Midnight and other poems, Mourid Barghouti, translated by Radwa Ashour (239pp,
Valery, translated by Peter Dale (186pp, £11.95, Anvil)
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,
Kill the Radio,
Dorothea Rosa Herliany, translated by Harry Aveling and Linda (136pp £9.99,
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)
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.
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
loves that finish as soon as they start;
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 http://www.cs.rpi.edu/~sibel/poetry/poems/oktay_rifat/english/stars
there is a translation by Taner Baybars of the little poem called 'Stars', as
Near the book
notebook a glass
glass a child
child's hand a cat.
And far away
and in the book it goes like this:
A notebook by
A glass by
A child by
A cat by the
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,
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
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: http://mouridbarghouti.net/Mouridweb/english/index.htm [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:
death of the horseman,
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
From any page, lines could be quoted:
near the finishing line
they push it
distance between it and your tears of victory.
As though you
have been made from weariness.
As though you
have been made for weariness.
doorstep of the sun
balcony of the moon.
you stay wide
awake, when all others go to sleep,
the stars will fall
hands to nail them
ceiling of the night.
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.
for ages I lay
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