Parallel Texts

We of Zipangu, Mutsuo Takahashi, translated by James Kirkup and Tamaki Makoto (82pp. 9.99. Arc)
I Dreamed in the Cities at Night
, Remco Campert, translated by Donald Gardner
(133pp. 9.99. Arc)
The Black Heralds and Other Early Poems
, Cesar Vallejo,
edited and translated by Michael Smith and Valentino Giannuzzi
(265pp. 12.95. Shearsman)

Just who are these parallel texts for? If you're fluent in the poet's language you've no need of the English version and if, like me, you're not, then the original is wasted. The editor's note for the two Arc books talks of challenging the prevailing view that translated poetry should read as if it had originally been written in English, aiming instead to reveal, not hide the original, which surely suggests a readership not able to read the original.

And first impressions are that both these Arc books do indeed read like translated poems. Their language has a functional quality, conveying their own sense and imagery but not their own authentic sound and rhythm. So reading them I feel a step removed from something essential I look for in a poem. David Constantine in a review article in Poetry London
, Spring 2007, refers to 'means to an end' translation, as opposed to a translation that has its own autonomy. And since I'm a supporter of the prevailing view Arc Visible Poets are trying to challenge, it takes several readings to get used to 'means to an end' stuff. However both books contain interesting and useful introductions on the matter of translation and on the poets themselves.

I opened the Takahashi at random to be faced with pages of Japanese script, beautiful lines of ideograms hung down the page like a curtain. With alarm I turned to the contents page to read: In order to facilitate cross-reference, page numbers for the poems in the original Japanese (which run from the back of the book inwards) are given in italics after the page numbers of the poems in translation.

Mutsuo Takahashi writes in lines of uneven length, often long, like Whitman with whom he's compared in the introduction. And like Whitman there's a certain prosaicness about the language and a tendency to explain and exclaim too much for my liking.  A strong thread running through these poems is of yearning for  transformation, for becoming other, losing oneself, not only in another, but in the natural and symbolic world. This can be uncomfortable, often moving between the cataclysmic and euphoric. In 'The Man' we find  '- a pensive man/ in rapture, bound with flower-cords of heavy chains...... is he suffering or is he in ecstacy'  There is a self-absorbed sensibility in which the relationship with others tends to be internalised. 'Potatoes', a poem written during his visit to Ireland, is a successfully achieved metaphor in which the bodies of famine victims become potatoes themselves; it ends

     I was devouring the hunger and the deaths
     of tens of thousands in the frozen earth of yesterday,
     with my teeth making a champing sound.

As a gay man in Japan, we are told how risky and shocking much of his poetry was when it was first published. There is a good deal of homo and auto-eroticism here, and his self-absorption seems to reach a peak with 'Myself As An Anatomical Love-Making Chart':
'O at that moment when existence is transfigured to nothingness/ a white, turbid, viscous fluid comes spurting out.' This very explicit poem ends literally
up his own backside.

The Remco Campert carries the same editorial intent. The introduction puts his particular voice in context and refers to his ' conversational, or in musical terms parlando style'. It goes on 'deadpan understatement obviously has an enduring appeal for his Dutch readers.' That deadpan understatement certainly comes across, but I wonder how much of the native idiom is lost, the subtle inflexions and references within a language that give it an edge. Could a translation of the Liverpool Poets into Dutch, for instance, convey the particular, regional nuances and flavours that distinguish them in English? Might they too not appear flat in another language?

Campert is very much an urban poet post-war Paris, Amsterdam - and a chronicler of an existential take on that world. There's lots of what the introduction refers to as 'jaunty pessimism'. And he is someone who eschews pretension. In 'Provisional Poem for Jan Wolkers' he opens:

     this poem is not yet finished
     it's rough
     doesn't fit properly in its words
     needs polishing
     not too much though
     I mustn't let what it's about
     get lost in beauty

Throughout this book I get a sense of someone who is striving towards a plain linguistic integrity or minimalism, perhaps a sort of anti-poetry: 'the most beautiful poetry/ is that which has never been written' ['Lack of Proof'].

We are told he is a famous and popular poet in Holland and very quotable. Certainly I often found myself arrested by images like 'eyes dying/ of such pleasure/ that it hurts' ['Seventeen Sketches'] or, from the same sequence, the zen-like epigram of

     never have I dreamed
     of richly laden tables
     or of landscapes full of scrub
     or jewels
     glittering like lightning

     it was always of you
     my richly laden table
     my landscape full of scrub
     my jewel
     glittering like lightning
But there is a sort of claustrophobic self-consciousness here, too many poems about poetry, too many hotel rooms and disenchantment. Sometimes a lack of artifice seems to move towards the banal: 'Jealousy/ I realize/ you can't get round it'['Jealousy'] and then again he can grasp beautifully his own self-deprecating essence, as in the last poem in the book, 'Lament', with its mesmerising hesitancy:

     that always the light motionless in the afternoon
     that always the afternoon light     your ochre-coloured shoulder
     your ochre-coloured shoulder always in the afternoon light

By contrast there is no mistaking the translations of Vallejo for anything but poetry. The translators' comments are interesting. In order to compensate for the loss of the original rhythm and music, without which the pieces, they say, would 'run the risk of becoming sentimental lyrics or prosaic descriptions', they have attempted to suggest a rhythm different from the original but functional in English. This at least makes them readable as poems, conveying an intense Latin temperament. I open the book at random and come across 'Love, divine cross, water my deserts/ with your starry blood that dreams and weeps.'['Love'].

The language here is ornamental, romantic and full of catholic, cultural and what I would call an obscure personal symbolism. The translators comment 'One is invited to take part in the poet's experience, and to solve the enigmas encrypted therein.' This suggests a scholarly turn of mind, something I don't have, though the introduction proves a helpful guide in appreciating the structure of this, Vallejo's first book. And in fact the whole book feels like a scholarly presentation, with its appendix of notes and bibliography. Perhaps its appeal will be for those already Vallejo aficionados and linguists. As for myself, I find the often exclamatory tone, the romantic imagery and symbolism difficult to adjust to.

There are rewarding passages and poems though, particularly in the later sections. Many poems reflect the play of light and dark moods, fleeting joy, despair, recovery and reconciliation. God features constantly. He (Vallejo, not God) can have refreshing moments of plain speaking, as in 'The Jackpot': 'The lottery ticket-seller who shouts 'jackpot'/ contains I don't know what depth of God.'  Moments of bravura lyrical description appear, as in 'Autochthonous Tercet', where fireworks are described:

     The sparks floating beautiful and gracious
     are wheat-grains of brash gold that the farmer
     sows in the heavens and the nebulae. 

And he can put his finger on a black mood, as in 'The Worn-Out Rings':

     There is a have no desire, Lord:
     I point to you with a deicide finger;
     there is a desire not to have owned a heart.

But the poem 'Januaraeneid' starts:

     My father, hardly,
     in the birdlike morning, places
     his seventy eight years, his seventy eight
     wintry boughs under the sunlight.'

Beautifully phrased, lyrical, I think  - and on I read, to encounter 'immortal roses', 'bosoms of time', 'infinite, life eternal', 'pennants of your being', reminding me this is the land of early C20th Peruvian poetry and I don't have a passport. In the end I find it all too much and yearn for the plain speaking of Campert.

                  Mike Barlow 2007