OTHER LANGUAGES, OTHER WORLDS


Maldon & Other Translations
, Michael Smith [9.95, Shearsman]
Call Me Ishmael Tonight,
Agha Shahid Ali [$12.95, Norton]


If translation was possible then it would not be necessary to keep on doing it. But, of course, it is not, which is why generation after generation makes attempt after attempt to do it. For this reason it was foolish of Michael Smith to say in his prefatory note, 'Of all the Old English poems ... the two that impressed me most with their purely literary qualities were "The Seafarer" and "Maldon". Pound had already definitively done "The Seafarer" and that was that.' Well, it isn't, and it wasn't and it can never be 'definitive' where any translation is concerned. Not would we want it to be so, for sooner or later we would be denied fresh new attempts such as this version of the Battle of Maldon by Michael Smith. In 'Maldon' he is lighter on alliteration than, say, Michael Alexander (who also did 'Maldon') but by using a stopped verse, he deftly suggests the caesura break, so essential a feature - along with alliteration - of Anglo-Saxon verse. The clarity, the concreteness and the dynamics of the encounter on the estuary of the Essex River Blackwater between Byrhtroth's Anglo-Saxon warriors and the Viking marauders comes across.

     Byrhtroth then spoke;
                                           he grasped his buckler
     brandished his trim spear of ash;
                                                          angry and resolute,

The immediacy of this poem, second only in importance to Beowulf, comes over to us down the centuries in this version very well.

As for the 'Other Translations' of the volume, Eileen O'Connell's great 18th century 'Lament for Art O'Leary', plus a smaller Irish piece, share the rest of the book with 250 'Cantes flamencos'
- almost epigrammatic lyrical cries - usually sung to music. Each of the Cantes is given in the original Spanish alongside Michael Smith's translation. Knowing 'un poco de Espanal' myself, I was grateful for this presentation, though in cante cince is 'En mi vida solicito/al que de mi retira...' really 'I never in life implore/one that shuns me? Or rather the opposite?


Michael Smith speaks of any attempt at translating or imitating the form of an original poem as leading to a kind of metaphysical taxidermy. Well, Agha Shadid Ali clearly doesn't go along with that in his book of ghazals, for the form of this has been well established in English for a long time now. As he describes it, 'it is composed of autonomous or semi-autonomous couplets that are united by a strict scheme of rhyme, refrain and line length.' Later into English than the sonnet, the ghazal is not dissimilar 6o it and may have had an influence on the shaping of the sonnet. Basically, the first and second lines rhyme and that rhyme is then used alternately throughout. This has the effect - as with the sonnet - of sharply focusing the context of the poem rather in the way that a magnifying glass magnifies everything within its compass. A ghazal is 'a love song' which means that, more than the sonnet, it is restricted in subject matter; but, conversely, this 'restriction' has enabled it to encompass great spirituality - especially in the hands of a great poet like Hafiz. However, Agha Shahid Ali's ghazals are not translations but poems written (in a transferred form) directly into English. And, and having worked on the translating og ghazals from the Persian (Farsi) I am particularly appreciative of this book. What began as real translation in the 18th century with Sir ? James' version of the ghazal, Agha Shahid Ali has made a truly English form, much in the way that Giacomo da Lentino created the sonnet in Italian possibly, as I've suggested, by subconscious (or conscious?) adaptation of some Arabic form. Additionally, a great many of these ghazals are responses to American poets - or to lines by such - and this gives them an even more exciting aspect.

Two good books anyway.

         William Oxley 2005