The Task in Hand

Midnight and other poems
, Mourid Barghouti, translated by Radwa Ashour (239pp, Arc)
, Paul Valery, translated by Peter Dale (186pp, 11.95, Anvil)
Selected Poems
, Aldo Vianello, translated by Richard Burns, Peter Jay and Linda Lappin (160p, 9.95, 160pp, Anvil)
The Poems of Oktay Rifat,
translated by Ruth Christie and Richard McKane (253pp, 11.95, Anvil)
Kill the Radio
, Dorothea Rosa Herliany, translated by Harry Aveling and Linda (136pp 9.99, Arc)
Language for a New Century. Contemporary poetry from the Middle East, Asia and beyond,
edited by Tina Chang, Natalie Handal and Ravi Shankar (734pp, $27.98, Norton)

They are a delight, the individual poets' volumes, each with its introductory material (if only a brief Preface to Vianello), the philosophy of poetry-making and of translation intriguing. There could be more of interest on the actual translation process, on the way these languages work, but if I quote even a little, the richness will be apparent.

 'What they [the group that included Oktay Rifat] sought to do was to eliminate 'all artifice and convention from poetry. Rhyme and metre, metaphor and simile had been devised to appeal to a succession of elites.... Today's poet must write for the growing masses....'' To find out what people want and give it to them.

Concerning Paul Valery, that 'he thought poems were for making us become
not for making us understand.'

The general statement by the Arc Visible Poets series editor, Jean Boase-Beier, is contra
what is said to be the prevailing view, that we want poetry translated as if it was newly in English; the shift proposed is 'not to hide but to reveal the original', and to have a sense of the work of translation itself. This seems to me to make too radical a distinction: translation has long been too shifty, too problematic and a labour of love to think there's such an easy way to speak of it. But the discussion is vital, and the translator's Preface here does go into detail about the task in hand. Unable to read the original Bahasa Indonesia of Dorothea Rosa Herliany, I can only revert to saying I like these translated poems as if they were English originals. There's a flow to them, a presence, I can hear them.

The contrary case is the Valery, where the English for me reads mostly flat and forced, and while I have no fluency in French, I can at least see, and to an extent hear, how it works. And if Valery did not seek to communicate his voice, he did seek to make something beautiful, to make art. Perhaps re-making this art in English is impossible, but again perhaps translating the spirit of the poems rather than the meter and rhyme might make a better go of it.

So many factors come into play. Barghouti is Palestinian, exiled most of his life, now in Egypt and translated by his wife, and I can't read the poems without seeing and hearing current tv news.

When in the course of thinking about these books, it seemed a revelation when I thought I could say what I like here, and what I don't. It's what any reader does instinctively, while specialists in translation, or readers simply knowing one or more of these original languages, will have their own subtleties of approach.

Already I have made some of my impressions known, above, but really it's not that simple. I began by saying simply, these books are a delight. This delight has to do with the struggle to translate, with the enriching of our cultural lives, with the very notion that what we call poetry has across the world this necessity to exist, with local conventions and also perhaps a shift across the world from strict forms to what we might call something more conversational.

     There are loves that finish as soon as they start;
     There are sour tastes that linger in the mouth;
     But a sun which fires a passion does not easily sink.
The opening of Oktay Rifat's 'A sun which fires a passion', with no Turkish original for comparison. I can flow along with his poems into English; probably it would be a shock then to hear him read them in Turkish - but it can't happen, he died in 1988 (born 1914). Paul Valery is the furthest from us in time and, it seems, the most awkward to rediscover in English (died 1945 and his poems written much earlier).

Continuing with Rifat. On a web site
there is a translation by Taner Baybars of the little poem called 'Stars', as follows:

     Near the book a notebook
     near the notebook a glass
     near the glass a child
     in the child's hand a cat.
     And far away stars stars.

and in the book it goes like this:

     A notebook by the book
     A glass by the notebook
     A child by the glass
     A cat by the child
     And stars stars in the distance

It is recognisably the same poem, with minimal or no punctuation (as it seems right to assume, one or the other, in the original), while the 'voice' in the second is more staccato. It is interesting to wonder, if five lines can come out this differently, what about much longer poems, and prose poems here, too?

Perhaps every worthwhile poem as written comes out of fluidity. The next day it would have been written differently. The person from Porlock is for ever calling.

Poems can lock into - or find themselves newly locked into - the News. Of these books this is most clearly true of Mourid Barghouti's. On this web site: [from an interview here by Maya Jaggi in the Guardian of December 13th 2008],  'Many times I have been asked the question: to whom do you write? Or is there any imagined reader in your mind? I think that a poet goes to the empty page to listen to his inner tune but that tune itself is composed through years and centuries by a universal orchestra. That is why we publish the poem to be read by unknown others. When I started the opening two lines of this very short poem, I realised I was talking to myself, not to my readers, as if to solidify my hatred of rhetoric and eloquence and my love for simplicity and concrete language. As a Palestinian with a negated history and a threatened geography, craving world attention and understanding, I was hesitant to have the poem published. But I decided to publish it because I needed to be its reader. I was trying to convince Mourid Barghouti that pain, even the Palestinian pain, does not mean shouting loudly.' This is the poem, the last in the book:

     Silence said:
     truth needs no eloquence.
     After the death of the horseman,
     the homeward-bound horse
     says everything
     without saying anything.

And here he is quoted from the book: 'People like direct poetry only in times of injustice, times of communal silence. Times when they are unable to speak or act. Poetry that whispers and suggests can only be felt by free men.'

But yet his poem, 'Midnight', taking up most of the book, reminds me of Basil Bunting's 'Brigflatts' in its working the language, passionately and unexpectedly, and there is that staccato pushing the poem on phrase by phrase. Barghouti's 'you' seems sometimes speaking to himself, sometimes to and therefore for all Palestinians, sometimes to the forum of its leaders, to the children, a 'you that binds them all. This could be overweaning but here it is wholly with purpose. I am aware as I write this and somewhere across the world he is hearing and seeing the same News as I am, only for him so differently.

From any page, lines could be quoted:

     Whenever you near the finishing line  
     they push it back,
     creating distance between it and your tears of victory.

     As though you have been made from weariness.
     As though you have been made for weariness.
     From the doorstep of the sun
     to the balcony of the moon.

     you stay wide awake, when all others go to sleep,
     afraid that the stars will fall
     without your hands to nail them
     to the ceiling of the night.

Aldo Vianello (b.1937) is quietly meditative in comparison. Whether he wrote differently earlier in his life it's not possible for me to judge, while Italian speakers will be able to, but the Englishing by Richard Burns seems to me to have a freewheeling pleasure to it A poem called 'Re-evocating' (Rievocando):

     In the sea I knew the heart's
     impetuous primal rapture.
     By nature melancholy, escaping
     the crowd, for ages I lay
     full length, in all lights -
     now I burn at the thought of my gentle age
     that was bent to the hard oar strokes on the waves,
     musing on new characters, the people of future time.

The final phrase a bit awkward perhaps. The later translations seem in comparison relatively blocked out, as if translated phrase by phrase, without the presence of the poet coming through. But it does seems certainly another book by means of which to pick up again what poetry is and why.

Herliany, Rifat and Barghouti are in Language for a New Century, with one poem each. The almost 600 pages of poems are allocated in this way, in sections with titles of this kind: 'In the Grasp of Childhood Fields', 'Warm Inspiration', 'Earth of Drowned Gods', 'Bowl of Air and Shivers', and so on. The whole book and each section have introductions, and there are extensive indices. Much is in translation, with no poems in their original languages other than those written in English, of which, for example, I am glad to see one poem each by Moniza Alvi, Sujata Bhatt, Debjani Chatterjee, and so on, but to what individual or comprehensive effect?

It's not this book but the individual collections to which I shall return; if I quote finally the opening of a fragment of a fragment
, as each poem of Kill the Radio is named -

     the sound was quieter than the distant wind.
     he, the man, had died forty or fifty years ago,
     and stood in doorways, singing of old wounds.

- I know I have a whole book of Dorothea Rosa Herliany in which to discover more than I have been able to thus far.

         David Hart 2009