literalists who would compose square
Poems (I’m a scholar. Beware. We’ve no taste.
Elephants, squash song-less verse till it’s paste).
Poems locked in prose wins Melville Moby Dick
And marble Latin lends Borges his gaucho shtick.
HOMER’S SEA & HOMAGE TO FIITZGEALD
Robert Fitzgerald (1910-1985)
Sometimes Fitz works for weeks for a few lines.
Irishman from Illinois he plays with Greek epic
In Italy or in a house on Homer’s sea where winter
Storms bash the rocks below in noisy metrics.
He does his first translation at Harvard
of an ode by Horace he doesn’t care for
But he meets Horace. He needs the 200–
Bucks prize money; doesn’t win it, but decides
He likes classics and translates the best. He keeps
To a five-peace prance in Homer and Virgil till one
Can hear their sixes. All that discipline for the ear
Helped the earliest singers to remember.
From Troy to Carthage back to Sicily
Fitz swims easy five-stroking the grape sea.
In describing the way of great Tang poets
The Chinese say they are dancing in chains.
WHOM SHALL WE TRANSLATE?
Start from the top. Also lovely to reveal
An obscure poet – so many good ones peal
Tower bells of silence. Hopkins for one.
The list goes on. What to do? Sit on your bun,
Apply your fingers to the keys, create
The world. It’s there locked in a crate
For a masterly genial craft. Conspire
To resurrect or find the new. Soon fire
Will toast your guts and light our eyes. Enjoy.
The world is rich in terrorists, but joy
For life, not death, will triumph if your pen,
Not sword, prevail. Isaiah is like a violet wren
Waking our hope. I hope these clichés serve
To heat your brain. Joie d’etre and your verve
Will bring the bible of our arts to read
As our own verse. You’re Rimbaud in sin bed,
Dreaming surreal tugboats in the salt tongue
Of Anglo-Saxon readers. Best friends die young.
Comes “Alcools” of Guy Apollinaire
We need your soul like dark Baudelaire.
Rumi is waiting for proximity.
The Sufi poet laughs in ecstasy.
The art of translatio is carting words
From old days to our Parliament of Birds.
Since we descended ignorant from Babel,
Hear the world chanting in diverse babble.
Lexical shock renews weary language bones.
Read Sappho or Sor Juana, no more groans.
The globe is yours on your doormat. Let her in.
New stars glow, Plato claps, and sunflowers spin.
1Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695), born in Mexico. The earliest and most important post-Columbus poet in the Americas and a great figure of the Spanish Golden Age. She was called “the tenth Muse.” See Octavio Paz, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz or The Traps of Faith, Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, (Cambridge: `990, Belknap Press)