Meta Kusar, translated by Anna Jelnikar and Stephen Watts
(114p, £8.99, Arc )
Mexican Poetry Today, edited by Brandel France de Bravo
(239pp, £12.95, Shearsman)
the straw which comes apart, Ivano Fermini, translated by Ian Seed
Hesiod's Calendar (A Version of Theogony and Works and Days),
Robert Saxton (92pp, £9.95, Carcanet)
timeline for Meta Kusar's Ljubljana, written 1999-2002, published 2004, and the translation
worked on since 2002, indicates close collaboration even pre-publication of
the original. The Translators' Preface makes a crucial difference to the
reading of the book, where process, means of collaboration, an intimacy of
shared work, breathes 'from life' into the translations themselves. Francis
R.Jones, an old hand at this business, adds an Introduction which, while
helpful in its way, is bland in comparison. Not his fault, he's not really in
on the act.
The poems themselves (facing page originals and translations), mostly two to
a page, have an abrupt urgency, as if she is saying, 'Now I'll tell you this.
Now I want to say what happened when. Listen, here's a thought.' Mostly in
the present tense, she mixes observation with concept. Here is the whole of
number 22 (none have titles, it's a whole thing),
It is warm
today. The robin's not singing.
On the oak it
listens to the chaffinch.
Its beak is
crumbling the fate of histiry.
I cannot make
out all of the script.
images yet to come.
In the house
of god it is cold.
there's a trace of violet
on the white
scarves of respect
does the robin fly.
There is reflection on poetry itself, (number 66), 'How do I know that words
will carve out my story/ with precision?' And number 45 opens in translation
with a curiosity, 'Landscape has tremendous meaning!' where in the Slovenian
there is no exclamation mark. It's a powerfully immediate book, they got
together, author and translators and I can all but hear the conversation:
'That's not it,' 'This then', 'No', 'This?' Got it!
Poetry Today has
an editor's introduction that says not very much; too generalised and
promotional; there is nothing about process, nor in the sections of poems by
the twenty poets of the more or less latest generation, 'over 40s, post-Paz'.
Ah to hear from those in their 20s.
This book, too, has facing page originals and translations. One quirky
inclusion is Jennifer Clement, who writes in, let's say, American, from where
she lives, her poems here translated into Spanish.
The only clue to translation process is where either one or two people are
credited with the process: direct translation or via a go-between.
One doesn't need Spanish to see how different the flow of the languages. On
one side of the page lines ending with vowels, on the right with consonants.
How can translation get close to that voice? Perhaps at least by having the
originals staring one in the ears, difference is heard.
There is not a sameness about the poets here, in fact a fascinating variety,
and it is clear there is no one possible translation, Mexican sensibility
comes through (I imagine), sometimes into an Englishness, more often into
American. It isn't possible in a short review to begin to do justice to twenty
poets; some seem to me relatively pedantic with their little life moments,
some are excited into an expansiveness stimulating to read, if there's a
predominant mode it is perhaps conversational, in widely differing voices.
The book took me back to Samuel Beckett's translations of Spanish poets
(Thames & Hudson 1959/Calder & Boyers 1970). They seemed lame,
stilted, back then, and seem so on re-aquaintance now. Beckett is so crucial
to the 20thC and beyond, I wouldn't decry anything he did, and I mention that
book because this latest one in comparison is lively, the poems read and
sound very well in English, they seem, in so far as they can be, the real
There's a curious moment where in a poem titled 'Zoo' (by Francisco
Henrnández), the opening lines of the original, 'Grrrrrrrrrrrrr.../ TÚeres
una mona desunda', are translated as, 'Rrrroooooaaarrr ... /You are a naked
she-monkey'. I can't make out the process here, but would like to be at a
seminar that discusses it. A list of the poets can be found at the Shearsman
web site: http://www.shearsman.com/pages/books/catalog/2010/20mexican.html
Fermini's the straw which comes apart, bilingual, with Ian Seed's translation, seems
almost a mere handout at the door in comparison. A brief note by way of
introduction tells us Fermini (1948-2004) published two books of poetry
(1985, 1990), and 'remains relatively unknown, both inside and outside
The poems have no punctuation, no capital letters, are short and, I imagine,
either very easy or very hard to translate. They are a corrective, in this
review at least, and into the poetry scene generally, I'd say, by declining
the conversational, there's no easy scene-setting or emotional blood-letting.
Here is 'great fragment',
it's sky long
ago it had some
who can turn
now if I look
at the river which sleep
has told me
not knowing how to strike
And whereas from the Mexican book I could reasonably fairly have brought a
section of a poem, quoted a few lines, to represent the means, the way of it,
I'm wary of doing it to represent Fermini/Seed. How to dislocate any part of
these poems without losing the whole? So, another whole ('suffocating'):
what are you
you speak of a
the title of
the world festival
woman from soluble distances
comes to cook the feet
these are the
pistols of ice which explode
the shadow to cut
finally, Hesiod. I have never got a hold on this time scale. It's about OK,
if one is not too casual about it, to place Chaucer 'a long time ago' and
after him but still 'centuries ago, Donne, Wyatt', but 'Hesiod 7th century
BC?'! When quite was that? And then in translation, well, he wrote like us!
This is a delightful book, a personal project that Robert Saxton conveys with fluid and delighted prose -
introduction, notes, sample prose translations - and a version of Hesiod in
sonnet form that leads me happily to believe Hesiod really did live and
Not a lot is known about him, and it's not surprising what is known is a
matter of dispute. What I want to know and Robert Saxton doesn't tell, has to
do with Hesiod's writing materials - how physically he did it - and by what
routes and means his poems have reached us.
Saxton makes the case for Englishing by way of a version of sonnet form,
giving himself leniencies, although on the page clearly there they are, LXV
of them, albeit with the line
structure 4, 4, 3, 3.
Although lines like this (opening 'Theogony XII')
Now in the
ascendant, Zeus prepared for war.
on the night sky blazed a comet.
might seem to demand a crash course in the gods, the voice carries through as
if effortlessly, I am pleased to be caught up in the telling and, in this
curious way, to (let's say) hear his voice.
Turn out your
hired man, and instead install
serving girl who'll cater for all
your needs in
the home- someone who isn't tied
to a child
who'd get under your feet all the time.
Well, there we were and are. I must return to 'blazed a comet', as anyone
reading this would be querying it, I'm sure. The construction rhymes 'comet'
with 'vomit' two lines later. Is that awkwardness worth it for the rhyme? I
want to imagine Hesiod would have said no.
It is possible for me to make one translation comparison, with reference to
Dorothea Wender's (Penguin1973/76). 'The metre' (she writes) 'of both the Theogony and the Works and Days is dactylic hexameter, the metre
of Homer and of most long works in Greek and Latin.' Which reminds me I do
have an LP somewhere of readings of ancient Greek poetry, although I no
longer have an LP-player. She continues, 'I have done my translation in blank
verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) because I think that, in feeling, it is
the closest English equivalent.'
So here is a comparison of Wender's and Saxton's final lines of 'Works and
are blessings to the men on earth;
The rest are
fickle, bland, and bring no luck.
his favourite days, but few
knowledge that is sure. Sometimes a day
Will be a
stepmother, and then she'll change
And be a
mother. He is truly blest
And rich who
knows these things and does his work,
before the gods, and scrupulous,
omens and avoiding wrong.
Such days are
a tainted blessing. Others make
no sense at
all - for one of those random days
like a mother or grab like a mother-in-law.
those who know all this, and take
care not to
upset the gods, but sing their praise,
and try to be just. Who can do more?
These are not quite an even comparison, the latter being sliced out of
Saxton's final sonnet (LXV), the former from Wender's final page of flow. I
mean, anyway, to commend Hesiod as adoptable as a 21st century poet.
© David Hart