Internation Style


The Ballads of Kukutis
, Marcelijus Martinaitis, translated by Laima Vince, (155pp, Arc)
Minorities not Minority: A Window on Italian Cultures Volume 1. Poets from Sardinia
, edited by Michele Pinna, translated by Giuseppe Serpillo, Robert Minhinnick, Andrea Bianchi and Silvana Sivier
(110p, £8.99, Meirion House, Glan yr afon, Tanygrisiau, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, LL41 3SU)


These books have set me wondering whether anyone has written an account of poets' lives under Communism and other totalitarian twentieth century regimes. Perhaps a single book would generalise too much, not have the local particulars of the tricks poets played - or didn't, those who fell in with what the state bureaucracy expected.
   
The prankster, trickster, clown character Kukutis, dreamed up by
Marcelijus Martinaitis, is surfacing now in English in this one book, having been published as and when, chanted as well, given crowd voice in Lithuania at rallies in the 1980s and early 1990s.
   
The book arrives here in English in 2011, the English is not handed around as samizdat, not chorused in the streets. Voice and context matter so much.
   
The book is dual-language and, even at my distance from the originals,
I can 'hear voices', the author's and as taken up by others, and in print - the voice in print - so that the vigour of the English does seem to convey at least a clear echo.
   
It is of the essence of the trickster that he is playful and seems to be talking - whispering, acting - about something else, and that this something else has an innocence about it, a lack of central concern. No politics here! It worked, we are told; of the few books that got through the layers of official censorship, this one - or in its separate publications - did.
   
Here is the poem, 'Kukutis teaches a child how to pet a moose':

     You must wait until winter
     when there will be a lot of snow
     and hungry moose
     will roam the forests...

     "Then may I pet one?"

     Not yet. You must
     spread out the hay,
     set up a trap,
     and wait -
     patiently, for a long time.

     "Then may I pet one?"

     Not yet. You must
     wait until the moose
     is trapped...

     "Now may I pet it?"

     It's still dangerous.
     A moose, after all, is a wild animal -
      he will thrash about covered in his own blood.
     You must push his head securely to the ground
     and tie up his legs with ropes.
     Once he is exhausted, once he sighs heavily,
     then even a child can come near
      and gently pet himÉ

Even the three dots have meaning, and the censors must have been cloth-brained not to sniff a trick.

In the current (J
une 15th, 2011) New York Review of Books, Tim Parks
has an interesting essay on the current translation of novels, and I wonder if what he says might apply also to poems. His starting point is to suggest a first stage, in which novels in other languages are translated into current standard English; nothing especially new here, the most significant novels need re-translating into the current equivalent; but then he takes this further by saying that those original writers may have "
already performed a translation within their own languages; they had discovered a lingua franca within their own vernacular, a particular straightforwardness, an agreed order for saying things and perceiving and reporting experience, that made translation easier and more effective. One might call it a simplification, or one might call it an alignment in different languages to an agreed way of going about things."
     
One might link this with the observation that many writers become international by way of having learned English, they might work with their book translator, they give readings at festivals, they are interviewed in English, may even have posts in (usually American?) universities.

    
Tim Parks writes of novelists - and we might say poets - "
seeking maximum communicability"... "that has fastened onto the world's present lingua franca as something that can be absorbed and built into other vernaculars so that they can continue to exist while becoming more easily translated into each other."
    

 

I am not thinking to apply this in any simple way to the books I am reviewing here, the first pre-dates the current to and fro of poets, and I can only speculate about 'Minorities not Minority?' One has only to flick through the book, though, to see much of it employing what might be called an international style, a free-flowing open, what might be called a talking means of conveyance. The Introduction does speak of a globalization of poetry. But who's to say also what is home-grown?
        
The book is subtitled 'A Window on Italian Cultures, Volume 1', and it is good to see the Cinnamon Press in Wales embarking on this impressive new venture.
        
The introductory material is in a rough sort of English, and it becomes apparent that where Robert Minhinnick has had a hand in the flow of the poems themselves, something much more lucid and coherent has been achieved.
         Ten poets have been translated, most still living, with wide differences in age, older mostly, two women only, and no-one of the most recent writing generation.
        
Rhyme where it exists in the originals has not been attempted, probably wisely, and while I cannot read the Sardinian (its relationship with Italian, which I can't read either but has a familiarity: I can 'hear it')  conveys (and I have to generalise across the poets) an energy not apparent in the English. Voice, ah voice.
        
Some of the poems, though, come through the process more or less well into a new life in English. This is 'Like the Fairy of Time' by Anna Cristina Serra (b.1960):

     I do not know why
     the thought of you
     perfumes
     of ancient lanes
     and the thoughts around you
     smell
     of roses and of life.
     In your inner world
     I read,
     like the fairy of time
     about altars
     where sorrow and suffering
     fade away
     shattering the black witch
     knocking on the doors.
     In the rumbling of thunder
     that opens my heart
     you like spring light,
     let me go
     and happy
     I turn into a swallow
     if I know you have
     fought back your tears.

Most readers will have no more Sardinian than I have and, as often in reading translations, I wonder about particular images. Here, for instance, where it says 'In the rumbling of thunder', where the original has, 'In sue tzerriu e su tronu', is the Sardinian as standard, even as cliched a phrase as it is in the translation?

            © David Hart 2011